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Karen’s Hacks: How I Scored An ATAR of 99.95

Karen achieved Dux of her school and 4 state rankings in English Advanced, English Extension 1, Classical Greek Continuers and Classical Greek Extension. In this post, she shares her study hacks.

2015 Matrix Graduate, Karen Zhang, achieved an ATAR of 99.95 and graduated from Pymble Ladies College. She will be commencing a Bachelor of Jurisprudence at Oxford University later this year!

Karen’s HSC subjects

HSC Subject
English Advanced
English Extension 1
Mathematics Extension 1
Mathematics Extension 2
Classical Greek Continuers
Classical Greek Extension

I think most students agree that the biggest challenge of the HSC year is time: each assessment and its lead up always seem too short, yet paradoxically, in the midst of it all, the year itself stretches out endlessly into the horizon. Because of my duties as Captain of Community Service and my preparation for the Oxford University entrance process, I was particularly aware of my time constraints, and so I did what I would recommend to each Year 12 student: I planned early. Through Matrix’s generous Scholarship program, I accelerated most of my school subjects, so during Year 12 I was only attending Trial and HSC Preparation courses, and perhaps the odd Mathematics Extension 2 class to consolidate a difficult topic. My term time was always packed with community service meetings, planning and initiatives, so taking Matrix classes during the holiday time was a huge timesaver.


Karen’s top tips

Prepare for every subject

Your ATAR is calculated from the results of 10 course units and at least four subjects, so even if you excel in one, two or even three subjects, you won’t receive your best ATAR unless you work equally hard in each of your courses. This applies to subjects within the course, too. In Chemistry, I loved the Industrial Chemistry topic and studied it thoroughly, but neglected other, less appealing content. Each topic is equally weighted, so while I may have excelled in one quarter of the paper, my overall mark was dragged down. Remember to cover your bases!


Study a range of courses; even if you love science, take a humanities subject so your studying doesn’t get too repetitive. I found that my study of Classical Greek provided the perfect counterpoint to the tedious drilling required of Maths and Chemistry.

But maintaining a balance isn’t just about remaining sane: in Years 11 and 12 the boundaries between subjects become less and less distinct, and I found that the logical thinking skills required in Maths evolved into a highly structured English essay structure, which in turn fostered a stronger analysis and appreciation of my Classical Greek texts.

Teach someone and learn from someone

You’ve heard it all before, but the best way to learn is indisputably in teaching others. As well as consolidating content, you learn to explain concepts in a clearer manner, and are exposed to different approaches to a question. This applies to studying in a group too! Studying together, asking each other questions and splitting up the workload is an effective and fun way to learn, especially with science subjects where making notes on each syllabus dot point can be a daunting and tedious task.


In saying all this, it’s incredibly important to maintain some sort of balance. It’s okay to reward yourself with a stroke, a game of Tetris, or half a pack of popcorn every time you write a really good sentence.


Karen’s Chemistry tips

Know the syllabus 

The Chemistry course comes with a well-defined syllabus of dot points that form the parameters of the HSC examinations. Make sure you have a concise set of notes that outlines an in-depth understanding of each dot point.

Form a study group

I recommend forming a small study group, where each member contributes a detailed summary of each topic. In this way, everyone has the same in-depth notes. Each member can then alter the notes to create their own individual syllabus summaries.

Use past papers strategically

The next step is to practice applying your knowledge to HSC questions by completing some past papers. Decide how many past papers you aim to attempt, and work through three quarters of them with your notes beside you. This way you can distinguish the concepts you need to improve on. The last few papers should be taken under exam conditions, without notes, and marked strictly.

Karen’s Maths tips

More past papers!

The key to success in Maths is a strong foundation, and the way to build one is to apply yourself to your text books throughout your junior high school years. Working through your textbook questions each year will give you a strong understanding of the principles of mathematics. However, once you reach Year 11 and 12, meticulously working through textbooks is impractical, and very often unproductive. As with Chemistry, I decided that the best way to study senior level Mathematics was through past papers. In the lead up to HSC I worked through one past paper every morning, and if I noticed a persistent error I would revise the topic or concept in question.

Karen’s English tips

Know your texts deeply

My first tip is to know your texts. This can be broken down into 3 steps: Read your text, Read the critics and Evaluate. You need to read your text thoroughly and critically to get a holistic understanding of the text. Read as much critical material as you can, especially in Module B. When studying a Shakespeare play, watch critically accepted adaptations. This will give you a better understand of that time period and a deeper appreciation and enjoyment of the text. Be sure to check with your teacher which adaptations are best. Finally, you need to evaluate everything that you’ve learnt from reading to form your own unique conclusion.

Consult the rubric

My second tip is to prepare for all aspects of the course. If you don’t address a critical aspect of the text or component of the question, you can’t compensate for the lost marks with sophisticated analysis or e language. Make sure you address the text holistically by addressing major themes and taking quotations from throughout the text. When in doubt, turn to the rubric. You can only be tested on rubric points, so if you’ve considered each and every point, you’ve effectively covered your exam requirements.

Have your draft essays marked 

My third tip is to develop a clear essay structure and practice thesis statements. Make sure you continually hand in draft essays to your school teacher as they best understand your school’s assessment criteria, and are therefore in a position to give you the most constructive and relative feedback. Towards the HSC, have someone who has marked the HSC previously (such as Matrix teachers) to help you further perfect your essays.

Now all that’s left is to have a good night’s sleep and a decent meal, and you’ll find that luck will come your way. So all the best for the journey ahead, and to paraphrase Miley Cyrus’ song, it’s not about how fast you get there, or what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the climb.



Want to Ace your HSC Like Karen?

Get ahead of your peers with Year 12 Holiday Course. With advanced completion of contents before it’s taught at school, you’ll be better prepared for your school assessments. Learn more about Year 12 Holiday Courses.

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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