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.
Year 10 is a critical time for prospective HSC students. The reason is that the Preliminary subjects you choose in year 10 for year 11 will determine what subjects you ultimately do for the HSC. If you get your subject selection wrong, you may be stuck doing subjects you don’t particularly enjoy, or subjects that offer limited benefit in terms of scaling.
HSC scaling – a brief reintroduction
The subjects you choose in year 10 determine how much you will benefit from the process of scaling. Briefly, scaling refers to the process by which raw assessment marks (e.g. from your internal exams and external HSC exams) are converted into scaled marks, which are marks on a common scale that allows the degree of achievement in different subjects to be compared against one another in a statistically fair way. The scaling process is undertaken by the UAC and the result of this process – your aggregate scaled mark (out of 500) – is the sole determinant of your ATAR. Therefore we can safely say that HSC scaling is a big deal if you intend on scoring a high ATAR.
In order to maximise the positive effect of HSC scaling, one must choose courses that are ‘scaled high’ – or in technical terms, have a high scaled mean. The scaled mean for a subject is an important statistic, which tells us the average scaled mark obtained by the subject’s cohort. The higher this statistic for a subject, the higher the subject is scaled generally. Scaled means are publicly available in Table A3 published each year by the UAC.
For full technical details on how the scaling process works, see our article on the topic: http://www.duxcollege.com.au/hsc-scaling-i-49.html
So why is subject selection important
It’s important to get your subject selection right the first time, because there’s limited to no chance to change after you’re well into year 11. Also the beneficial effect of scaling could be huge, or could be non-existent, depending on which subjects you chose. If your goal is to maximise your ATAR, you should also consider the scaling of a subject on top of whether you think you’ll enjoy it. The general rule is to select subjects you’ll be good at, amongst the subjects that offer a scaled mean of 29/50 or above.
What are some good subjects?
Have you noticed a pattern with graduates that score an ATAR of 99+? A significant portion of them do a combination of the following subjects:
What these subjects all have in common is that their scaled mean is all above 28/50 (most are around 30, with the best scaling from Maths Ext1 and Ext2 which goes as high as 45/50).
These subjects have higher scaled means due to the way in which the scaling process works. Year after year, the candidature of these subjects does comparatively better than their peers who do other subjects, including compulsory 2 units of English, which is used as a common scale to compare. What this means is that a high scaled mean often indicates higher subject difficulty, due to the fact that those students who do high-scaling subjects tend to do comparatively better than their peers in other subjects.
However, when it comes to advising students on what subjects to choose for year 11, we always advise students to go for as many of the aforementioned subjects as possible – so long as they can handle them. For example, a student with aptitude and interest in maths should always choose Maths Ext 1 in year 11 – this opens the possibility to take up Extension 2 in year 12, which has a massively positive scaling effect (the majority of ATAR 99+ graduates have completed the Extension 2 course). If a student absolutely hates maths, that’s OK – choose some sciences and some humanities subjects (e.g. English Extension 1 and Modern History with History Extension, or Economics). Many graduates with a combination of humanities and social sciences have scored 99+ without having done any level of maths! What’s important is the ability to understand your own strengths and weaknesses, and choosing decently-scaled subjects based on this understanding.