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Cindy’s Hacks: How I’ve learnt to fight distractions to stay ahead

Matrix Scholarship student Cindy Qin reveals how she manages to stay on top of everything in Year 11 and now her HSC. She even shares her study hacks for maths and science!

Do you struggle to stay focused? Here, Matrix Scholarship holder and North Sydney Girls’ High School student Cindy, shares how she learned to fight distractions to stay ahead and stay on top of everything for Year 11.

Cindy’s Hacks: How I’ve learnt to fight distractions to stay ahead

In this article, I’ll discuss how I fight distractions to stay ahead and share some personal study processes and tips for the subjects I am undertaking for HSC. Feel free to experiment with these methods and find your own effective study routine and method.


Me, Myself, and I

Name: Cindy Qin

School: North Sydney Girls High School

Grade: Year 11

ATAR goal: 99.5

University goal: Bachelor of Science (major: neuroscience)/Doctor of Medicine at UNSW


A little about me

I am a bit of a science geek, and I love to learn the fundamental principles that govern natural processes and make sense of the world. I am passionate about using science practically to solve problems, both in school and in my future career.

Although I abstain from humanities at school, I absolutely love history, politics, psychology, and philosophy. I watch documentaries and read on these subjects in my free time to take a break from my rigorous Science and Math classes in school. While I love engaging with social sciences and hitting off conversations about intriguing phenomena, I hate the long essays and memorisation. I also love learning about economics, stock markets, investing and financial management.


My school life

I have been studying at North Sydney Girls High School since Year 7. I must be honest and say that it’s a pressuring environment, you are constantly striving for academic validation whilst trying to balance wellbeing.

Being surrounded by equally talented and intelligent peers allows for unique bonds and friendships to form, predicated on similar values and complementary strengths. You can always count on a friend to explain something or help with a hard problem and feel accepted in the school environment.

My school was described as being “like a NSG bubble” by my teachers in the first days of Year 7. And after years at this school, it’s something I’m only just starting to appreciate. NSG is a bubble, in which the school environment is a shielded and safe place to learn about yourself and the world. This allows for people with similar aspirations to interact and motivate each other.


I am pro at:

  • Chemistry – I love Chemistry because, like all sciences, it’s an endless journey of learning and each year continuing to expand my learning. I love seeing the connections between different concepts, and especially seeing them come to life through experiments and everyday phenomena.
  • Physics – Physics is incredibly intriguing and fundamental for our understanding of ‘how things work’ and constantly challenges and extends my understanding of the physical world. It dives beyond the eyes to explore the forces underlying matter. Not to mention that dealing with ‘intangible’ concepts holds its own beauty.
  • Maths – Having a systematic approach to studying maths allows for a sense of order to undercut the chaos of life. With this subject, it helps to hold a sense of curiosity is important to extend learning and interest, rather than tirelessly doing questions for the sake of it.


I struggle with:

  • English – The complexities of writing and ambiguity of how to approach English study has always deterred me from finding interest or joy in English. It’s different from STEM subjects, where it’s a ‘one-size-fits-all’ systematic approach.Instead, English requires philosophical, analytical, and creative skills to truly excel. Often it seems that there’s no clear mark allocation, unlike maths, where I understand where I went wrong.


How I stay on top of my routine and fight those distractions

1. I don’t plan out every minute

I refrain from planning out every minute of my life since it adds additional stress for me, and guilt when I am unable to stick strictly to plan. Instead, I dedicate a set amount of time on a set day to revise and study for a set subject. I just write up a simple table with hour limits on each subject for each day and make sure to complete it before sleeping.

This includes revision, assignments, exam preparation and Matrix homework. This is of course on top of school homework and Matrix classes, which I try to either complete at school or quickly finish upon returning home. I found, this reduced exam period stress since I would have been revising the concepts constantly during the term.


