The motto that got me through the HSC was “something is better than nothing.”
Right now, with all this crazy COVID drama that’s gone down, everyone’s feeling demotivated and probably stressed. When I did my HSC in 2019, there was nothing so momentous to disrupt my schooling, but I definitely went through a long period of apathy after trials which I had to pick myself back up from in order to go on and crush the final exams, well surpassing my personal goals.
So whether you’re aiming for a 99.95 ATAR to get into medicine, or whether you just need a 70 ATAR to make your parents happy, I’m here to pass on the strategies I used to achieve my goal ATAR of 99.80 and a NSW state rank of 3rd in Extension 1 Mathematics.
Strategy 1: Managing Willpower & Time
The clichéd line about the HSC that everyone likes to quote is: “It isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.” And you wouldn’t try to run a marathon without training for it. So if you haven’t been the most diligent for your whole high school career, forget about suddenly pulling off 10-hour productive study days. Start small and work your way up.
Every minute of study counts – make the most of your spare time. As exams approach, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and demotivated, especially if you struggle with procrastination or have fallen behind on the content. But you should try to remember that something, anything, is better than nothing. If it’s 6pm and you’re scrolling through Tiktok or Instagram and haven’t gotten anything meaningful done, don’t count the day as a write-off. Pick up your laptop or textbook, and do something for 15 minutes, or half an hour. Plan an essay, or watch crash course chemistry, or do the multiple choice of an HSC exam. You’ll be surprised at how much better you feel, and how much stronger your ability to focus and motivate yourself will become.
If you’re at a stage where you’re feeling on top of your workload, then that’s great, and this may feel like irrelevant advice. But I guarantee there will be at least one point this year, maybe even during the HSC exam period, when you just can’t seem to summon up even one iota of motivation. This is when you should try to remember that you don’t have to do 3 past papers in one night – that sometimes, just 20 minutes of productivity is better than giving up and doing absolutely nothing.
Strategy 2: Practice & Productivity
That being said, if you want to receive an incredible ATAR, you must put the time in. Sure, build your way up over the course of the year, pace yourself and take breaks when you need them, but if you hit exam week and you’ve never done a single practice question, there is no way you’re getting a Band 6.
There’s no short-cut, you must put in the time and practice. For maths, I did at least 10 past papers per exam. The first ones take much longer than 3 hours, but don’t be discouraged. If this seems an overwhelming task, just try to work your way through them bit by bit, because for almost every subject, the more you can do, the better. I also wrote concise summary sheets of key concepts and formulas for each topic, which was not only very useful for revision at the end of the year, but also helped me understand how all the syllabus points fit together. For anything that I was forced to memorise, like quotes, timelines or formulas not on the reference sheet, a great hack for memorisation (other than the classic write, read, speak 10 times) was putting my summary sheets and palm cards up around the house. I’m not sure my parents appreciated having tables of polyatomic ions on the fridge or quotes from ‘The Crucible’ in the bathroom, but I definitely found it easier to remember things I read every day while brushing my teeth.
Make the most of past papers and peer-feedback. Syllabus changes aren’t the end of the world. Some past papers still have relevant questions in them, and you can reach out to your friends at other schools for their trial papers, or if you’re a Project Academy student, use the 1000+ past papers your iPad. You can also try writing and answering your own questions to check if you truly understand the content and concepts. The 2019 cohort had almost no English resources, so my friends and I made our own essay questions in the leadup to the HSC, then wrote (or at least planned) responses, and provided feedback on each other’s writing. This sort of group study was something I found incredibly helpful, because discussing problems with other people is a lot easier than struggling through them on your own, and taking turns teaching syllabus points to each other is a far better method of revision than reading through your notes and highlighting like there’s no tomorrow. So get along to the library, or get on a Zoom call with your most productive and motivated friends, and get studying.
Create a productive study space and separate your leisure area. Having a good study space is another important aspect of effective revision. Like most people, I found resisting procrastination a challenge, but I was able to combat this by separating the spaces where I worked and relaxed. During HSC, or when I had a big assignment due, I went to the library, so I could see lots of other people working and feel like I was also obliged to be productive. But even when I was at home, I made sure not to use my phone or watch Netflix at my desk, so that I associated that space with productivity, and my bed or the couch with relaxation. This was especially important for keeping focused when studying for subjects I was less passionate about.
Never neglect English (or other subjects you’re less passionate about). English seems to spark near-unanimous fear and disgust in the hearts of year twelves everywhere. As someone who took mainly STEM subjects, I very much understand this, but I am here to tell you: you must not sideline English. It will count toward your ATAR and you should be working at it just as hard if not harder than your other subjects. Read your texts (more than once), practice short answer questions (they’re harder than you think), write essays (at least 10), put the syllabus on your bedroom wall so you know it back to front. Any extra effort you can put in will be worth it come October. Do not, under any circumstances, simply say “I am bad at English” (or any other subject) and move on – this sort of fixed mindset will only hinder you from achieving your best.
Strategy 3: Aceing your school and HSC Exams
At the end of the day, it is a sad truth that almost half your marks (depending on what subjects you do) come from the final exams. So, knowing how to sit an exam is almost as essential as knowing what to write in that exam. When put in this stressful environment, you will perform best if you’ve practiced and know how you’re going to deal with all the adrenaline and anxiety your body will be feeling.
Get comfortable, calm and in the zone before exams. Before an exam, you should leave yourself some time to calm down. Stop studying, avoid your friends who will freak you out, take deep breaths, and listen to relaxing music. Develop your own process of preparation, so that when you enter that hall in October you can give it your best effort.
Develop the right exam technique and approach when answering questions. During an exam, don’t forget to breathe. If you see a question that looks really difficult, or you just can’t solve a particular problem, move on and come back to it later. When answering worded questions, look for the key vocabulary in the question. Directive verbs – “analyse”, “evaluate”, “discuss” – will tell you how to structure a response (e.g. make a clear judgement, provide positives and negatives etc.) The actual content of the question will relate to something in your syllabus, so think back to the rubric (which you should be familiar with) to recall what sort of topics your response should cover. Actually answering questions is one of the most important skills you can practise, because if you can follow the marking criteria perfectly, that’s when you can write those 20/20 essays. If you don’t know what to write, just put something relevant down. Never, ever, ever leave a question blank, and never leave the exam early.
Rest up and re-energise for the next exam. After the exam, take a well-deserved rest, so you’re fresh and able to study effectively for your next one. Try not to over-analyse your performance – you can’t change what you’ve written, and the most important thing you can do is learn from the experience and do better the next time. Almost everyone I knew did better in the HSC than they thought they would – I certainly never expected I would state-rank.
You’ve Got This
Take it from someone who is very thankfully finished with the whole process: the HSC is painful, but it’s also unique, because it’s the last time you and your friends are going through the exact same challenges. If the HSC is a marathon, then you can set your eyes on the finish line, but you shouldn’t forget that you aren’t running alone. In the wise words of Troy, Gabriella, Ryan and Sharpay, we’re (well, you are) all in this together, so try and enjoy it as much as you can.
If you need any help or have any questions, I’d love for you to say hello or join one our Year 9 – 12 tuition classes. You can sign up for a three week trial for any subject here!