4 ways to avoid common errors in HSC Physics

Getting those few extra marks can be tough. Not only does the HSC Physics exam test our knowledge of the subject but also our ability to convey that to the marker for any given question. Getting everything down onto the paper itself is a milestone, and that’s before you count the challenging questions that can leave you stumped! Then you get your paper back, aside from what you expected… There are all the careless mistakes and marks taken for seemingly frivolous things like the heading to a graph. HSC Physics sure is tough, but here are four ways to avoid those unexpected surprises that we can all do without!

1. Always check the units

Everyone knows about checking the units in your final answer, but have you ever considered the units the question comes with? It seems obvious, speed is in m/s and frequency is in Hertz. But the place where many students trip up is in the Space module, most of the measurements in the question are given in kilometres however all the equations in the data sheet are based on SI units so are in metres. Remember to times by 1000 in these cases and watch out for other prefixes like micro- and nano- when doing wavelength calculations. Always think about your answer, if the altitude your orbiting satellite is 100 metres you should probably try again!

2. Underline the key words of the question

You’ve probably heard this piece of advice time and time again. However, hardly any students end up following the advice. I remember wishing I had taken the effort to underline the keywords in the question when I lost that easy mark for not giving a final evaluation in a 7 marker. Teachers and physics tutors would have told you that the main reason for underlining the words in the question is to make sure you’ve covered everything. While this is true, we all know it’s all too easy to underline and forget! Make sure you tick of each piece of underlined information so that you truly haven’t missed anything and get the most out of your efforts!

3. Use a diagram or table

Tackling those large mark questions is tough! The very thought of having to write down all that information used to dishearten me! I’ve found that the easiest way to reduce both the time and effort taken for these questions is to use a table or a diagram. At school or at physics tutoring, they normally recommend you do this for questions that have the key words "compare and contrast" but you can use this method in many more cases. A table can be used for "discuss" questions and "evaluate" questions while a diagram can help with explaining the galvanometer, induction cooktop or even the nuclear reactor to name a few. Not only are these diagrams and tables more readable, they also help you remember all the things you want to write about as you remember it in a visual fashion. Dot-points can also be used when answering questions normally in order to save on writing which can really help out on the 3 hour papers. Remember your diagrams and tables and fight back against the wall of text!

4. Leave time to check

This rule is almost universal to every exam and in a perfect world we all wish we could do it. Leaving time to check is an approach that shapes how you tackle the whole exam. If you want to save time in the exam, it’s best to practice earlier, the most straightforward way is doing all the practice papers in about 75% of the actual time in order to develop speed. Additionally, with more practice questions will become easier to answer and you will spend less time trying to remember the points. While we can save some time for checking, it isn’t infinite and needs to be prioritised. The first thing to check is always the mistakes you make most commonly so as to pick up the easiest errors first, then checking the calculations by doing them again separately and lastly by adding anything at all that could be relevant to the answer that you can think of! Remember, as long is its right, it can’t hurt. This method for checking means that even if you run out of correction time you’ve been as efficient as possible with your time meaning better exam performance.

A student’s worst enemy is the marks they could have gotten but missed out on. The above methods stem the tide against losing ‘easy marks’. Hopefully they help you get those last few marks you’ve been yearning for in HSC Physics!

ATAR and Choosing a University Course

It’s the time of year for celebration and holidays – well deserved for the class of 2011. With the ATARs released about a week ago, most are in the stages of finalising their UAC choices for University courses. We get a heap of questions from ex-students this time of year concerning what course they should choose, whether to choose a course similar to their high school subjects, whether they should choose a course based on the ATAR they achieved, etc. On these issues, I want to offer some timely advice. I’ve tutored year 11 & 12 students at Dux College for 3 years now and I’ve seen these same issues and questions raised each year. Lets visit each of the main ones:

Should I choose a course similar on what I did in high school?

It always helps to choose a course that’s similar to what you’re already familiar with, but it isn’t necessary. Generally, if you choose a uni course that’s in the same field as many of the subjects you completed in your HSC, you will find first year rather breezy. However, it isn’t necessary at all because the vast majority of uni courses do not assume any knowledge on your part – everything is taught from scratch at the beginning of first year, albeit at a much faster pace than what you’re probably used to.

For example, if you did English Advanced, Maths Extension 1, Maths Extension 2, Physics, Chemistry, it’s perfectly fine for you to choose Combined Law if that’s what you want to do. Many typical HSC subject combinations that result in sufficiently high ATARs that allow you to get into courses like Combined Law have nothing to do with law (sadly Legal Studies doesn’t scale particularly well, so we have a peculiar situation where many first year law students have done well in Maths Extension 2).

Short answer: do what you want to do, there’s no need to limit your options based on what you did for your HSC.

I scored a high ATAR, should I only look at high ATAR courses?

