How to write a first-class essay and ace your degree
(Last updated: 12 May 2021)
In this article, we’ll take a look at how you can write a first-class essay, giving you the best chance of graduating from university with a first overall.
As this report from 2017 indicates, more people in UK universities are being awarded first-class degrees than ever before. Recent research suggests that by 2030, all students will graduate from some universities with a first-class degree, due to grade inflation.
Inevitably, some are suggesting that this means university standards are falling. Many students now pay vast sums of money for the privilege of a university education. As such, universities want them to leave as "satisfied customers". Perhaps this is why more firsts are being awarded. On the other hand, it could simply be that students have become better at researching what makes for first-class work. They're better at examining marking briefs. And at sharing tips – with other students in online forums and elsewhere – about what a first looks like.
So what does this mean for you if you're currently an undergraduate student? If you think this recent news means it's more likely you'll get a first, you can keep the Champagne on ice for now. A first-class degree takes hard work and dedication, no matter where or what you study.
Whatever the reasons for the recent spike in firsts, you can be sure that as a result, the following will now happen:
- Universities will examine their standards more closely. They may look at making the criteria for first-class degrees more stringent in response to criticisms that they've 'gone soft'.
- As up to a quarter of the new graduates hitting the job market do so with a shiny new first-class degree, top employers will routinely come to expect this in applicants for their very best jobs.
How can I get a first in my degree?
So, you want to be among those brandishing a first-class degree certificate when you don cap and gown next summer? Of course you do. Now is the time to think about what kind of student you need to be in order to succeed.
Here are a few pointers:
What does a first-class essay look like?
A lot of this stuff – risk-taking, depth of knowledge, and developing a unique "angle" – can sound pretty abstract. People marking essays may land on opposite sides of the fence where borderline cases are concerned.
However, most agree with what a first-class essay looks like and can pinpoint features that set it apart. Markers look for things like:
Essay matches the assignment brief
This may sound obvious, but did you really read the assignment brief? And when did you last read it? A first-class essay needs to show originality and creativity. But it also needs to prove that you can follow instructions.
If you've been given guidance on what your essay needs to cover, make sure you follow this to the letter. Also, take note of the number and type of sources it needs to use, or any other instructions. You can only do this if you revisit the brief repeatedly while writing. This will ensure you're still on the path you were originally pointed down and haven't gone off at a tangent.
Writing a brilliant, original essay that doesn't meet the assignment brief is likely to be a frustrating waste of effort. True, you may well still get sufficient credit for your originality. But you'll achieve far more marks if you shoot for originality and accuracy.
A clear and sophisticated argument
A first-class essay sets out its intentions (its own criteria for success) explicitly. By the end of your first couple of paragraphs, your reader should know (a) what you are hoping to accomplish, and (b) how you plan on accomplishing it.
Your central argument – or thesis – shapes everything else about your essay. So you need to make sure it's well-thought-out. For a first-class essay, this argument shouldn't just rehash the module material. It shouldn't regurgitate one of the positions you've learned about in class. It should build on one or more of these positions by interrogating them, bringing them into conflict or otherwise disrupting them.
Solid support for every argument
You don't just need to make a sophisticated argument; you need to support it as well. Use primary and/or secondary sources to back up everything you say. Be particularly careful to back up anything contentious with rigorous, logically consistent argumentation.
Undergraduates also often forget the need to effectively address counter-arguments to their own position. If there are alternative positions to the one you're taking (and there almost always are), don't omit these from your essay. Address them head-on by quoting their authors (if they're established positions). Or, simply hypothesise alternative interpretations to your own. Explain why your position is more persuasive, logical, or better-supported than the alternatives.
When done well, drawing attention to counter-arguments doesn't detract from your own argument. It enhances it by providing evidence of your capacity to reason in a careful, meticulous, sceptical and balanced way.
A logical and appropriate structure
Have you ever been asked to write a comparative essay, say on a couple of literary texts? And did you have lots to say about one of the texts but not much at all about the other? How did you approach that challenge? We've all written the "brain-dump" essay. You shape your work not around the question you're supposed to be answering, but around topic areas that you can comfortably write a lot about. Your approach to a comparative essay may be to write 2500 words about the text you love, and tack 500 words onto the end about the one you don't care for. If so, your mindset needs a bit of adjusting if you're going to get that first-class degree.
A first-class essay always presents its arguments and its supporting evidence in the order and manner that's best suited to its overall goals. Not according to what topic areas its author finds the most interesting or most comfortable to talk about. It can chafe if you feel you have more to offer on a particular topic than the assignment allows you to include. But balance and structural discipline are essential components of any good essay.
In-depth engagement and intellectual risk
This is where going "above and beyond" comes in. Everything from your thesis statement to your bibliography can and will be weighed as evidence of the depth of your engagement with the topic. If you've set yourself the challenge of defending a fringe position on a topic, or have delved deep into the theories underlying the positions of your set texts, you've clearly set yourself up for a potential first in the essay. None of this is enough by itself, though. Don't forget that you need to execute it in a disciplined and organised fashion!
Emerging understanding of your role in knowledge creation
This one is easy to overlook, but even as a university student you're part of a system that collaboratively creates knowledge. You can contribute meaningfully to this system by provoking your tutors to see problems or areas in their field differently. This may influence the way they teach (or research, or write about) this material in future. Top students demonstrate that they're aware of this role in collaborative knowledge creation. It is clear they take it seriously, in the work they submit.
The best way to communicate this is to pay attention to two things. First, the content of the quality sources you read in the course of your studies. Second, the rhetorical style these sources employ. Learn the language, and frame your arguments in the same way scholars do. For example, "What I want to suggest by juxtaposing these two theories is…" or, "The purpose of this intervention is…" and so on.
