Cambridge. He is brilliant: a self-assured, hard-working biochemist who goes to every lecture. He takes copious notes, reads the set texts; he is even good-looking, damn it. There was nothing he had not memorised for the finals. But it isn't enough. As the results are pinned to the board, the eagerness in our hero's eyes turns to anger. He has a 2.1, and he is not used to having a second in anything.
Where did our prodigy go wrong, and how did the art students succeed? A first-class degree may be a passport to the job or course of your dreams. What will you need to become one of the seven students in a hundred who get a first in British universities?
Even before you go to your first lecture, decisions you make about the university you attend and the subject you study will affect the likelihood of your getting a first. The latest available degree results reveal that you are twice as likely to get a first at St Andrews (11 per cent of graduates) than at Manchester Metropolitan University (5 per cent), for example. At Oxford and Cambridge, usually more than 15 per cent of students get a first. If a large faculty rarely gives any firsts, common sense will tell you that you may have a better chance elsewhere.
Professor Keith Chapman, head of geography at Aberdeen University, agrees. His report investigating degree results was recently published by the Higher Education Quality Council. He examined the results of more than 250,000 graduates studying eight subjects in pre-1992 universities.
"If a student wanted to know about a department's result record, they could look at the result listings displayed on notice-boards. You could just ask, but some departments may be reluctant to give them," he says. "There do seem to be fewer firsts awarded in the `new' universities. But then, the required A-level entry grades are generally lower."
His report reveals that the choice of subject is even more important. Almost one in four physics students won a first-class degree in 1993, compared to one in 40 politics students.
If you thought that the artists mentioned earlier had more chance of getting a first than the biochemist, you would be wrong. Other studies have shown that social sciences award the fewest firsts, followed by the arts. Physical and mathematical sciences give out the most.
Geoffrey Alderman, head of quality assessment at Middlesex University, is not surprised: "There is absolutely no reason why we should expect the same proportion of firsts in astrophysics as in, say, advanced fortune telling," he says. "It is not as if the top X per cent will always get a first. That is an evil system." Instead, the university tries to apply a system of "criteria marking", whereby the tutors have a predetermined set of points which the ideal answer will contain.
Ted Wragg, head of education at Exeter University, agrees that criteria marking is often used in theory, although over the decades different marking conventions do grow up in departments and subjects. "In mathematics it is quite possible to get 100 per cent; in English this is unheard of," he says.
Of course, only a fool would choose a course for nothing more than a good chance of a high mark. Nor are all firsts equal: not many employers will look only at the finals mark on a CV, without also accounting for the institution that awarded it. Wragg emphasises that the best way to miss out on a good grade is to choose an unsuitable course or college: "Students should do the subject they want to, and study where they will be happy."
Thankfully, in most colleges hand-outs explaining exactly what is expected of students have replaced vague advice from a tutor. Alderman says: "Universities are now much clearer in demonstrating what they require. This is a major reason why degree results have been improving over the last 20 years."
The syllabus will contain the theory behind the whole course and details of what examiners will be looking for. Students who fail to receive details of how papers will be marked should ask for them, to find out exactly how a first is awarded in a department.
Wragg summarises what tutors are looking for, irrespective of subject. Most papers are full of repetitious information, usually facts, ideas and examples from lectures and hand-outs. A better student will use these as a foundation for deeper, distinctive analysis, with new examples. "Get beneath the surface, go beyond the `British Standard'," he says.
Past papers give valuable clues to what the most important topics will be. Some students make sure all their essay topics are relevant to the exam topics, so most of the work has been done beforehand.
Andrew Payne partly credits his first in chemical engineering from Manchester University to simple "question-spotting". "In one exam all three questions had come up before," he says.
Coursework and research are the foundation of any degree, and something more than the lecture notes are required. But reading is time-consuming. Russell Dean, a theatre designer with a first in drama from Aberystwyth, says: "Students must learn to play the same game the lecturers are playing - the main rule being that no one ever reads a book. I used to go bibliography surfing at the library. Find an interesting book, preferably with little relevance to the subject - then quote it. Quoting as much as you can from outside a subject looks good, and to challenge the argument the busy tutor is going to have to do some research - so you will probably get the benefit of the doubt."
The examination is still the most important method of assessment in most universities, and bad technique can cost 50 per cent of marks.
One well-known recipe for a first is to take risks with style and argument. A history graduate from Bristol University described his last paper: "I was dreading it. Over breakfast, a friend told me to be cavalier in my last exam, which was a bit ironic as the paper was about 17th-century England. I began an essay about James I with the words: `I say, I say, I say ... did you hear the one about the English King who was Scottish?"
The introduction was fresh enough to grab the attention and helped to win the student a first. But it could equally easily have been the final straw for a humourless examiner.
Which brings us back to the riddle of the prodigy and the art students. Dean identifies what he sees as a classic mistake. "People who work hard get a 2.1. You need a spark of originality; for example, an English student might apply chaos theory to Shakespeare."
So is it all worth it? Doubtless a first gives an edge to a CV; for postgraduate funding it may be essential. Last year 2,000 first-class graduates were chasing 1,000 British Academy scholarships. Yet all is not lost: the hard-working biochemist with the 2.1 from Cambridge is now a professor.
And if you don't make the grade, console yourself with Russell Dean's reaction, as he stood before the results list. "When I discovered my result, I felt elated," he recalls, "yet within seconds I felt like Groucho Marx when he said he didn't want to belong to a club that would accept him as a member"n