It’s a question that parents and students alike ask all the time: what do top students do differently? Sebastian Schwartz, who completed his HSC in 2015, gives his perspective.

If there’s one thing that I think is true about the HSC, exams, and learning in general, it’s that there’s a huge variety of ways that people learn and study. The way I did things is just one of many successful approaches to the HSC. That being said, this is what worked for me.

I graduated Year 12 in 2015 at Sydney Grammar School, and received a 99.95 Australian Tertiary Admissions Ranking (ATAR). The subjects I studied in my HSC were:

  • English Advanced
  • English Extension I
  • Mathematics Extension II
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Classical Greek Continuers
  • Classical Greek Extension

So, what did I do in Year 12 that helped me achieve the results I was aiming for? Looking back, I believe there were three main recognitions that helped me along the way:

Understand the ‘HSC Game’

The phrase ‘HSC Game’ needs a little explaining. While the NSW HSC is a particularly demanding set of academic assessments, there’s much more to doing well than simply putting your head down and grinding away at your work the whole year (though this is important too).

Understanding the ‘game’ involves knowing how your ATAR is calculated, and understanding the ramification of scaling and how subject selection as early as Year 10 determines your options later on. A thorough understanding of these factors is essential in mapping out which subjects you need to take, and where you need to concentrate your efforts for maximum results. Essentially, once your understand how your ATAR is calculated, it comes down to two things: your performance in the public HSC exams, and your ranking within your school.

This information might not seem particularly useful, but in fact there is an important recognition to make here: you need to focus your efforts so as to maximise your ranking across all of your subjects in your in-school assessments. Essentially, if you are already ranked highly in a particular subject, focusing your efforts there will likely present comparatively diminishing returns to aiming to improve your in-school ranking in a weaker subject. Remember, your public HSC exam results only count for 50% of your ATAR, and the rest is determined entirely by your ranking within your school. Your marks in in-school assessments are therefore much less important than how they affect your ranking, and this is important to bear in mind as you plan out where to focus your efforts. For a full discussion of how your ATAR is calculated, read this article.

Another factor to consider is how many units to select. Personally, I take the approach that it is always in your best interests to study as many units as you are able to handle. Your HSC is calculated from your 10 best units, and though there are assessments throughout the year, a slip up in any one of them has much more profound impacts if you don’t have any ‘spare’ subjects that could take up the slack, so to speak, in your ATAR calculation.

Though the 14 units I studied is probably overkill, I firmly believe that studying 11 or 12 units is an achievable and practical goal: it gives you ‘back-up options’, and furthermore takes the pressure of performing in every single one of the 10 units you’re taking if you instead take the minimum 10 required.

Of course, this is a balancing act, and you need to be careful not to take on more than you can handle: discussing this with parents, academic advisors, and teachers is very important. This is another important point if you want to do well in your HSC – have many and frequent discussions with these people in making your decisions, as it’s something you want to put a lot of thought into.

Have Other Outlets

Some people take the approach that if your goal is academic performance, and university entry later on, there’s no sense in spending much time outside of activities that will directly aid that task: that is, studying, receiving tutoring, doing homework, and going to class.

In my personal opinion, this is crazy. Not only will it be difficult to survive Year 12 without breaking down when the dominant use of your time is specifically orientated towards inherently isolating activities like study, you’ll also be missing out on forging and maintaining friendships and experiences that might last a lifetime.

Year 12 will always have stressful moments. But without some form of recreation, socialisation, or creative outlet, you’ll quickly find yourself without the mental tools necessary to deal with that stress in a healthy way.

For me personally, my outlets were sports and music. I rowed and played rugby, and was a pianist and pipe organist. These activities might sound like a huge time sink; yet looking back, the time I spent doing these things was absolutely critical in mentally resetting enough to be able to apply myself fully to schoolwork.

Consistency in Routine

Perhaps the most critical realisation I had in Year 12, this point is crucial to understand. Your daily routine is what provides the necessary framework to achieve your goals each day, and practising it not only builds your discipline, but gives you assurance during times of stress. Having a routine that ensures your physical and mental health is vital.

What does ‘routine’ mean here? For me, it meant waking up early each day – at around 6 AM, or earlier for training – whether or not it was a school day, holiday, or STUVAC. It meant going to sleep each night at the same time, no matter how much work was due the next day, or whether there was an exam to prepare for. It meant having the exact same ‘exam toolkit’ of pens, stopwatch, and calculator that I was familiar with, for each exam. It meant setting aside a certain amount of time each day for homework and study, regardless of whatever else was on, and building my schedule around that.

Your approach doesn’t necessarily have to look exactly like mine. What’s important is the consistency. Taking care of yourself through STUVAC in particular is crucially important, and requires a routine to put yourself in the best physical and mental state come exam time. Your body’s circadian rhythms need to be regular for you to ensure exam-day performance, and that in turn requires consistency in bed-time, waking-time, and nutrition. If you play a sport, treat preparing for an exam like preparing for a match or race – you wouldn’t stay up the night before putting in some last minute training time, because you know that your preparation is already finished and there’s nothing you can change in the next 24 hours. The same principle applies for exams.

Following a routine will not only help improve your discipline and motivation when it comes to avoiding procrastination and studying; it’ll also bring you comfort in stressful situations (think exams) when you can always fall back on your habits to calm your nerves and remind yourself how well you’ve prepared.

To Conclude

Although the HSC tries to measure intelligence as best as possible, it also measures a whole lot of other things indirectly. These things include discipline, careful preparation, the ability to perform under pressure, and the ability to stay in good physical and mental condition.

How does it measure them? Because all of these things are prerequisites for doing well in a high-stakes, standardised environment.

By paying attention to the 3 areas I outlined – the ‘HSC Game’, having outlets, and having a routine – you’ll be well on your way to reaching your potential. Remember, intelligence and hard work is only part of the equation; being clever about how you focus your efforts, how you manage stress, and how you keep yourself healthy and happy are vital to doing well in the HSC (however much it seems like purely a ‘numbers game’).

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