In short, you need to present an essay that shows the following:
Clarity of purpose, integrity of structure, originality of argument, and confidence of delivery.
What else can I do to get a first in my essays?
It will take time to perfect an essay-writing strategy that delivers all this while persuading your reader that your paper is evidence of real intellectual risk. And that it goes above and beyond what's expected of the typical undergraduate at your level. But here are a few tips to help give you the best possible chance:
Your module may have a long reading list that will be tricky to keep on top of during the term. If so, make sure you get the list (and, if possible, the syllabus showing what kind of essays the module will require) ahead of time. If your module starts in September, spend some time over summer doing preparatory reading. Also, think about which areas of the module pique your interest.
Once the module starts, remember: it's never too early in the term to start thinking about the essays that are due at the end of it. Don't wait until the essay topics circulate a few weeks before term-end. Think now about the topics that especially interest you. Then read around to get a better understanding of their histories and the current debates.
Read beyond the syllabus
Students who are heading for a good 2:1 degree tend to see the module reading list as the start and end of their workload. They don't necessary see beyond it. A 2:1 student considers it a job well done if they've done "all the reading". However, a student capable of a first knows there's no such thing as "all the reading". Every scholarly text on your syllabus, whether it's required or suggested reading, is a jumping-off point. It's a place to begin to look for the origins and intellectual histories of the topics you're engaged with. It will often lead you to more challenging material than what's on the syllabus.
Search through the bibliographies of the texts on the syllabus to discover the texts they draw from, and then go look them up. At undergraduate level, set texts are often simplified versions of complex scholarly works and notions. They're designed to distil intricate ideas down into more manageable overview material. But wrestling with complex articles is the best way to demonstrate that you're engaging with the topic in depth, with a sophisticated level of understanding.
Build your bibliography as you research
Keeping notes of all your sources used in research will make writing your bibliography later far less of a chore. Given that every single text on your syllabus likely references thirty more, bibliography mining can quickly become overwhelming. Luckily, we have to hand the integration of web searches and referencing tools. These integrations make the challenge of compiling and sifting through references far easier than it once was. Get into the habit of exporting every reference you search for into the bibliographic software program of your choice.
Your institution might have a subscription to a a commercial tool such as RefWorks or Endnote. But the freeware tool Zotero is more than capable of compiling references and allowing you to add notes to revisit later. It's usually a matter of adding a Digital Object Identifier (DOI) for your source into the program. Then it will store all the details you need to generate a bibliography for your essay later (no matter what reference style your university demands). It will also store the URL of the source so you can retrieve it later.
Make sure you organise your research into categories. This will ensure you have a focused set of scholarly sources waiting for you when you've decided on your final essay topic.
Develop your own essay topic, and talk to your tutor (often!)
Are you the kind of student who likes to go it alone, and rarely, if ever, visits your tutor during his or her office hours? If you're serious about getting a first, you need to get over any reservations you have about seeing your tutor often. Make regular appointments to talk through your essay ideas. If the syllabus allows it, come up with your own essay topic rather than going with any in the topic list you're given.
Even if you haven't explicitly been told that you can design your own essay topic, ask if it's possible. Nothing is a clearer mark of your originality and active engagement with the module content than defining exactly what it is you want to write about, and how you intend to approach the argument. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by expressing enthusiasm for the material, and a desire to think independently about it. And one of your tutor's roles is to help you develop your arguments. S/he might suggest texts you haven't come across yet that will help support your points, or make your arguments stronger by challenging them.
Don't just synthesise; critique and contest
It's common for students to get frustrated when they do all of the above and still come away with a good 2:1, rather than the first they were expecting. For some, this can happen because reading very widely can 'muddy' the waters of their understanding. Reading more about a subject will help you understand its depth and complexity. But it can cause you to begin to lose rather than gain confidence in your own understanding.
It can be tempting to let your essays become summaries of what other scholars have said, and let their voices speak over your own. This is especially true when you've read widely and have a sound understanding of the positions of scholars in your field.
But it doesn't matter how much reading you've done or how sound your knowledge of existing work in a field. To consistently score first-class marks, you have to develop a position on that field. You must examine where you stand in relation to these scholars and ask yourself some fundamental questions:
1. Do I agree with them?
2. If not, why not?
3. How can I articulate and defend my position?
If you've thought long and hard about these questions in every module you take, your journey to a first-class degree is well underway. There is, admittedly, a degree of risk here. What if you've fundamentally misunderstood some key aspect of a debate? What if your position simply doesn't add up?
There will be times when you'll get things wrong, and you'll feel frustrated or even embarrassed. But that's why we said at the outset that you need to be a gambler – this approach will pay off far more often than it will fail. And if you're feeling particularly insecure about a line of reasoning, ask your tutor to read over a draft and give you some pointers on where to go next.
Is it worth the risk?
In a word, yes. Not every attempt at academic risk-taking will be entirely successful. But following the steps above will ensure that tutors and markers see genuine, in-depth engagement with the topic. Not to mention evidence of serious intellectual growth.
Markers will take all this into account, as well as pointing out the places where your argument didn't quite hit the mark. So even if the risk doesn't quite work out, you're unlikely to get a lower mark than playing it safe and submitting a “solid 2:1” piece. And over the span of your degree, this approach will yield a higher mark than consistently writing competent essays on the set texts without significant innovation or risk.
Plus, of course, this process has its own rewards beyond your essay mark. Even if you didn't quite hit your target score for this module, your engagement with the topic will have been far richer. You'll emerge far more knowledgeable at the end of it than if you'd played it safe.
So go ahead… live a little!
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