Routes to the top: three students discuss different approaches to getting a first-class degree

September 4, 1998

Late starter

Annie James is taking a masters degree in society, science and nature at Lancaster University, where last year she gained a first-class honours in applied social science and independent studies.

First year

October 1994

I did not go through formal entry channels. I wrote directly to the school of independent studies at Lancaster University with an outline of my main topic of interest - women's health and maternity care. It was 14 years since I had sat an exam, I had children and some of the teaching staff initially seemed to doubt my ability to do the academic work. I must have convinced them.

I chose courses carefully, ensuring that there was coherence between them and that I was interested in the subjects.

November 22, 1994

Half-way through the first term, I am working very hard. As soon as I receive each course handbook, I look at the essay titles to find one of interest and begin reading towards it. It seems as if I am reading all of the time - in bed, in the bath, in the launderette, in the car waiting for the children to finish school.

February 13, 1995

Major changes at home as my husband and I separate. He remains supportive of my academic endeavours, and between us we have managed to avoid upsetting the children too much. They remain living with me. I have set up part of my bedroom as a study area. I find that I can work much more effectively than in the university library.

My scheme is to work when I feel able, taking into account family needs and my motivation to work.

May 20, 1995

Decisions have to be made about which courses will comprise my degree. Having talked with tutors, I decide on a combination of five independent studies units and four units in applied social science. I have negotiated to do one unit via the summer university once first-year exams are over.

I will be unable to get a paid job for the summer because all three children will be with me during the school holidays. But if I can complete a unit over the summer, I will start the second year with one of my degree units done - a head-start.

Second year

January 20, 1996 I am in danger of falling seriously behind. My independent studies research dissertations are proving impossible to manage. The pressure of university work, family commitments and financial difficulties has become almost intolerable, and my motivation is failing.

June 30, 1996

I seem to have just about managed to keep up with everything. I think the exams have gone well, I abandoned the idea of doing a summer university unit. I intend to try to enjoy a summer off.

Third year

November 14, 1996

My motivation has returned with a vengeance. During the summer I didn't entirely abandon academic work but limited it to some enjoyable fieldwork for my next dissertation and a lot of reading.

June 20, 1997

I have finished all my degree work, including essays, dissertations and exams. I was writing until an hour before the work had to be handed in, leaving no time for editing or additions. Revision for the exams really began only once the writing was done. But because of my independent studies dissertations, I did not have many exams. Now that it is all over, I think I may have scraped through to a 2:1.

June , 1997

A First!

All business

Mark McArdle is doing a masters degree in information management at Lancaster University, where he got a first-class degree inmanagement last year.

I remember an older student explaining the effort needed to get a first. It seemed to involve becoming a social outcast: those who got firsts went to every lecture and were the last to be thrown out of the library when it closed.

I am no genius and would not give up my life for study. I didn't attend every lecture and tutorial. I didn't get 70 per cent or more in every essay, project, test or exam. I was usually behind with my reading. Sometimes I couldn't be bothered to go to university and stayed at home. But I always knew what not to bother with. And I worked hard on the things that counted: assessments.

Getting a degree is about understanding what is needed to succeed. What does the lecturer want? What is the examiner expecting? Think of the university as a customer and give it what it wants.

Some students select courses because they think they should do them. Initially I did the same and chose badly. My degree also included some compulsory subjects that I had no real interest in. Most of my 2:1 marks came from these.

I decided that if I struggled with a topic or found it dull, I would simply abandon it. If it appeared on the essay question list, I would move to the next question.

I favoured courses that were assessed on work produced in the term rather than by final-year exams.

It was impossible to read all of the books on an average reading list. I sought shortcuts. Collections of selected readings or journal articles saved me the bother of reading original texts. Academic books can be difficult - if I found myself re-reading sentences or nodding off, I would stop. In all my time at university, I did not read one book from start to finish - I plucked out just what was needed.

I identified two types of university academic: first, those for whom lecturing was an interruption to their research. To them, tutorials served to compound established wisdom, not confront it. I would pitch my essays to them so that my opinions appeared more as evidence that I had read the key contributions to the debate rather than as an attempt to pull down monuments. I did not want to be marked down for being an upstart.

The other type of academic enjoyed discussing ideas: they wanted something different, inspirational, iconoclastic. For them, I would try to add something to the issue rather than rake over familiar ground.

My revision consisted of discarding subject areas I could not face; reading; compiling notes; then condensing them to one or two sheets of A4 for each subject area. Before exams, I would concentrate on the condensed notes and rely on my memory to drag out the detail behind them.

I didn't practise writing exam questions. I prefer to be spontaneous and open-minded. I don't want pre-formed conclusions filling my mind before I've even read the questions.

Designs in mind

Chris Waind is a graphic designer at Definition Design in London. He gained a first-class degree in graphic design and advertising from Buckinghamshire College despite being dyslexic.

From school I knew I wanted to go to art college and then into an "art-related" career. The first term at university found me starting to drift. I had to put my personal style on hold and follow the course agenda, which did not allow me to broaden my way of working.

Compounding this was the fact that I was dyslexic. Home is not a good place for learning to cope with dyslexia - everyone knows and shares the burden. But it was devastating arriving at university to find people don't make allowances and aren't really concerned about your problem because they don't understand. I had to develop coping strategies.

The summer vacation was a welcome relief. After working at the till in a supermarket I could not envisage a career in retail. I also managed to amass a lot of ideas in my preferred style in preparation for the second year.

I had experimented with advertising and illustration, but now I knew I wanted to specialise in graphics. Ideas fell into place in that second year.

The second vacation once more found me working in a supermarket. Again there was time to put my thoughts and feelings in sketchbooks. It might just be how colours interacted or a technique I had experimented with, but it could be the spark I needed to fire a project idea.

During the vacation I started to research and collate ideas for my thesis. I was determined that before I returned for the final year I would have the backbone of my thesis in place. I aimed to have a first draft ready by Christmas and to submit it in advance of the February deadline.

By the middle of the third year, I was faced with completing the thesis (not something a dyslexic person particularly desires), finishing work-related assignments and planning my final-year degree show. One of my projects had been floating around in my head for some time. It was something close to my heart - dyslexia awareness.

Then I was asked to submit a design for the university prospectus. This led to designing the whole brochure, poster and related work - a project that gave me experience and led me into other commercial work. I also embarked on making an experimental interactive CD-Rom for a large distillery company.

At times it did feel like I had taken on too much in my final degree year. I had very little knowledge of how to complete these jobs, but determination to succeed drove me on. I ended up with a job with a successful design team, and a first-class honours in graphic design and advertising.

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