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University of London Diploma and BA Degree in Philosophy
how to gain a first

The University of London BA Degree in Philosophy is awarded in five classifications:

First Class Honours
Upper Second Class Honours
Lower Second Class Honours
Third class Honours

The University of London Diploma in Philosophy is awarded in three classifications:

Pass with Merit
Pass with Credit

Individual course modules are marked at the same standard whether you are taking the BA or Diploma. The classification of your BA or Diploma is calculated on the basis of your scores of the twelve BA or eight Diploma course modules.

The aim is not just to pass. It is in fact quite difficult — unless you deliberately set out to write complete rubbish — to fail a Philosophy paper. In practice, you will be aiming to score at least an Upper Second. This is in fact the standard set for a Pass for the Pathways Associate and Fellowship Programs. However, there is no harm in aiming still higher.

Not so long ago, before the exponential increase in the technical sophistication of articles submitted to Philosophy journals, it was possible for the keen undergraduate student to keep up with the 'state of the art' in academic philosophy. Course reading lists included the latest journal articles. Undergraduate students felt that they had the opportunity to contribute to ongoing debates. That is becoming less true today.

That is a sad, although perhaps inevitable state of affairs. But this is not the place to lecture on the shortcomings of contemporary academic philosophy.

So what does it take to get a First these days? In one respect, the advice is still the same. Don't rely exclusively on reading lists. Don't become dependent on spoon feeding. Do your own research. Take Francis Bacon's advice: there are just a few philosophy books, amongst the great bulk of material piling up in libraries and book stores, that deserve to be "read, marked and inwardly digested".

It is probably less likely than it was thirty years ago that the results of your research will amount to a contribution to contemporary state-of-the-art debates. But that was never the real aim. What the examiners are looking for more than anything else is a candidate who can genuinely think and argue and not just reproduce the contents of lecture notes. You can train yourself to do that by challenging every text that you read. "Be bloody-minded," one of my lecturers once taught me, and that is excellent advice. Don't treat the words of philosophers with too much respect.

Despite your best attempts at being disrespectful to philosophical texts, there will come a time when you find yourself in thrall of one of the great figures of philosophy. It might be Descartes or Hume, Hegel or Kant, Nietzsche or Wittgenstein. Enjoy the feeling for a while. That is how you learn to model yourself on the best. Then, when you are ready, move on.

Above all, learn to be critical of yourself. If you are pleased with something you have written, the chances are you haven't looked at it carefully enough. We all have our tricks and ruses for letting ourselves off the hook. You should never be satisfied. But don't send work to your mentor that you know can be improved. If you do know how to improve it, then you should have done so.

On the other hand, if you feel that your work is not as good as it could be, but you just don't know how to write a better essay, then say so in your accompanying email. You will learn more, and grow more as a philosopher, in proportion to your readiness to accept criticism.