In this short article, we will outline some strategies to do HSC Physics and Chemistry exams.
Before you start
Before you start, you should use your reading time carefully. During the first minute or so, flick through the exam and get a feel of how long the exam is, where the long questions are, where does each section end, etc. This gives you a sense of how fast you’ll need to pace through the exam, at least at a subconscious level, and is a useful first action to take.
For the remainder of your reading time, start on the multiple choice (Section I, Part A). Obviously you will not be allowed to hold a pen / pencil during reading time, but that won’t stop you from reading through each multiple choice question and mentally deciding which choice is the correct one.
After reading time ends, you may already have completed up to the first 5 questions in your head, and all you need to do is grab your pencil and colour in the correct circles on your answer sheet.
You don’t actually need to read the entire exam during reading time. As mentioned, this time is better spent starting on the MCQ section. However you DO need to get a feel of how long the exam is, so you don’t get caught by surprise and find yourself working too slowly halfway through Section I Part B.
The Multiple Choice section (Section I Part A)
The first part of the Chemistry or Physics exam usually features the easiest questions. This section should be done as fast as you can because you can always use your remaining time to come back and revise your answers. In contrast, the later sections (Section I Part B and Section II) with the short / long answers are harder to change once you’ve written your answer (you definitely don’t want to be wasting time liquid papering the entire answer section of a 7 mark question because you decided you want to change your answer).
Ideally you should aim to be able to finish the MCQ section in 10 minutes or less.
An alternative strategy is actually to leave the multiple choice section absolutely last. This is because if you happen to be short on time at the very end of your exam, you could always quickly guess the rest of your unanswered multiple choice questions. There’s no ‘negative marking’ in the HSC (meaning if you give an incorrect MCQ answer, you don’t lose marks) so this strategy works. However we don’t recommend this strategy because leaving the multiple choice section last encourages students to spend too much time on Section I Part B and Section II, potentially forcing them to unnecessarily lose the easy marks that could have been gained in the MCQ (Multiple Choices Question) section.
Section I Part B
This is the core section of the exam, the one where you’ll be spending the most time and effort doing. This section is designed to take you 105 minutes (that’s 1 hour, 45 minutes) to do. You should aim to do this section slightly faster than the allocated time, but not significantly faster (unlike the MCQ section).
This is because HSC Physics and HSC Chemistry exams are not like HSC Mathematics exams where you could always come back and change your answers easily. The short / long answer questions require students to verbally answer the questions with full sentences. Basically, it would be impractical to cross out an ‘incorrect’ answer or liquid-paper the whole answer (this takes MUCH too long, not to mention the fumes).
Instead, students should work slowly and carefully through the short / long sections from Section I Part B to Section II, and aim to get their answers confidently correct the first time through. If you do find your answers need modification, if your answers were written carefully, you won’t need to liquid-paper the whole thing, only certain words.
This is the last section of the exam which deals with your option module. You will have a writing booklet to do this question. A writing booklet can be advantageous but for some students, this may be the first time they will be using an external writing booklet for a HSC Chemistry or HSC Physics exam (mainly because school trials may include the writing space of the option module within the exam itself).
Therefore, the first step is to check how long the provided writing booklet is. Scope out how much pages of writing space is available to you, so you have a feel of how much space you have left.
A writing booklet effectively gives you much more writing space. So for the ‘assess’ or ‘evaluate’ essay-type questions that require an extended response, the writing booklet can allow you to say more, reducing the risk that you may have missed something that would have been given marks.
General tips for short / long answer sections
Here’s a few more tips to help you with short / long questions applicable to Section I Part B and Section II
1. Write neatly and write small
The HSC exam gives you the writing space along with the question paper (except section II). This means the writing space is limited and ‘non-renewable’ – meaning you can’t simply cross out your old answer and opt to write your new answer somewhere else.
Therefore it is a good idea to write small and neatly, maximising the amount of words you can fit into your allocated writing space. Obviously don’t go overboard (e.g. do NOT write into the margin space – this is not intended by the HSC examiners and will be looked upon unfavourably).
2. Know your keywords
For our students, we would have taught you about what each keyword requires throughout your entire year(s) with us, and you would have had plenty of practice in the homework we give you.
For example, you should know exactly what ‘describe’, ‘explain’, ‘outline’, ‘justify’ etc means and what each requires you to write. You should also be very familiar with the harder, more complex keywords like ‘assess’, ‘discuss’, ‘evaluate’ and know exactly how to answer those, including a concluding assessment where appropriate.
3. Know alternative ways to answer questions
Just because there are writing lines drawn, indicating you should write prose to answer questions, doesn’t mean you can’t use an alternative format to structure your answer, for example by using a simple table.
A table is ideal for questions asking you to ‘compare’, or ‘contrast’ or ‘distinguish’ and there are multiple points / issues that can be compared / contrasted.
