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8 Steps to Getting a First Class Degree in Modern Languages

Graduates with Mortar Boards

          Most university students dream at some point or another of getting a First Class Honours Degree, the highest grade in the UK higher education system. 16% of all students manage it, and while it’s not an absolute necessity for a graduate job (you need at least a 2:1 for most graduate schemes), employers do take grades into account when reviewing candidates. As you can imagine, there is a lot of hard work involved in getting a First, but there are also a few key techniques and tricks that helped me get mine… Most of these are specific to Modern Languages degrees (I studied Spanish, Italian & Portuguese) but 3 or 4 of these could apply to other subjects too.

          I won’t dwell too long on the obvious ones which you should already know: keep a comprehensive vocabulary list; do all the un-marked homework and practice assignments you’re set (they set them for a reason – you need the practice); know the marking criteria inside out; write decent, concise notes throughout the year and rewrite them as revision; and avoid the most foolish mistake of them all: don’t try to cram everything into the last month before your final exams! Our brains simply aren’t programmed to speed-learn languages, and you will only get yourself into a pickle. Study consistently hard throughout the four years, and you’ll see that gradual accumulation of knowledge is the key to success.


My housemates & I at our Modern Languages graduation ceremony at the University of Exeter in 2012

          You could probably have guessed the basic tips above, they shouldn’t be new to you. So here are the extra tips that I used to get my First, and hopefully they may help you too:

1. Make an effort in your 1st year.

Don’t just aim for the pass mark of 40%, as it’ll get you into good study habits and the step up into 2nd year won’t seem so overwhelming. Also, at Exeter at least, first dibs on optional modules and Year Abroad destinations is given to the 1st year students with the highest marks. (Another good reason to make an effort in 1st year is that some graduate employers ask for your grades from each year of university).

2. Keep track of your marks and calculate the weighting of every piece of work.

I got a little addicted to doing this… I recorded every mark that counted towards my final grade and by noting what weighting they had within the grand scheme of things, I could calculate my average, work out what mark I needed in each assessment to average out to >70%, and choose which assessments to focus on and prioritise. Set yourself an overall target of 74% (to get a safe First, rather than risk slipping into a 2:1) and measure what marks you need to get to reach 74%. In practice this meant that when it came to my finals in 4th year, I knew that I only needed 65% in each of my exams to still get over 70% overall. As I’d prepared well and studied lots, I knew I was (bar a disaster) guaranteed a First, so I was in the comfortable position of not needing to pray for a miracle.

3. Get to know all your lecturers & teachers.

Impress them by attending all your lessons, going to their tutorials, visiting them in their office hours. Hand all your work in on time (and of a decent standard), participate in class and ask intelligent questions. I’m not suggesting that sucking up will get you higher marks, as written exams are anonymous anyway, but the oral exam is not anonymous, and if they already have a favourable opinion of you then that can only help, and you’ll probably receive extra help and valuable feedback on assignments and essays. My tutor saved me on numerous occasions in a crisis, even in relation to modules he didn’t teach, all because we’d built up a good relationship and he considered me to be one of the “good” students.


4. Pick modules strategically.

I happen to be much stronger in exams than I am in essays, so I purposefully chose not to do a dissertation (studying multiple subjects at Exeter gives you the option to not do one). But it goes further than that: when picking modules, ask older students about their experiences with certain lecturers, which modules are more work-intensive than others, which are easier to get high marks in? Choose modules you know you’ll excel in. For example, I have a real knack for languages at beginner level so I chose Portuguese language modules instead of literature or history modules, which I know I’m relatively weaker at. I also discovered that I could take a 1st or 2nd year module (which are obviously easier to pass) in a subject I hadn’t studied before, so I took an International Relations module. (The genius behind this was that I had actually studied IR before, but at LSE’s Summer School, not at Exeter.)

5. Read voraciously.

A large component of every Modern Languages degree is your linguistic skill. It’s assessed in written and oral exams, but the linguistic register required in both is the same: formal. No matter how good your knowledge of Spanish slang or Italian colloquialisms, sadly, that won’t impress the examiner. By all means focus on your verbal ability as well (find a tandem partner for this), but also find a way to expand your sophisticated, formal vocabulary and your command of complex grammatical constructions beyond the, frankly, basic level of language used in everyday conversations with friends. My preferred method was to read novels upon novels. Reading novels exposes you to a broad lexicon, the recurrence of vocab in a novel drums the words into your memory, reading teaches you grammar, spelling and conjugations, and it’s a relatively passive and enjoyable form of learning. Especially if you can’t put the book down! By reading novels you somehow ‘absorb’ the language as if by osmosis… For some ideas for novels to read, take a look at my page ‘What’s on my Bookshelf‘.

6. Choose your Third Year Abroad carefully.

I’ve already written a number of posts on how to choose whether to teach, study or work on your Third Year Abroad. But in essence, my main tips would be: pick local companies or smaller cities with few English speakers in order to immerse yourself, live with locals and read My Top 10 Tips for Learning a Foreign Language.


7. Spend your summer holidays abroad.

And I don’t just mean go inter-railing around your country of choice, as you’ll most likely bump into other backpackers and won’t get to practice your language that much. Find a job that lets you use the language. For example I spent a summer au pairing and living with an Italian family, meaning I was surrounded by the language 24/7, and as a result my 2nd year Italian modules were a doddle as I’d advanced so much over the summer. But similarly a language course in the country, an internship or even bar work will help to adjust your ear and make your studies easier.

8. Translate, translate, translate.

You will probably have assessed translations, both direct and inverse, and I found this intensive form of study did wonders for my languages. Needing to investigate the language as such, to search for synonyms and exact meanings forces you to really get under the skin of the language and one way I found to get a lot of translation practice was to voluntarily take on a large project. While living in Modena on my year abroad I was volunteering with a local charity called Modena Terzo Mondo, which runs various welfare projects in poor areas of Brazil, and I offered to translate their website (all 17,000 words of it) into English to enable them to receive support from non-Italian speakers. It certainly took me a while but it was fantastic practice, and the commitment I’d made to the charity ensured that I completed it. Another friend of mine chose to translate a novel that was as yet unpublished in English, and she then tried to sell her translation to the publishers.


These are simply some ideas that helped me and there are doubtless other techniques that might work for you, but with hard work and a decent strategy for learning, a First Class degree in Modern Languages really isn’t mission impossible. Good luck!

What other techniques help you most and what tips would you add to this list?



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