2. I always try to get enough sleep

For me, it’s important to always have at least 7 hours of sleep. When I stray from this, I feel anxious and unmotivated on the next day, and unable to focus during classes. I believe it’s very important to listen and focus during class because it saves you a load of time when doing homework or revision.

I’ve been using an app called Notion, to organise my academic life. Its use is very diverse and helps to alleviate stress since it’s unlikely to forget important deadlines and work. Additionally, I use an app called minimalist, which is essentially a simple to-do list where I keep daily reminders for quick homework and tasks. (For more on the importance of sleep, read the Matrix Student Wellbeing Guide.)


3. I’m learning to make the most of my holidays

I have the tendency to procrastinate and slack off during the holidays, especially in junior years. As the content and expectations increase in senior years, a different approach is required. It’s important to recognise the importance of using holidays to your advantage, in senior years.

Holidays allow for paced and thorough learning and plenty of time to do past papers (and UCAT prep) and clear up ambiguous/weaker points of knowledge. The holiday gives you sufficient time to grind through hard questions in maths and slowly familiarise yourself with harder types of questions and sort through the content you learnt in the holidays.


4. I am realistic

Do not crowd your timetable. In the past, I’ve said to myself that I will ‘wake up at 7am’, ‘study 8hrs a day’, ‘go out for a 5-mile run’. It did not happen.

Now that I set my sleep and wake-up times – which are constant throughout the holidays (usually 12am-9am) – this helps with energy during the day, and keeps me on track. Then I purely focus on either one or at most two subjects each day.

I also plan a set number of hours each day to study, instead of a time because it provides flexibility. I will study until I feel a distinct drop in productivity, and then take a break proportional to the time that I had studied.

It sounds complex, but it helps to always maintain high efficiency when studying, which translates into more free time.


What I’ve learnt about fighting distractions

1. I procrastinate if I don’t know exactly what I need to do

In senior years, you need to balance a lot on your plate and a never-ending heap of work, but instead of doing it, I often find myself lost and end up procrastinating then not starting at all. This is especially true when it’s revision or homework that’s not urgent and no one is pushing me to do it. So, I’ve learnt to make a planned effort to achieve something.

The first step is to understand what is required to achieve what you want (i.e. Is it completing all homework? Is it extra feedback? Past papers?), doesn’t need to be perfect, keep experimenting.

Then practically plan out when to complete them. It could be completing homework and revision during the week, then spending your weekends doing past papers and assignments.


2. You will always have distractions

How you deal with these distractions, though, is what matters. If you find that you are spending too much time on your phone, leave it in another room. If you can’t seem to concentrate on boring subjects, make them interesting by asking the right questions and understanding and creating notes in an enjoyable way. Or try to study in groups or teach a friend which helps to understand rather than purely memorising.

Don’t blame yourself for occasionally straying from your plan and create small habits that improve your lifestyle.


My secrets to exam preparation

1. I am always preparing

When exams are coming up, I first get a grasp on when each exam is, and evaluate the time required for the revision of different subjects, depending on its difficulty and content weight. I try to prepare at least 2 weeks before. But I believe the best exam preparation is to always be preparing during the term. Always keep notes during the term, and before an exam, all that you need to do is more practice questions and exam papers.


2. I maximise my resources

I gather resources both from school and from Matrix Theory books, and it’s very effective as the two complement each other for a more thorough understanding.

For science subjects, I find that after understanding the concepts, it’s very important to prepare self-written notes. This is not just copying from your Matrix theory book. Let the concepts sink in your brain, then write everything you remember in an inter-connected manner and then physically see what you have learnt and identify gaps in learning.


My subject hacks

English Advanced

English has always been a weak subject of mine, and I often felt lost and unmotivated to even start studying for it. Unlike maths and science, where countless questions are just waiting to be completed. English was different, rarely were questions systematic and you could not predict what would be asked in assessments, nor how marks are allocated.