This is related to, but rather the opposite situation of the first point. Many students who get a relatively high ATAR, say 95+, suddenly have an urge to ‘not waste ATAR’ and thereby limit their choices only to the uni courses with similarly high ATAR entry requirements. This is a dangerous thing to do because the choice you make here could define the career of your long term future!

We see a disproportionately large fraction of students with very high ATARs (99+) that end up doing Combined Law or Medicine. I’m sure many of them are genuinely passionate and interested in these courses, and will make great lawyers and medical practitioners, but surely just as many are there because they haven’t got much of a clue as to what they want in life, but were blessed with the ability to achieve such a high ATAR. For some of these students, things will work out – they will adapt and find that they enjoy and/or are good at what they do. But for the others, they may live to regret their choice years later, when they realise they have no aptitude or passion for the path they’re on. This can lead to long term resentment against their career choice, or the student having to cut their losses and transfer to an unrelated uni course a few years later, having wasted time and HECS (uni isn’t free, remember that!).

It’s never a good idea to base your uni course choice solely on what you can ‘buy’ with your ATAR. The ATAR entry requirements for uni courses reflect only the relative supply and demand for each course, but people should realise that most people in a crowd are just following the crowd – they have no idea what they want individually. It’s perfectly fine to choose the highest ATAR requirement course within the field you want to get into – for example, if you’re into Maths / Physics and are keen on doing Engineering, then by all means choose the highest ATAR cut-off Engineering course (usually ‘Aeronautical Space’ at USyd). But don’t choose Combined Law just because you can!

On this point, I should also mention that there’s no correlation between the ATAR cut off of a uni course, and the inherent difficulty of the course. ATAR cut off only reflects how popular a course is. Some courses with humble ATAR cut offs (e.g. Engineering, Science) are notoriously difficult, both in terms of the amount of contact hours required per week (this means how many total hours of lectures and tutorials you need to
attend) as well as the failure rate each semester. Generally speaking, an Engineering or Science student can expect to attend Uni 4-5 days per week, and a Commerce student can get away with 3 days per week (some semesters you can get a timetable that only requires 2 days per week!).

Short answer: if you have the luxury of a high ATAR, choose something you’ll enjoy and be good at. There’s no point doing a course like Medicine if you have no interest or passion for it.

Combined degree vs single degree

Another question I get quite often is whether to do a combined or single degree. In my opinion, both are fine choices – it depends on what sort of career you’re after. The advantage of a single degree is that it’s over faster, and you’re on your way to the next stage of life (working somewhere as a graduate for most) quicker, younger and with less of a HECS debt. The advantage of a double degree is you’re more well-rounded as an individual. It’s preferable to combine degrees that span a wider breadth of fields, rather than combine two very similar degrees. E.g. Engineering / Commerce would be a good choice. The goal here is to open as many doors as possible.

When you’re entering your penultimate and final years of uni, you’ll begin the arduous and often frustrating process of submitting applications for graduate roles at various companies. Doing courses that are practical in a wider range of fields opens more doors up. At the same time, it could be argued that being more specialised helps with being considered more favourably by employers, but from personal experience, employers care more about your work experience, your uni marks and how you conduct yourself in the interview.

Even if you change your mind later, it’s not too much hassle to switch from one to the other. Of course, dropping a course is easier than taking one up (you can always drop from Combined to Single degree). Note that as long as your marks are decent, (Credit Average should be sufficient for most streams, Distinction Average is definitely adequate) you’ll find that a transfer to a different degree structure will be possible.

Short answer: it doesn’t matter, both are fine choices, and switching from one to the other in the middle of uni wastes little or no time, and is pretty easy with decent marks.

What course should I choose?

I’ve left the most important till last. While I’m not going to tell anyone what degree to do, I can give some guidelines that will help you reach the right choice.

  • Always do something you are personally passionate about and have an interest in. You won’t be good at something unless you enjoy it.
  • Don’t worry about the money. In ANY field, if you’re good at it, money takes care of itself. One thing about the world is it’s full of average people. In whatever field, whatever career path, most people you encounter are average, and those that rise to the very top are invariably people with a genuine passion for their field. If you don’t do something you enjoy, you won’t be good at it, and in a free market society like ours, your earnings will always reflect the value you contribute to others. If you’re average like everyone else, you will make average earnings and be stuck in a career you resent. Do what you’d be good at, and money will take care of itself. “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”
  • Don’t assume this will be your career path set in stone. Life is serendipitous and full of unexpected twists and turns. Many highly successful gained their success from following their true passion rather than strictly applying their tertiary education (and I’m not talking about the Bill Gates and the Steve Jobs in the world, these are normal people like you!).
  • Find out as much as possible about the degrees you’re considering, what sort of career possibilities they open up, and whether you’d enjoy the sort of work that entails. Research is key! Don’t just assume lawyers do the things you see on TV, or bankers all wear suits looking at the markets all day.

Short answer: do what you will enjoy. If you don’t enjoy your field, you won’t be good at it, and you’ll lead a very average and unexciting career path.

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