Play the game - and you'll win

Getting a First isn't that difficult - even for average students. It's simply a case of the right strategy, says Lucy Hodges
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Today's undergraduates play hard and work hard, unlike those of several decades ago who simply played hard. That is because students of the Millennium need to do well to distinguish themselves from the crowd when they graduate. This year they are being given some help through a new book by someone who knows all about how to get a First class degree.

Today's undergraduates play hard and work hard, unlike those of several decades ago who simply played hard. That is because students of the Millennium need to do well to distinguish themselves from the crowd when they graduate. This year they are being given some help through a new book by someone who knows all about how to get a First class degree.

The great thing about Mark Black's 100-page guide, The Insider's Guide to Getting a First, is that it is written from experience. First time round Black didn't do so well: he ended up with a 2:2 in law. But, when it came to doing a Masters in Business Administration at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, he was determined to do better, and he did, ending up with a distinction at the end of a year, which is equivalent to a First class degree.

He believes that anyone following the strategy outlined in his book should be able to do as well as he did. This is the strategy that Black and his twin brother, Stephen, followed. (Stephen got a distinction too.) Neither of them was brilliant and neither was a workaholic. They simply kept their eye on the ball of coming out on top and urge everyone else to do the same.

Play the Game

Forget about being original. You need to find out what the person marking the papers thinks about the topics. Discover what they think the right answer is and then agree with it. Choose your modules tactically. Don't just go for those that you find most interesting. Black and his brother put the most interesting modules at the bottom of their list. Instead, look at who will be marking your work because you will do best learning from people you get on with. Find out who the other students are on the course. They will be important for teamwork and will make the classes more or less interesting.


Make sure you attend every lecture and seminar. That way you are more likely to understand what is going on. Ask questions if you don't understand anything - and read as many of the books as you can on the reading lists.


This may be counter-intuitive but Black says that you should be willing to give all your work away. "I believe that's one of the key reasons for my success, and possibly the over-riding factor behind my finishing as number one: I was not one man's efforts." Black collaborated with almost everyone on the course. By being open and sharing everything he knew, he encouraged people to do the same with him and thus built up an enormous store of information. He let the other students read his work. He even gave them copies. He proof-read their essays, did research for them, suggested helpful articles, lent them his research and held one-to-one panic meetings. The result, he says, was that he received far more than he gave. But you have to trust people not to plagiarise your work. Black wrote a warning on discs that he lent people.

Time management

Having a loose structure is the best way to plan your work. Meet your most immediate deadline first. Don't try to juggle several assignments at once. Work in short bursts rather than long slogs. Build in breaks If you have a tendency to fall asleep over your books, find different places to read in and ring the changes.


Buy a decent PC and software and a printer/scanner. Invest in broadband internet access if you need to do research on databases. Buy books recommended on your reading lists from Amazon and hunt in local book stores for other books to show you have read wider. Subscribe to other independent sources, if necessary. Attend seminars around the country on subjects you are studying.


To get a First you need to be able to balance arguments effectively. Some people are naturally better at that than others, but you can work on it.


You can get a First and have a normal social life of going out twice a week and filling in other evenings with social events. But during exam time and when coursework needs doing you should stay at home and work.


Black and his brother split the reading list. Each week one would read half the reading list. They highlighted what they read and swapped books. This saved time. They also split the research. When they had written the assignments, they read one another's work.

Ask what is expected

Each module means an assessment which is an exam or an assignment. Black advises that you talk to the module leaders regularly to find out what is entailed. That way you find out how to prepare. Ask what is expected in the answers, what leading authorities should be quoted, what references, what are the main criteria for a distinction, and so on. And, most important, is the tutor really bothered by the word limit? Ask if you can see previous answers that got distinctions. Do the same thing with your dissertation.


Make sure your referencing is as good as you can make it. Good referencing won't give you a First, but poor referencing will stop you getting one. Include as many references as you can on your essays.


Mirror the strategy for your assignments. Find out what is expected in the exam answers. Most tutors will give you the general areas that you will be questioned on. You can't get away from working hard. Pay attention to your exam technique. Work out how much time you have for each question and stick to it rigidly. Plan your answers, read the questions properly.


You won't be fired up all the time. Use food, audio CDs and quotations to keep you going. One of Black's favourite quotations is from Leonardo da Vinci. "A diamond is just a lump of coal that stuck to its job." Remember that, when your concentration is flagging.


Make your essays look as professional as possible. Use the best paper you can afford and have them bound.

'The Insider's Guide to Getting a First' is available priced £5.99 from White Ladder Press, Great Ambrook, Near Ipplepen, Devon TQ12 5UL

'I partied hard at first, but I studied during the day'

From the start Paul Coombes, 27, wanted to do well in his degree at the University of East London. He had worked for several years in Somerset before deciding that there was more to life than his job as an estate agent. He was a mature student (23 when he began), had a passion for history and wanted to show his family that he could do it. "There was a lot of talk about how I would be home before Christmas," he says. "I partied hard at first but I studied too during the day."

From the start he did well, receiving 78 per cent for the first essay he wrote on 15th and 16th century exploration. He had a couple of friends with whom he studied. "I would not classify myself as very intelligent," he says. "It was a lot of hard work. I got a borderline First in my first and second year, and it was only in the last semester of my final year that a First it became a real possibility."

He had no great strategy but he took pains over his essays, redrafting them several times, showing them to friends and lecturers and often spending three weeks over them. "There were two lecturers who were amazing," he says. They made my degree for me."

Lorna Hughes, 40, also got a First at UEL despite being a single mother of three children, now aged 19, 11 and eight. She took to her degree in education and community studies like a duck to water. "I was very excited by it," she says. "There were times when it was tough but I had set myself a goal."

If you want to get a First you need to learn from the feedback that the lecturers give you, she says. "I would read and read, do a lot of research, take notes and then I would get to the stage where my head was full and I would empty it on to paper."

Now she is planning to undertake a Masters degree. LH