Obviously, any degree is a massive achievement and you should be wildly proud of yourself for turning up and learning fascinating things, but if you happen to be a high achiever on the cusp of a top grade, here’s what markers are looking for. (Check your mark scheme for your institution’s individual requirements.)
Originality is key. This can be in many forms. Consider a new phenomenon in terms of an old theory; do research that hasn’t been done before (at least make sure no one else on your course is doing it!); dig in to one of your university’s archives for interesting materials to test your theory against; do a close analysis of a single unconventional issue. It can be hard to be ‘original’ on purpose, so read around your subject before deciding on your title and just see what thoughts come to you. At some point your brain will probably go, ‘well that’s interesting, but what if…?’ and there’s your question.
A critical evaluation of the literature. This means that beyond showing a full understanding of the research on your topic, you’ve demonstrated insight and considered the theorists critically, not just accepted their work as the truth.
Have a clear argument that you stick to throughout. First class essays have a real sense of purpose – every sentence has a vital function which builds to prove its thesis.
Relevance either to society or to the current debates in your academic field is always impressive. It demonstrates that you’re engaged in academia, like your lecturers are, and they may well appreciate this mature approach. It will seem to them more like the journal articles they read than just another undergrad essay.
High quality English is mentioned in most mark schemes, with accurate spelling, grammar and punctuation. The writing should flow well with careful word choice, minimal repetition and an engaging style.
Accurate and thorough referencing and a strong structure are also vital.
Most importantly, give yourself plenty of time to think about it; start early if you can. All of the above would be ideal, but aren’t necessarily essential. The majority of essays and dissertations that I work on that end up being awarded firsts get the mark because the student has chosen a topic they’re interested in and their enthusiasm has come across. Some of the best dissertations I’ve read have a tight structure, fluency that makes the argument easy to follow and a conclusion that addresses the title.
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