The students who all want to be first

Competition for jobs has given a new lustre to the ultimate grade, once sneered at by the cooler undergraduate. But what does it take to get one?

First-class degrees used to be for geeks. Upper Seconds were the mark of people who would get on. Like many old certainties, however, this no longer holds true.

As competition for graduate jobs hots up, more students see getting a First as a passport to a high-flying job. They think they can do it, but the big question is how to get to the top without dying of overwork or disappointment.

Experts say that the key to getting a First is a mixture inspiration and perspiration. Different types of university agree that first-class degrees take a spark of brilliance, but they have their own ideas of what makes a First - and their own methods of assessment.

Some universities favour a lot of continuous assessment, especially new and campus universities, while Oxbridge puts more emphasis on formal exams. Super-degrees have also been developed to offer a more applied alternative for some of the high-flying undergraduates who would otherwise get a First.

Strathclyde University offers a four-year Master of Engineering degree. The course includes engineering, a foreign placement and disciplines such as marketing. It is designed to give graduates the mixture of technical and general business backgrounds to prepare them for senior posts in industry - all a long way from the laid-back image of Oxford life in Brideshead Revisited.

Why are students so much more ambitious than they used to be? The Industrial Society puts it down to competition in the graduate job market fuelled by the expansion of higher education. Students are pushing themselves harder and taking a more professional attitude to their studies, according to a spokesman.

In this climate, having a First helps. Nevertheless, the most sought- after students are the most rounded, says the Industrial Society.

Roly Cockman, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, believes that students are more likely to get noticed if they have a First. However a First is only really vital in careers directly related to a student's degree, such as scientific research.

''I think students have the perception that getting a first-class degree will be a good thing in itself,'' he says. ''They seem to have been encouraged by academics and the competition to get ahead because of the introduction of student loans and fees."

It is not only old universities that claim to have high standards. Coventry University, a former poly, says its first-class degrees are genuine Firsts.

''Those getting Firsts are exceptional students, says art lecturer John Hostler. "We look for people who go way beyond what is required of the course."

The qualities he is after are effort and natural brilliance, with the emphasis on effort. Firsts are ''reasonably rare'', he says. But he can't give details of exactly how many students get a First.

Engineering senior lecturer Dr Tony Robotham confirms the adage that students need one part inspiration to two - and more - parts of perspiration. ''You need inspiration early on and then the perspiration bit is easier and more rewarding," he says.

Outstanding engineers - those of first-class calibre - come up with novel solutions to problems, such as working out how to carry out a new process in a factory. A 2.1 student, by contrast, is very competent with no major weaknesses. The percentage of students getting Firsts is low, he says.

At Essex University, Anne De Roeck, head of computer science, tells students that to get a First they have to produce work that is ''lucid and systematic''. A 2.1 standard is similar, but students would have made some mistakes. It is harder to achieve a First in computer science now than 10 years ago because the subject has become more complex.

Students in government who want to get a First are expected to excel at the philosophical side of the subject as well as more analytical work such as studying statistics, according to Professor Joe Foweraker, Essex's head of government. As many as 6 to 7 per cent gained a First last year, compared with 4 per cent 10 years ago.

What percentage of marks do students have to attain to get a First? The simple answer is that it varies. Students of power engineering at Strathclyde need to achieve more than 75 per cent. At Oxford, students of English need more than 70 per cent in at least four of six exams and two extended essays. Some 15 per cent of English graduates got Firsts last year compared with an average of 18 per cent of all Oxford students.

''Examiners are looking for originality of thought and a level of knowledge that is beyond the average," says a spokeswoman. "They look for potential research students when they consider awarding Firsts.''

How to get a First

Plan your work

Research on undergraduates shows that those who work by breaking down tasks into small, manageable parts end up with better degrees, according to Dr Val Brooks, a specialist in educational assessment from Warwick University's Institute of Education.

Give yourself a break

It is better to take a break after an intensive session. Forty minutes is about right, according to Dr Brooks. Other experts' views vary, but you can also alternate one subject with another.

Marshall your knowledge

Remember: don't just soak up facts, but check your understanding of different concepts studied as part of a degree course.

Go over the basics

Remember to spend enough time on the basics such as learning notes and doing practice questions. Just because you have achieved good grades in your A-levels does not mean you will sail through your degree.

Do what works for you

Gimmicks such as charts can help some people. It is best to make revision active - by revising through writing a summary, for example, rather than just reading notes.

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