Education: It's not all slog to get to the top

They come straight from school with top A-level grades and spend all their time studying and having no fun. Well, that's the myth about students who get first-class degrees. A new book, however, paints a very different picture.
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Do you have to be a nerd to get a first-class degree? Do you have to attend every lecture and tutorial, abstain from all socialising, spend every moment with your nose in a book and be the last out of the library every night? The answer, according to those who have firsts, is: "No." But you do have to work hard, be interested in your subject and keep up with the work.

These messages come in a book published by Lancaster University, How I Got My First Class Degree, in which 19 graduates describe how they did it. The Independent interviewed five of these people - all of whom graduated last year - and their accounts are given below.

Their most startling common feature is that they all arrived at university as mature students. All were over the age of 21. Some had done badly at school. Others had families and were squeezing their studies around caring for young children. All had been seasoned by years spent in employment and all thought it helped that they were older because age brought focus and determination. It also meant they weren't frightened to talk to tutors. They agreed that to achieve a first you really have to want one.

t Kerry Boorman, 25, got a first in theatre studies at Lancaster University and has just completed a Masters degree. Before university, she spent a year in London doing youth work for the Oasis Trust and a year teaching in Tanzania.

"I didn't think I was clever enough to go to university when I was younger. I hadn't done very well at GCSEs, though I managed to get three Bs at A-level. In my two years working in London and Tanzania, I had done quite a lot of drama and people had told me I would do well to study theatre. I set out to get a 2.1. I did all the reading and stayed on top of my work. As soon as you get a little bit behind, you've lost it. At times I had to be disciplined about a social life. But it's a myth to think that to get a first you can't have a life at university. That's not true."

t Mark McArdle, 35, got a first in management at Lancaster. He left school at 15 with one O-level and worked as an apprentice car-sprayer. Eventually he did a BTEC national diploma in business and finance and won an award for best student. Then he got a job as a trainee chartered accountant before deciding to go to university.

"It was hard work during those three years. I wanted to do well but at first I felt out of my depth. I worked very hard on the problems and techniques in statistics until they were more or less fixed in my head. But I didn't give up my life for study. I didn't attend every lecture and tutorial. But I always knew where I was, what I had to do, and what not to bother with. I worked hard on the things that counted: assessments. I did not read one book from start to finish - I plucked out what was needed and made my escape."

t Annie James, 41, worked as a midwife before deciding to go to university to do a degree in applied social sciences and independent studies. She had no A-levels, but persuaded Lancaster University that she would be able to do the work. She has three children who were aged three, five and 10 when she began her degree. During her studies, she worked on and off for a midwife bank.

"I didn't even know that first- and second-class degrees existed when I started. After the first year, I got very good marks. It was only quite late on in the second year that I realised I was doing reasonably well. It was quite a shock. I think anyone can do this. You have to be determined and motivated.

"My husband and I separated in my first year. The children were living with me and I did have a very busy life. I couldn't stay late at university because I had to get back to my three-year-old. And I couldn't get down to work seriously in the evenings until 10pm because the older one needed help with homework. I did find it stressful."

t Marc Dellerba, 31, got a first in chemical sciences at Lancaster and is now undertaking a PhD at Warwick University. He arrived at Lancaster in his late twenties after working at a paper mill as a machine assistant. He woke up to the joys of science while studying for a BTEC diploma while at the paper mill.

"I never got an O-level or an A- level. I think I did well at university because of the amount of work I did in the first and second year. You get a lot of foundation in the first year, a lot of basics, so it set me up quite well for the second year which was actually the hardest year.

"It's difficult with a family (Marc has a son aged seven). I couldn't work all the time. I think you've really got to enjoy your subject and concentrate on what you're good at. Those high 70 and 80 per cents can pull your weaker subjects up a bit."

Paul Sutherland, 51, got a first in English and history at the University College of Ripon and York St John. He spent his early life in Canada, dropping out of university in the late Sixties, and came to Britain where he worked with handicapped children and disabled adults before settling in York. He is now doing a Masters at York University.

"I set out to do well. At my age I felt I would need to get a very good qualification to interest employers. Also I wanted to do well at English which had become the love of my life. But it was surprising to me how well I did. I did it by realising it was a job. You have to read around the subject, go to all classes and listen to what the tutor says - and write meaningful notes. Be brave, put down your opinions but back them up. I collected references from newspapers, magazines and classical books to try to show that my opinion could be supported from different perspectives. I think one of the reasons that I got a first was because I threw out the television."

`How I Got My First Class Degree', edited by Peter Tolmie, pounds 7.95 inc p&p, from Unit for Innovation in Higher Education, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YN