Upon starting Year 12, It dawned on me that improving my English could be crucial to improving my ATAR. So, I started English Adv courses at Matrix. The structured approach to each module helped me deal with the problems I faced at school and improve my writing. Each week there is a writing task, and the writing type depends on the focus of the lesson. This can be submitted to your class teacher, who provides feedback, which I then reflect on for constant improvement. English requires continuous effort and even so results may not be improving which is discouraging.


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How I stay organised for English

At school, all my English work and notes are compiled in OneNote, which is easy to access and summarise when it comes to exam time. For each major text, in which I am expected to produce essays I would always complete a quote, technique, analysis table on different themes and ideas. Ideally at least 3 major themes, and good quotes that can be integrated into essays. This helps for better preparation when under time pressure.

It’s very important to have a personal understanding of the text, and not just relying on Sparknotes and other resources. This way you can stand out by making unique connections between content and context and develop better flow and succinct arguments.

For assignments, always get started early. I learnt this the hard way. Give yourself time to constantly refine your ideas and build depth in your argument. Refer to the marking criteria and what you have been learning during the term and get friends to read over and give suggestions.

Year 11 quote techniques analysis table

My table of quotes, techniques and analysis. This helps me effectively integrate evidence into my essays.


Maths Extension 2

I’ll be lying if I say that Maths, especially Ext 2 is a breeze. It’s difficult, frustrating and time-consuming… yet, it makes me have a new appreciation for the art of Maths. It’s a love-hate relationship.

Having a structured approach to first learning the hard concepts in HSC Maths is crucial to developing strong connections and the ability to identify patterns in Maths questions. Then attempt many, many questions, until patterns and steps to the solution become second nature. This means that it is important to get revising early, or, at the very least, be constantly practising throughout the term.

I made the mistake of underestimating the time and effort required for Maths Ext 2 in the first term and was discouraged by the process and questioned my compatibility and abilities. But I only took the minimum of 10 units, so I couldn’t let one result jeopardise my entire maths grade.


My steps for studying Maths:

  1. Thoroughly understand concepts in class
  2. Revise the concepts immediately afterwards (lessons may be long and you may forget concepts fast)
  3. Do questions daily and spend time to understand the underlying concepts
  4. Keep a hard questions book. You can do this physically or digitally. I use one note to compile questions and organise them into topics. Then, I’ll write the solution and explanation on each page.
  5. Approaching exam time, try to complete practice papers under time pressure, ideally like actual exam conditions.
  6. Mark past papers (go through the steps and understand the difference between your answer and the sample ones)
  7. Pick out the conceptual mistakes and unattempted questions, then return to textbook exercises or questions that target them and keep repeating them. Also, add these to your mistake book.
Cindy’s HSC Year 11 High School Hacks

This is how I set out my digital notes.

To complement my Math study, I took Matrix Ext 1 and Ext 2 classes. The courses were incredibly rewarding, especially through the structured and methodical approach. Each week there is a quick quiz that helps you keep track of your learning. Using the mistakes in the quiz, I’ll go back and revise. I would compile questions to ask during workshops or my Matrix teachers.



Biology is very content heavy and requires the ability to quickly translate ideas to a variety of questions. From experience, I found it difficult to write good short answer responses because I struggled to identify the connection of the question with relevant context.

It’s tempting to type out biology notes, word for word from the textbook. This is not efficient or effective. You might feel like you understand the content but it’s hard to recall or remember any of it. I like to draw mind maps to show clear connections and flow in reasoning. I draw it up on an iPad because I can use lots of colours, add pictures and diagrams, then I would print it out to stick on the wall.

Cindy’s HSC Year 11 High School Hacks Biology notes

A snippet of my biology notes with diagrams!

I like to integrate questions into my notes, so when I look over them, I can answer them from memory and test my understanding.

Remember to regularly look over these notes, such as on your way to school. If it’s possible, you could even write flashcards for memorisation. If you prefer to take typed notes, it’s a good idea to tie them to the syllabus dot points, so you can see the connection between the two.



Gain a strong understanding of fundamental concepts in junior science and Year 11, this makes further Chemistry studies so much easier to memorise and understand.

