How to get a first-class degree
But dishing out the firsts isn’t simply the prerogative of science subjects Languages have consistently awarded more top grades than Biology, for instance, as the below graph shows.
So, why is this the case?
One reason is that many of the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) are only offered by the top universities, and therefore attract students with better GCSEs and A-levels.
It may also be the case that Maths and Physics students are simply smarter whether because the courses are harder to win a place on in the first place, or perhaps even because intelligent people are more instinctively drawn to the subjects. Of course this is conjecture. Many students of Medicine and Law, which give out relatively few firsts, would certainly take issue.
More fundamentally, it is just easier to get a very high mark or a very low one in a “hard science” subject such as Maths.
Telegraph contributor and University of Bristol teaching fellow Gervas Huxley explains: “If you re on top of a Maths exam you can give a completely correct answer. Brilliant maths students get 90 or 95 [per cent]. I ve seen a maths paper with a mark of 98. Whereas with History examiners almost never give a mark above 80.
“It’s partly a cultural thing. If we insist the number of firsts in History and Physics are to be the same, we need to change the marking culture. We need to basically put pressure on historians to give 90 more often, and to give 20 more often.”
If this seems unfair, it’s worth considering the implications. So long as degree classification trends within subjects are consistent over time or at least are all inflating at a similar rate it may not matter a great deal. If prospective employers understand the discrepancies, what’s the harm?
However, there is a catch. Looking across the UK’s 10 most popular degree subjects, it is clear that for many subjects grade inflation is not increasing uniformly. For example, five years ago Physics students were nearly 50 per cent more likely to achieve a first than computer scientists. That gap is now negligible, as degree inflation in Computer Science has rocketed from 13.8 per cent to 21.
And in a graduate job market that is tougher than ever, studies have shown that obtaining that first-class degree really could provide you with a critical advantage.
A report last July by the Association of Graduate Recruiters found that although a 2:1 (or higher) degree classification remained the most common selection criteria used by employers, an increasing number of firms were “considering increasing their requirement to a minimum of a first degree classification due to the high volume of their graduates who actually achieve this .
Of course, an investment bank is still more likely to be impressed by a first in a top academic subject such as Mathematics than a BA in Crafts (just 17 per cent awarded firsts), even if it is supposedly easier to gain the grade in the former.
But we already have a jobs market in which many gifted students with 2:2s even in a difficult subject from a top Russell Group university are excluded from applying for certain jobs. Could the same soon happen for students with 2:1s?
When the goalposts are moving so fast, it is unlikely that the question of “what it takes to get a first” will remain well-understood if it ever was.
IN PICTURES: Top 10 subjects for getting a first