At times, Year 12 was the last lap of Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road – where the music speeds up and the likelihood of a blue-shell seems to triple.
At other times, it was an agonisingly slow hike through mud, with the content going nowhere and the days oozing by like honey.
Mostly though, it was gossiping at Hornsby library, flexing that I studied both 4U Maths and 4U English, playing video games, writing edgy poetry, going to leadership events – and just keeping along.
My name is Marko Beocanin, and I’m an English teacher at Project Academy. Despite the intense stress and great emotional upheavals that inevitably came with Year 12, my HSC year was one of the best years of my life. I had the privilege of working as School Captain with an incredible team of Prefects at Normanhurst Boys High School; I graduated with an ATAR of 99.95 and 3 state ranks; and most importantly, I made life-changing friendships that continue to humble and inspire me today.
In this article, I hope to do two things:
- Reassure you that no matter where you’re at – with marks, study habits, subject choices, or anything else – you CAN smash the HSC with the right mindset!
- Share some advice on how I personally found balance and motivation in such an intense time.
Advice #1: Make your OWN academic goals
Some people thrive off concrete, exact academic goals…
For example, at the start of Year 12, a close friend of mine chose an exact ATAR cut-off to aim for. He wrote it on a post-it note, and stuck it right above his bed where he’d see it everyday when he woke up and went to sleep.
He thrived off this specificity: it meant he had an exact metric to measure his performance, so he knew precisely when to celebrate his wins and pick up after his losses. This worked for him.
… But some people are also demoralised and stressed out by them.
For example, I found that whenever I fixated on the ’99.95 dream’, I would be incredibly – and unproductively – hard on myself when I didn’t get the exact mark I wanted. This made study a lot less fun, and took the excitement out of tackling hard problems.
However, I found I was much more engaged – and successful – when I adjusted my goal to a less marks-driven one; namely:
To learn for learning’s sake, and find something interesting/valuable in every subject.
You need to discover who you are, and adjust your goals accordingly.
It’s important to have a general idea of what you’re aiming for ATAR-wise (and be authentic with yourself – this does NOT always have to be a 99.9+, although it certainly can be), but once you’ve done that – experiment with your mindset!
- If you feel confused/directionless without an exact goal in mind, then try:
- Choosing a specific focus for every study session in advance (eg. “Today, I’m going to find and analyse 5 quotes for my Mod B essay”)
- Making an overarching academic goal for the year (eg. I’m aiming for an ATAR of X, to get into Course Y).
- Tracking your performance and assessment feedback in some sort of structured, organised way (eg. a marks spreadsheet)
- Conversely, if rigid goals give you undue pressure and stress – you don’t have to devote every waking moment to getting a certain rank or mark. You might try:
- Reflecting on what you learnt and finding ways to make it more interesting for yourself.
- Going outside the syllabus to develop a deeper conceptual understanding.
- Finding creative ways to note-take and study content.
The biggest thing here is finding ways to study that maximise performance and minimise stress.
Advice #2: Consistency is Key
I cannot stress the importance of consistent, sustained study enough.
We all rationally know that it’s not a good idea to cram the night before, because it impinges on our sleep, stresses us out, prevents real memory retention etc.
Unfortunately, we still often do it!
Like with your ATAR goals, it’s important to figure out uniquely to you what triggers procrastination and prevents consistent study.
For me, I found that I was often demoralised seeing huge piles of work with no end in sight – and, in not knowing where to start, I wouldn’t start anywhere. Usually, this calls for a classic study timetable fix, but I found that my busy schedule and generally spontaneous outlook made that difficult to put into practice too.
So, I made my three-whiteboard system.
- Early on in the year, I bought three mini white-boards.
- Two of the whiteboards were hung up on my wall, and one was usually kept under my bed.
- The first wall-whiteboard was where I put up longer term goals/assessments (eg. Maths Test in 3 weeks, Finish Mod C Discursive by next Wednesday etc.).
- The second wall-whiteboard was for my daily goals/ to-do lists (eg. Go for 30 min jog, Finish Chemistry practice exam etc.).
- The under-the-bed-whiteboard was where I solved particularly hard problems (eg. anything from 4U Mechanics, English essay brainstorms etc.) – because there’s nothing quite like writing on a whiteboard!
This effectively meant I was dividing my workload into the following three layers:
- Layer 1: Long Term Goals
- Layer 2: Daily/Short-Term Goals
- Layer 3: Individual Problems
which made otherwise daunting tasks so much more manageable (without the rigidity of a fixed study schedule/timetable).
