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English 11-12

Jacky’s Hacks: How I Overcame My English Barrier To Achieve 99.70 ATAR

Jacky He went from a non-native speaker to an English Advanced gun in less than 7 years. Read this post and learn how.

Want to know how I overcame my English barrier to achieve 99.70 ATAR? Read on and I’ll explain the processes I used to build my fluency and ace English Advanced!

I came to Australia about 7 years ago. I knew very little English and often had trouble communicating with the local Australians. Now I am a student who completed the HSC with a 99.70 ATAR and 92 in English. Compared to 7 years ago, I am now much more proficient with my English expressions and my essays were often used as exemplars for my classmates to follow. Both my literary and communication competencies have significantly improved. I even represented my school in public speaking and debating competitions on multiple occasions!

To be where I am now was not easy. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. But, as long as you follow my tips below, you’ll be able to perform just as well as me – or even better – in the HSC!


1. Read, read, read!!!

This is the biggest tip I can give to anyone when it comes to improving your English skills. During my early high school years, I would train myself to read 30 pages of a novel every day and mentally summarise what I had read. This allowed me to improve my reading efficiency, so that I wouldn’t be intimidated when faced with large chunks of texts during the HSC. During years 10 – 12, I would spend 30 minutes every morning reading broadsheet newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald, or magazines such as The Economist. Benefits of this are that you can familiarise yourself with formal styles of writing meanwhile improving your literary skills of skimming and scanning. This will hugely benefit you in both essay writing and comprehension. And, of course, by reading the news you will gain more general knowledge about the world and the society.


2. Force yourself into an English-speaking environment

Looking back, in primary school I always hung out with my Chinese mates and always speaking Chinese because I had that “inherent fear” of speaking English. I would usually stick with my Chinese friends during lunch and recess and this did not benefit me with accessing the local culture or improve my English communication and literary skills. As an outcome I performed very poorly in my selective school exam.

When I attended a Catholic high school, I was forced to speak English because no one in my year spoke Chinese. It was painful at the start because I was stammering whenever I spoke. I always needed time to think about the words I was going to use before I spoke. Over time, having to speak English every day, my communication skills were gradually improving. Reading, writing and speaking English gradually became an instinct. This helped me significantly with HSC assessments that involved oral presentations. It also allowed me to complete my essays within the time limit without needing to think excessively about sentence structures and grammar.


3. Memorise vocabulary

If English is your second language and you are attempting English Advanced, then this is the tip for you. A lot of the times you’ll find that your sentences don’t have a wide variety because you keep repeating the same words over and over again – simply because you don’t know any alternatives! This was exactly my situation back in year 9. A lack of vocabulary flow in my brain stopped me from achieving the marks that I hoped to achieve.

So this is what I did: every time when I saw a word I didn’t understand, I would write it down in a small A5/A6 size notepad that roughly fit into my pocket. I would look up the English definition (note: not the Chinese definition – even though it would be easier for me) and write it down next to that word. If you keep doing this every day, you’ll soon an extensive vocabulary list. Whenever I was on a bus or a train, or waiting for a bus or train, I would take out the notepad to memorise these words and their meanings. This allowed me to utilise my otherwise wasted travel times as effective study sessions.


4. Having trouble keeping up with time limits? Try this “6 minutes” a day trick!

At the start of Year 12, I had trouble with the 40 minutes time limit for Advanced English. Like many other students, I became anxious over trying to fit large amounts of content into the limited timeframe. One thing I did to significantly improve my situation was to practise writing short paragraphs under 3 minutes to see how many words (on average) I could write per minute. I would repeat that twice a day and I would write on any random object I see and centralise the focus of my paragraph on that particular object. The recommended writing speed would be around 24 words per minute.

If you practise this every day, you will find yourself beginning to think faster, write faster and have better writing stamina. This will save you significant amount of time during HSC writing tasks, and make you less pressured when entering the 2 hour long HSC English exam.


5. Collect resources from online

For all English courses you’ll be required to read a prescribed text and write an essay on this text. Firstly, ensure you’ve read the prescribed text at least twice before you start writing anything about the text (I recommend using the holidays to read your text). But with texts such as Shakespeare, I often can’t understand it to the depth that I can analyse the author’s intentions. So I would collect resources and analytical comments from online, print them off, read through and annotate them. They would usually offer me greater insight into the contextual details that influenced the composition of the text, and how certain parts of the text echoes with the contextual values. These are details that I would have trouble knowing since I am not too familiar with the historical side of English. The Beginner’s Guide to Acing HSC English is worth checking out.


6. Adapt your memorised essay/notes to different past HSC questions

This is a very important tip. Because English is my second language, thinking in English is a little slower for me than for other students who have grown up in Australia. This is why I like to memorise a pre-written essay, walking into the exam room feeling secure, and adapt the essay to the question on the day. But this isn’t just brain-dumping. You shouldn’t just write down everything that you have memorised even though they are irrelevant to the question in the exam. You need to be selective about what you say and how you say them. There will be phrases that you need to manipulate to suit the question and quotes you need to abandon. All these can’t just be done on the day of the exam without prior preparation.

Before any assessment writing task I would always, always write at least 3 full essays under exam conditions in response to 3 different unseen questions. This will provide you with a self-examination of how you’ll go in a real exam, and identify your strengths and weaknesses in writing. It gives you a better evaluation of how much you can write in an exam. Most importantly, it allows you to have the experience of adapting your essay to a question and allows you to more skilfully adapt your essay to the real exam question.


7. Please! Plan before you write!

I have seen too many classmates and friends of mine instantly picking up a pen and start writing as soon as reading time terminates. I used to do this in year 11 but realised it was not the way to do it. You need a plan. You need to develop some good ideas that you can write a lot about. In Advanced English we have 40 minutes to write an essay. I usually take 3 minutes to brainstorm and make a good plan and develop 3 main ideas I will talk about in my essay. In ESL where you only have 30 minutes for some sections, take about 1-2 minutes to briefly think about what you need to write. All these are very essential because they provide you with a direction you can write towards sustainably. Sacrificing the 2 or 3 minutes time to develop mark-gaining ideas is much better than 2 or 3 minutes of directionless writing.


8. Some Final Words…

English is definitely the most important subject in the HSC, because it is the 2 units that will definitely contribute to your ATAR. For those whose second language is English, do not for a moment think that your English mark will definitely be worse than your classmate just because he/she is a native speaker. My final HSC English mark was able to place me equal second in the year. So never give up, always work hard, persist with my tips, have the determination to achieve, then you can achieve your ambitions – because if there’s anything I believe in, I believe that hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work as hard.


See also How I Scored An ATAR Of 99.70 – Jacky He for more of his ingenious study tips.


Want to ace English like Jackie did?

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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!


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