At the time of writing this article, we’re in the middle of term 2. Most year 12 students have their HSC trial exams in early term 3, which means while there’s still (almost) an entire term left, it’s about time students begin to prepare specifically for their trial exams.
Learn to use the HSC Standards Packages
For almost all HSC subjects, the Board of Studies has standards packages publicly available for students to read http://arc.boardofstudies.nsw.edu.au/go/hsc/std-packs/. We recommend students look at the standards packages for their subjects – they will give you an idea of the quality required for a band 6 response. Standards packages are particularly useful for humanities subjects like HSC English where your expression and writing style also come into play. Get a feeling of what’s acceptable expression, and details like general paragraph length, the way literary techniques are referenced, how often a text is quoted and the length of quotes etc. Even if technically your knowledge is as good as anyone’s, a poorly structured essay (where you use poor expression, or reference the text in superficial ways or spend too much time on insignificant points etc) will mean the difference between a band 4/5 and a band 6.
Familiarity with the standards packages will also help with subjects like HSC Chemistry, Physics, Biology and the social sciences (Economics, Business Studies etc). In the case of the HSC Sciences, they give you fresh ideas of novel, acceptable ways of structuring your answer. Some questions can be fully answered in terms of a table or as a dot-point list (e.g. identify / outline questions). Also note the details featured in diagrams / graphs – full marks are given to students that remember details such as labelling the axes, or drawing a line / curve of best fit properly (ignoring outliers in appropriate situations) and being able to justify the choices made.
HSC sciences – always refer to the syllabus
HSC sciences like Chemistry, Physics and Biology, are prescriptive by nature. This means the syllabus tells you exactly what you need to know, content wise, and does a great job at that. While studying for these subjects, it’s always a good idea to have the syllabus in front of you, printed or on your computer screen. The dot-points give you a clear picture of what you need to know, and the scope to which you need to know each aspect of the course. For example, if a dot-point requires you to merely identify the qualitative aspects, this means you only need to be able to name the aspects it’s referring to, and qualitative means you won’t be required to do calculations on them.
Another reason is some syllabus dot-points are worded as if they are paraphrased exam questions. This is particularly true for dot-points requiring you to ‘Discuss the impacts on society of…” or “Assess the environmental impact of…”. You very well might get an exam question, worth around 7 marks, that basically asks you to demonstrate your entire understanding of one of those dot-points if they ask you in a general way.
Be careful for internal assessments however, as school teachers are known to set exam questions that are dubious in terms of whether they fit within the scope of the syllabus, so you must also cross reference your own materials with the notes given by your school teacher to make sure all gaps are covered.
HSC Maths – only do exam questions
When it comes to maths, exam questions and textbook questions aren’t the same. The former type are often are structured as a compound question with several subparts. Exam question are often designed with deeper consideration, and incorporates more unique aspects of mathematics (e.g. in Maths Extension 2 question 7 and 8). In contrast, textbook questions can get repetitive and give you a false sense of security. Because textbook questions lack variation in style, once you master the several types of questions it contains and are able to do its exercises, this does not mean you’ve experienced all types of questions an exam can throw at you, particularly if you go to a school that has a talented maths department.
There’s a limitation on the types of questions for each topic an exam can throw at you. If you do Maths Extension 1 and 2, it also takes great effort and skill to design a truly novel and unique maths question at that level. As an industry insider (yes I’m a teacher) I can tell you that many schools simply take exam questions from past papers of other schools. When I did my HSC Maths Extension 2, I actively sought out past trial papers from top private and selective schools for practice before my HSC trials. What I noticed was in one year, say 2002, there would be a question in school A’s paper, then in the next year, say 2003, there would be an identical question in school B’s paper. So it’s a good idea as a student to use past papers as practice – there’s definitely more exam papers worth doing than your time would permit, that’s why I recommend only do exam papers instead of textbook questions.
I spoke with a teacher who works at a top Sydney selective school about how their teachers set exam questions for their year 12 students – “We get exam questions from schools that are out of NSW – resources we know typical students don’t have access to”. So while exam questions are definitely recycled, they aren’t always from sources you’d expect. But it’s still worthwhile doing exam papers for practice, purely for the sake of familiarising yourself with the general style of exam questions which you can’t get from any old textbook.
We get asked this question quite frequently and we tell our customers “as early as possible”. Obviously there’s a conflict of interest in our answer since we’re in the high school tutoring business ourselves, so let me give a few reasons why I say this, and to elaborate a bit on the issues as well.
Joining at the beginning of the year
Joining at the beginning of each year is the ideal because most tutoring colleges start their programmes for each year start at the beginning of the year (beginning of term 4 for year 12). Joining in the middle of the year is disadvantageous because you may have missed a module or two, or several topics. While you can catch up through self study and attending our tutorial workshops, it is obviously healthier and less stressful if you started at the beginning of the year. One of the major advantages of attending a tuition college as opposed to private tutoring is you get access to a structured programme that guarantees you will cover the entire course at a pace that’s advantageous to you in internal assessments (because remember, you’re up against your peers at school competing for the same top ranks, and if you learn ahead, you’re in the best possible position to secure the higher ranks). But this advantage is lost if you join in the middle of the year, when the class is already up to the end of module 2, and you need help with module 1.
Of course, late is better than never, and we’re not saying it’s a futile exercise joining in the middle of the year. As mentioned, we offer free services like unlimited free tutorial workshops, and we can give you the notes you missed out on, allowing you to catch up. But our point is it would’ve been healthier for you (in terms of knowledge retention, depth of course understanding and exam technique – these things build up over time) if you had joined at the beginning of the programme.
Switching tuition last minute
If you’re already attending a tuition college, you’re well advised to stay in that programme until its conclusion (unless it’s actually not helpful at all). Switching to another tuition provider after the middle of the year or near the end can do you more harm than good – and we’re saying this even though this may reduce our customer base (since many of our students come to us after being unhappy with other tuition companies). We tell these students “unless the place you currently go to is terribly bad, you should stay because if you switch now, you may have not covered some topics we’ve already covered, and vice versa”.
Again, I refer back to the point that HSC tutoring centres offer a structured programme designed to be comprehensive, and if you switch near the end of the year, this could be harmful because the order of topics covered at one place will differ significantly to the order of topics chosen by another place. That’s why we urge you to act sooner rather than later – if you feel the place you currently attend is not helpful at all, switch early rather than later.
Get the information you need before enrolling
It’s important to ask the questions that matter – find out where the classes are up to at the place you’re considering. Obviously if the class is covering topics not relevant to your school assessments, it’s of little value to you. Most of our subjects have parallel classes, some of which are deliberately a module or several topics behind because the students in those classes joined us later in the school year. Those classes will still cover content ahead of school pace, but you will be able to cover topics that should be covered early in the year.
Another thing to check out before enrolling is what sort of revision the classes will be doing, or whether there’s any revision scheduled at all. Revision is essential before assessment periods – the content covered over the months in the HSC year become a staggering amount and students need a few weeks worth of classes dedicated to consolidating knowledge – putting it all together and practice doing exam papers. Our programmes are scheduled in such a way as to allow a healthy amount of revision weeks before each key assessment period. During these periods, students focus on exam-style questions (as opposed to textbook style questions – a very important distinction!) and covering up any gaps they identify by doing exam papers. The earlier you start doing past papers, the better you will do in all your exams – that’s a fact!