If you struggle with consistent study and procrastination like I did, I encourage you to:
- Discover the cause of your procrastination
- Make a UNIQUE solution that works for you.
Advice #3: Study together
For me, year 12 was what it was because of my absolutely brilliant school cohort. We were united in pushing ourselves up the ranks together as a grade, and this meant:
- Organising regular study groups led by the top students in each subject
- Sharing all our notes, content and essays in a grade-wide Google Drive
- Studying together on calls, at school and in the library.
It also meant working closely with – and genuinely trusting the wisdom of – our teachers, who pushed and supported us the whole way through.
The unfortunate reality is that few cohorts start out this way.
Often, Year 12 can feel heavily rank-driven and competitive, with few students actually sharing their content.
It requires a conscious, collective effort to actually start working together. This takes time, and can be incredibly frustrating when it feels like you’re the only one doing your part.
However, trust me that in some way, your efforts to help others and work as a team will be paid back ten-fold. Remember that your ATAR is calculated based off the performance of your cohort, which means that if your school peers do better, you’ll do better!
- If no one is doing anything to work as a team, YOU can start the change. If it’s too onerous a goal to bring your whole grade together, try to start with just a few friends.
Having even just one other person to give you feedback on your work, to bounce ideas off, to teach and to learn from makes a world of difference.
No matter how well you understand your subjects, there will always be someone else with some nuance, some spin, or some odd advice that can help you understand it better. For example, I owe a huge thanks to Xerxes – a Chemistry tutor here at Project – for his amazing Chemistry notes and after-class study sessions.
Advice #4: Pursue your own Interests
Ultimately, you’re only going to be 16, 17, 18, 19 once – and your last year of high school ushers in a whole new dynamic with teachers, friends, parents etc. as you become adults. This is a fantastic time to develop yourself and your relationships with your peers, as you’re united by the shared struggle of the HSC.
Remember that your exams will end, and you’ll want more than an ATAR to take away from high-school. You’ll want experiences, personality, and good memories.
Once you’ve figured out your goals, set up some sort of consistent study plan, and started work with your peers – remember to actually live your life.
I’m confident that there’s a sweet-spot of ‘extracurricular business’ where you have enough time to study, but you’re also doing enough non-study that you avoid burnout and make those good memories.
If you’re not sure what this practically means, think about pursuing your interests in the following areas (and like always, any other areas you come up with):
For me, this was School Captaincy and public speaking; but remember that leadership can be A LOT of things. Supporting your friends in other grades, keeping your role as soccer captain, working in a theatre production etc. are all fantastic outlets to develop yourself as a leader.
For me, this meant saying ‘yes’ to hang-outs and not living reclusively in my room. It also (perhaps regrettably) meant playing some League of Legends every now and then.
For me, this was picking up the piano – which is something that’s something that’s stuck with me ever since.
Physically, this meant going for walks and runs; and mentally, this meant talking to friends about how I was feeling, and keeping those support networks strong.
Just for you
This can be anything. ‘Just for me’ time for me was a lot of Instagram; but it was also learning how to code video games, learning some funky maths, and writing poetry!
You don’t have to treat this like a checklist. Indeed, there will likely be plenty of times where you’re totally swamped and it feels like there’s nothing BUT study in your life. ‘
This is OK.
Just keep moving, and…
Advice #5: Above all, prioritise your health
Year 12 will test you in ways that you’ve likely never been tested before. Academically, there’s ton of content to cover in a sliver of time; and emotionally, it can be a jarring transitional period into adulthood full of dramas and setbacks.
If you can only take one piece of advice from this article, please take this one:
Your physical and emotional health are your NUMBER ONE priority.
This doesn’t mean you have to get that 250kg deadlift you’ve been striving for.
This does mean you should:
- get ample sleep
- do your best to eat healthy and drink plenty of water (although sometimes a cathartic post-exam sob into a bowl of ice-cream is necessary)
- get some sunlight and movement in every day, even if only for a short walk around the block
- stay home and rest if you’re sick
- keep connected with family, friends, teachers, tutors, therapists, etc.
- find an outlet to express yourself
And most importantly, reach out for help if you need it.
Not only will taking care of yourself keep you happy and healthy in general – it will keep you grounded and focussed in your study and exams.
The HSC is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s also a Mario Kart course, a swampy hike, a triathlon, a HIIT workout, and probably a bit of a sprint as well – but one thing’s for sure: with the right mindset, you can smash it!♥️