How to get a starred first
We interview someone who actually managed it
You'll see them lingering at the very top of the class lists, or making you feel shit about yourself and your perfectly respectable 2.i when they crop up on your Linkedin Suggested Connections. The Tab has sought out one of this rare breed: the lesser-spotted starred first winner. Whilst the rest of us are wallowing away in the low 60s, resigned to mediocrity, some of these select students are actually putting their degree first and making their parents proud. This particular student, who wishes to remain anonymous, has agreed to share their words of wisdom with the hoi polloi.
What's the difference between a first and starred first?
The criteria depends on your subject, and some subjects don't offer starred firsts. Generally, you'll need a very high marks aggregate and consistent firsts across your modules; not necessarily firsts in everything, but close to it – and with high firsts (75+) featuring in your marks. I had a 73 average across my papers, and two were 75+.
What's your secret? Do you have any top tips that really made a difference?
I don't think I have a particular secret, though I'm super tempted to write 'modafinil' just to give The Mail palpitations. My advice is mainly arts subject specific, but science students should benefit from parts of it. Read the examiner reports multiple times. Don't over prep. Know your material inside out, but first class answers come from engaging with the actual questions on the paper. To do that properly, you can't have everything you're going to write planned out beforehand: instead, you need an arsenal that can be deployed in a bunch of different ways.
You need to work smart. You'll start to know 10 pages into a book whether it's really going to be any use to you. Identify what's going to take more work early on. I had a lot of translation work to do, so I got started on that a bit in Lent. Saved hassle.
Working smart applies to exam technique too, not just reading – really get to terms with the wording of the question/quote used. Are there any difficult to define terms? Controversial terms? Assumptions they're making that they maybe shouldn't be? What do they specifically mean when they use certain generic words? This can be a great 'in' for finding an argument.
Originality is brilliant, but it does have to be backed up. And saying “this guy is shit” is not the same as having your own idea. And a more general tip for the year: ask more questions. If you don't know what that concept means – ask. You're not stupid. And if something sounds interesting, make a note of it. Also: actually liking your subject helps.
Is it still possible to have a social life?
Yes. There are caveats, of course – stretching yourself thin with loads of commitments or spending four nights out in a row will drain you, and you won't have as much time to put into studying. But you don't need to put all your energy into your degree.
Figure out your own balance. I'm not crazy social; I don't go out all that often, but that's because I don't like clubs much. But I'll pump a lot of time into one of my societies, or I'll visit my partner at another uni and spend a couple days with him – and I'll make the work time up elsewhere.
How many hours a week do you usually work? How do you organise these?
God, I don't know. It's sort of hard to quantify it? Shit answer, I know, but you've got the most recognisable work hours like writing the essay or writing the essay plan – that probably sucks up 10-12 hours depending on if my brain is actually working that week. Then you've got reading and note-taking and note-condensing, which can also be quantified (might be 15-20? More if it's a ridiculously big topic, less if I read the book over the summer or I'm shamelessly reusing prior material, but 2/3 of that is just the reading, which is easier.)
Then you've got thinking, which is sort of always going on but can be intense enough to take up all your energy, or can just be chatting to a friend, musing in the shower or making a mind map. So it's kinda 30 hours, kinda 40, less at times, cranked up during exams, and sometimes you just do nothing for a day, and sometimes you do 12 hours in a day but it didn't even feel like 'work' because it was really cool? Or maybe I'm just a robot. And sometimes you do 2 hours and they're agony.
Where do you like to work best?
I've always felt like a bit of a fake student because you won't often find me in the library – I prefer working in my room. It makes the work feel less 'like work', and I can listen to Spotify without being permanently scared my headphones have fallen out and they can all hear Kendrick Lamar blaring out of my speakers.
But if the work's really hard or a huge project (rather than just a weekly essay) I'll lug myself to the library or computer room in college, so I feel less permitted to slack off / nap / procrastinate by making noodles than if I'm in my room.
I didn't do anything in first year, can I still recover?
Absolutely! Just be honest with yourself. I did very little in second term first year, for instance, so I knew coming in to second year revision that I was going to have to get my ass in gear on that module, and do a bunch of reading for it like I was learning it for the first time, rather than just relying on my notes (because they were shite).
I got a first in that module, but more importantly, I actually discovered some new stuff within it I liked, unlike the first time I studied it – and writing on that stuff was way more enjoyable than relearning some crap unenthusiastic essay from first year. Having the extra perspective on it from the rest of the year helps, too.