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.
Effective time management is an important life skill to have. It is definitely one of the major determinants of whether you will be successful at whatever you are doing in life. Time management skills are especially important for a student in years 10, 11 and 12. As you may have noticed, the jump in difficulty in being a high school student is significant when you enter year 11 (suddenly you have 12 units of subjects to worry about and receive homework/exams from, instead of just the 3 main ones – English Science and Maths). Also keep in mind the HSC subjects individually are suddenly harder than what you’d expect coming from year 10. As a result of this non-linear jump in difficulty, many students have not been able to properly adapt to their new situation.
How many times have you left an assessment task to the last minute because you didn’t pace yourself correctly, or you submitted low quality work / received low marks due to being overwhelmed by exams and assessments? Have a read of the following insights and think about what you can do to improve your time management skills – this will surely be one extracurricular skill to have that will translate to higher marks!
Urgent vs. important
Firstly understand the difference between a task that’s urgent, and a task that’s important. One thing that separates successful people from the rest is that successful people spend most of their time doing important things, rather than urgent things. For example, on any given day you may have one or several friends on facebook to reply to, send birthday reminders, or reply to people saying ‘hi’ on msn – these are all urgent, non-important tasks. Stop doing these things!
Important tasks are things that count. For example, studying for your school assessments / exams – it’s a certainty that you’ll need to do that assessment or exam so why ignore it until the last minute? Starting that assessment task now rather than later – you’ll eventually need to do it so why not start sooner rather than later? Do you really need to stop everything and get distracted by ‘urgent, non-important’ things like if your friends are inviting you to join their multiplayer online game, or your dog needs a walk, etc? Obviously we’re not saying ‘lock yourself in your room and study for 18 hours a day’ – you need to strike a clear balance between study and recreation (see next point).
Set clear boundaries: work while it’s work time and rest while it’s rest time
It’s important to find a good balance between work and rest. Set a clear time of the day after which you’re ‘off the clock’. This time should be dedicated to leisure. Avoid things that remind you of work – e.g. you could have all school-related stuff in your study room, and keep your bedroom free of any school-related material, or keep your school-related material in your room and spend your leisure time in your lounge. Resting and working in the same room could be stressful as you can be interrupted by emails, msn messages from friends who stress you out, or simply glancing at unfinished assignments left on your desk. Just like work, rest is best done without distraction in order to fully regain energy for the next day.
Also never plan to do important tasks in your ‘spare time’ – there’s no such thing as spare time and if you have this habit, you’ll certainly leave many tasks undone and neglected. You’re either working or resting, both activities are important to maintaining a healthy and sustainable work ethic.
The 80:20 rule
Also known as the ‘Pareto Principle’ or the ‘law of the vital few’: when applied to the field of time management, this ‘rule’ states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your actions. While there’s no mathematical significance of the 80:20 split, this rule alludes to the non-linear return of time invested – i.e. if you only put in 50% of your effort, you will get close to 0% of the results. But if you put in 100% of effort, you will get 100% of the results. That’s why it’s important to invest as much effort as you can, maintain a sustainable healthy work ethic throughout the year, and not be distracted by non-important tasks.
Keep a todo list and follow through with your plans
All effective time-managers keep a todo list. Split your tasks into 3 categories and put a number / letter next to them to remind you of which they belong to:
Your student diary can fulfil this task. In our modern age, you can also consider using your iphone to synchronise with google docs so that you have access to your todo list everywhere (while at school, or on the train etc).
Watch your sleep
The human body works most efficiently when you maintain a constant sleep schedule. Sleeping at around the same time every night (not too late) will ensure you’re energetic and motivated during the day. It’s impossible to follow through with any time management plan / todo list if you’re lethargic all day. As a general rule, aim to reserve 8 hours of sleep each night – and you can’t sleep bank (i.e. sleep 6 hours for 3 nights, then 10 hours over the weekend) – it doesn’t work and will leave you fatigued and unmotivated during the day.
About the Author
Terry Wu is a maths tutor at Dux College. Having achieved an almost perfect ATAR himself in 2009 and HSC state ranks, he is an expert at time management and study skills. He is a passionate advocate of the ability for students to do well in the HSC through ‘acquired skills’ such as effective time management, effective study skills and learning exam technique.