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HSC Tutoring- Tips for success in your HSC Trial Exams

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.

HSC Sciences – improving performance in extended responses

Like it or hate it, the way HSC science subjects (e.g. Physics, Chemistry, Biology) are implemented in our HSC requires students not only to have quantitative skills for calculation-type questions, but also be skilled in forming cohesive arguments to support a conclusion – much like essays in English, but about scientific issues. Many students don’t have as much trouble with the quantitative aspects of HSC sciences, but have issues consolidating the qualitative aspects of their courses for essay-type responses.

Summarise essay dot-points that have extended response requirements

It is a good idea to know which parts of the syllabus correspond to essay-type exam responses. As you learn the course, always cross reference the content you cover with the syllabus. Become strongly familiar with the syllabus dot-points for each module. You will notice that most subsections in each module (i.e. the numbered sub-parts in each module) will have one or two dot-points that require ‘discuss’ or ‘assess’ or ‘evaluate’ – words which require students to be able to synthesise content and form coherent arguments.

Familiarise yourself with these dot-points. Revise related content, or ask your teacher / tutor about the relevant issues for each, then make a short summary sheet (probably half a page for each) in dot-point form to lay out everything that’s relevant.

Here’s a couple of examples of how you might roughly summarise the essay requirements for a sample module.

HSC Chemistry

The Acidic Environment

1. Summarise the industrial sources of SO2 and NOx and evaluate the reasons for concern about their release into the environment. For example: SO2 is from coal burning and car exhaust, and causes acid rain. NOx is from automobile exhaust mainly, (older cars, or malfunctioning catalytic converters) and causes photochemical smog, acid rain etc.

2. Trace the developments in understanding of acid / base reactions. E.g. understand the main developments in our definitions of acids / bases, outline the concept of conjugates, discuss the validity of current definition of acids / bases compared to past definitions.

3. Assess the use of neutralisation as a safety measure / to fix acid spills. E.g. outline what buffers are and how weak bases can be useful in neutralising acids. Understand why a weak base instead of a strong base is used. Explain neutralisation and buffer systems in terms of Le Chatelier’s principle.
HSC Physics


1. Contribution of Tsiolkovsky, Obert, Goddard, Esnault-Pelterie, O’Neill, or von Braun to the development of space exploration (i.e. modern rocketry). E.g. Robert H. Goddard, considered as ‘father of modern rocketry’ developed the world’s first liquid-fuel rocket, pioneered research into multi-stage rockets (allowed astronauts to reach the moon), research into gyroscopic stabilisation, and steerable thrusters, allowing greater, safer control of rockets.

2. Discuss issues with safe reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. E.g. backward-facing astronauts (eyeball-in effect is less stressful than eyeball-out), radio blackout prevents communication to ground base during most of re-entry. Optimum angle of re-entry ensures probe does not skip off atmosphere, or undergo excessive deceleration and heating. Heat shields carry away heat. Parachutes are required for final deceleration, or in the case of a shuttle, gliding like a plane.

3. Describe, evaluate and interpret the MM experiment’s results. E.g. the MM experiment produced a null result for the existence of the aether. This result alone does not disprove the aether’s existence, but it does not contradict Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. The latter was developed further and was successful in predicting real-world phenomena, such as time dilation / length contraction observed between inertial frames with relative motion.

4. Discuss the relationship between theory and evidence supporting it, using Einstein’s predictions. E.g. Einstein’s thought experiments were merely conjectures supported by logical deduction – at the time, there was no experimental way to verify Einstein’s predictions. In modern times, with the advent of atomic clocks and space flight, we are able to experimentally verify Einstein’s predictions as correct. The relationship is theory of the unknown comes from deduction of what is known, and experimental verification follows. If real-world results differ, the theory must be modified or superseded. This is the scientific method.

Do this for the entire syllabus, by first identifying which syllabus dot-points require an extended response in order to be tested in an exam. These dot-points are guaranteed to come up in your exams, either in your first assessment, half yearly, HSC trials, or the external HSC exams. Don’t leave this till last minute – familiarise yourself as you go through the course, then revise and re-familiarise. Be sure to include all of the relevant issues, some of which are latent and require deeper analysis. E.g. is Ethanol truly greenhouse neutral? You can argue yes or no, depending on what evidence you include in your response.

Finally, don’t be afraid of those 6 mark or 7 mark discuss / evaluate / assess exam questions. As long as you’re familiar with most of the relevant issues that particular question entails, you will be fine. Good luck!

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