I find Chemistry concepts simpler to understand and transferable between questions. Because of this, I advise you to focus primarily on gaining a deep conceptual understanding of what you’re doing (although you should do this for all your subjects!) because once you have this, you can apply it to a wide variety of questions. How you do this is up to you! If a certain resource doesn’t make sense to you, look for others and talk to your friends. What matters most is truly understanding the content. Everything else will follow from here.

I utilise all the resources, from both school and Matrix, and construct a personalised understanding that ties content in each module together. You are more likely to remember content if it’s interconnected. The Matrix textbooks take a structured and detailed approach, adhering to the syllabus, establishing strong fundamental ideas which aid in learning harder concepts. The concepts are clearly explained, and workbook questions are well constructed to effectively reinforce concepts.

Cindy’s HSC Year 11 High School Biology Hacks 4

My Chemistry notes incorporate information school and Matrix, so they are very comprehensive!



Physics is unique because it’s both highly theoretical and easily observable in everyday life. By engaging in everyday activities, we can observe the wonders of force, gravity, vectors, light etc. In Physics, it’s important for conceptual thinking and building branches on the fundamental principles. It’s tempting to just remember equations, but this doesn’t provide you flexibility when faced with harder questions.

The worked solutions to a wide range of question types in the Matrix workbook provides clarity to each step, so I can troubleshoot my way through harder questions. I find it effective to complete some Matrix homework immediately after the lesson, to allow the concepts to stick.

My steps for studying Physics:

  1. Understand and learn content during Matrix holiday classes (remember to make notes)
  2. During the term, topics won’t be unfamiliar and easier to keep up with the fast pace
  3. Complete homework and past papers
  4. Correct mistakes and address gaps in knowledge through teachers and workshops

How I write Physics notes:

  1. During or right after lessons, write little post-it notes of important equations or theory. Or write short questions as a prompt for revision.
  2. Purely from memory and these post-it notes, attempt to create a succinct and intertwined set of notes (including equations, concepts, questions). It’s impossible to connect or remember everything. I keep writing until I have exhausted everything. Then I know where the gaps are in my learning.
  3. Go to textbooks or Google to fill the gaps
  4. Repeated engagement
Cindy’s HSC Year 11 High School Physics Hacks 5

My sticky notes

Cindy’s HSC Year 11 High School Physics Hacks 6


My advice to future High School students

High school is an opportunity to learn more about the world and about yourself, don’t sacrifice one for another.


3 things you must do in Year 11

1. Look after yourself. Actually!

It can be tempting to treat school as your priority above all, but the truth is, this isn’t sustainable. If you don’t take care of your well-being, you won’t even be able to perform at your best. Although it might seem counterintuitive, the way to maximise your academic performance is to prioritise your own wellbeing.

2. Find your rhythm for studying.

Make sure it works for you and build upon it during Year 11, to help ease you into Year 12. Incorporate effective notetaking, practice and other methods of studying.

3. Challenge yourself.

Seek opportunities to explore different competitions, programs, leadership roles, student clubs etc. It extends your social and academic capabilities beyond the syllabus and develops interest and purpose for your studies.


3 things you must NOT do in Year 11

1. Sacrifice your friendships and personal time for studies.

Content covered in Year 11 is important but manageable. Instead of extending your study time, increase your study efficiency: refer to what I’ve learnt about fighting distractions!

2. Be unaware of the syllabus and what is required.

Keep a copy of the syllabus and tick off dot points as you understand them. Saves you time when you make your notes and makes it easier for you to study for exams.

3. Not being open to changing your study habits.

The slow approach to learning in Junior School isn’t very effective for Senior years, especially with other responsibilities and expectations. You need to develop a sustainable study rhythm to manage your time.

Written by Guest Author

We have regular contributions to our blog from our Tutor Team and high performing Matrix Students. Come back regularly for these guest posts to learn their study hacks and insights!


© Matrix Education and, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matrix Education and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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