For example, if a question asks you to “Account for the differences of diamond and graphite in terms of their chemical structure”, you could draw a vertical line down the first half of your writing space to efficiently write up the actual differences between these two substances, then use the rest of your writing space to traditionally answer the second part of the question (i.e. explain in terms of their chemical structures).
With most students having their HSC trials coming within a week or two, and with the actual HSC exams coming within a few weeks, good exam preparation skills are important if you want to ace your exams! Following are some general & important tips on what you can do to help yourself through this stressful period.
Big tip 1: Don’t let the stress get to you
As students approach the end of year 12, their stress levels approach seemingly unbearable levels (like a limits question in maths!). But as a student in year 12, it’s important not to lose perspective. If you are currently in year 12, we would like to remind you of some bare facts about your current situation:
1. You will survive this, as did all previous year 12 students.
You will get through your exams, regardless of whether you did wonderfully or badly, and your life will continue. Whether you move onto university (which most of you will) or other paths, there’s a whole lifetime of activities, challenges and experiences waiting for you. This leads onto the next point:
2. No matter what you may think, you are overestimating the significance of the HSC.
Think about it this way: after the first 2 weeks of university, no-one would be talking about what UAI or ATAR score you achieved. This probably would end after the first few days! Your ATAR would be so insignificant and inconsequential to your university life and career into the future that when you look back, you would laugh at how stressed and how seriously you took your HSC. Even highly successful students who manage to achieve a 99+ UAI or ATAR would find that their amazing achievement becomes inconsequential when we look at the bigger picture of their entire lives ahead. This leads onto the next fact:
3. Don’t stress if you can’t get the ATAR you need.
Say you need an ATAR of 95+ for your dream course, but from the way things are heading, your chances aren’t too promising. This is no reason to stop trying altogether, or to lose hope either. You should still try your absolute best to maximise your ATAR, but also you should be aware that transferring into your dream course (or your dream university) once you finish your HSC is generally much less competitive than gaining a place outright through getting a high ATAR score.
With all that said, it is important to put in your best efforts in preparing for your exams, because your ATAR will count towards determining whether you get a university transfer.
Big tip 2: Don’t procrastinate This sounds pretty obvious, but procrastination is probably the single biggest problem facing the majority of students. Most students are definitely smart enough to get the high ATAR score they want or need. But the biggest obstacle to most is procrastination. Students need to understand that they need to take things seriously (but not to the point of stressing out: see tip 1) and do the things they need to do. Generally, this means a few things:
1. Start now!
If you know you need to study for a certain exam that is x days away, start now! It is in our human nature to make up excuses like “I will start tomorrow” or “I will start after this weekend” or “Today will definitely be my last day not studying”. Ask yourself this: do you accept the fact that eventually you will need to start? Well if yes, why not now?
2. Plan ahead.
Budgeting for time can be tricky when we have mere weeks or days before a major exam like the trials or the actual HSC. We suggest it is highly important to budget for the time you have left. You should ask yourself: how many days do I have in total? How many days do I NEED for exam A? What about exam B?
Budget your time according to what you think your strengths and weaknesses are. If you are weak in English, spend more time on that, rather than your other subjects. However, never totally neglect any subject. Good time budgeting leads on from the first point of starting now, because once you map out how you can spend the days you have left before your big exam(s), you may realise you need to start right now!
Big tip 3: Study smart! Effective study comes differently for different students: it mainly comes down to personal preference. Some study techniques which work for one student may not work as well for another, but the tip here is to find out what techniques and resources work best for you, and incorporate them in your study.
The obvious way to study is to sit down and read the textbook (for sciences), do many practice exercises and past papers (for maths) and write many practice essays (for English). This works very well on its own, if you can stick to a plan and self-study. However, not all can self-study as effectively as they need to. Below are some suggestions on ways you can improve your self-study:
1. Use your friends to your advantage.
Pick a few friends who are motivated to do well in their exams. Keep in touch with them throughout your study period. Discuss topics in subjects you both do, asking each other questions and making sure your knowledge of each subject is sound and complete.
2. Use the syllabus to your advantage.
Some subjects (like Chemistry, Physics and Biology, as well as some social sciences like Economics) are heavily syllabus-based. A good study technique is to write brief summary notes for each dot-point, going through the entire HSC syllabus yourself before your exams. This is the most complete method of revising those subjects, as exam questions can only be set according to what is contained within the syllabus. 3. Use teachers to your advantage.
Teachers play a bigger role in some subjects more than others. For example, in English, we recommend writing practice essays to cover the broad topics like the main themes in your Area of Study, or module text. Write as many as you can, and have them marked! Ask for feedback from your teachers. Good teachers would be happy to help their students, especially nearing big exams.
Good luck to all students!