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Justin’s Hacks: The 3 Steps I Used to Improve My Science Marks

In his High School hacks post, Matrix Scholarship student Justin Kim shares how he turned his science marks around.

After some lacklustre results, I changed things up. Here are the 3 steps I used to improve my science marks.


Me, myself and I


Justin Kim



Knox Grammar School


About me

I am Justin, year 12 at Knox. I enjoy maths and track and field.


University Course Goal

Something in Medicine or Health





Dream Career

I originally had my eyes on actuarial studies and quantitative trading, but since I know very little about these fields I didn’t put much effort into considering these as definite career paths.

As of now, something along in the medical fields seems to be where I’m leaning towards most. This is because I’m enjoying the content in my science subjects and I’ve spent a year volunteering at the Sydney Adventist Hospital.

My HSC Subjects

  • I’ve just finished Accelerated Mathematics Advanced
  • English advanced
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Maths Extension 1 & 2

Just coming out of my yearly block, the subject I performed best in was English Advanced:

Specifically, I aced the analytical essay. This mainly stemmed from working collaboratively and drilling my very accommodating teacher with questions regarding my weaknesses and how to fix them.

Studying with my peers, I was provided with criticism and feedback which improved my writing and allowed me to stay on path with what the criteria asked for, such as keeping my essay writing concise.


The subject I performed worst in was Chemistry:

This is because I did not invest enough time in learning the content thoroughly.

This became clear in the areas where I lost marks. I lost a mark in each of my multiple-choice questions as my explanations did not hit the sophisticated or extensive response band I was after.

In hindsight, my main focus would be on practising past HSC questions and asking the teacher to provide feedback on my answers. I know this will help me hit the top band for my response


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My number 1 Problem: Not having an extensive understanding of my science subjects

All the sciences require an in-depth response with a structure very similar to a math proof question. This is especially true of questions that rely heavily on the NESA key directive verbs.  So, in order to achieve full marks on each question, you must write an extensive response that clearly demonstrates an understanding of the question.

This was where I was losing marks (and I can tell you that a mark here and there quickly adds up!) and, ultimately, it demonstrated my lack of thorough understanding of both the concepts and the questions.

Often, I did not make relevant reference to the stimulus and lost 1 mark (scoring 4 out of 5), which made me realise that I had to focus on being meticulous!



The 3 steps I used to improve my science marks

The markers will be pedantic and will always be looking for the clear link that directly answers the question. Thus, in order to show the markers that I clearly understood the question, I started following this step-by-step process:


Step 1: Familiarise yourself with definitions

Familiarise yourself with the definitions of each of NESA’s glossary of keywords! This was the most fundamental skill I learned through my mistakes!

Learn how to answer the different types of questions the keywords dictate. For example, an “Explain” question will require you to link cause and effect.

You do not want to beat about the bush: be concise and directly answer the question.

This is what markers want to see – whether you have made that link or not.

Here is how I structured my glossary of terms:

Steps I Used to Improve My Science Marks image of his glossary of terms

Image: Justin’s glossary of terms

Step 2: Do practice questions

Start doing practice questions. Now!

Answer questions and practice this being concise. For example, if you have an “Explain” questions use subheadings as you explain cause and effect to provide structure and clarity for your marker. Headings make it easy for the markers to know what your answer is!

The last thing you want is for the marker to not know how to orientate themselves in your response, thus, leading them to not give you the marks that you deserve.

It sounds obvious, but your marks are determined by the markers. In the HSC, you cannot approach the individual markers and ask for a re-mark – it’s a complicated and risky process (you may lose marks!).

So, practice answering questions clearly and taking note of the NESA key verb used. Make sure you check the marking guidelines and determine whether you have answered each point.

Do not be nice when you mark your answers, you’re only cheating yourself. If you’re uncertain whether you should get the mark, think from the perspective of the marker: would a marker who has to mark thousands of papers read this and think it is as good as or better than all the others?

Here is an example of how I structured an “explain” response (red pen being feedback):

Justin's steps I used to improve my science marks an image of how he answers explain questions

Example of one of Justin’s “Explain” questions


Step 3: Ask, compare, improve

These are three commandments you must follow! Ask! Compare! Improve!

Ask the teacher for feedback. Ask them to mark your practice responses. And ask them if you hit all the criteria points.

Your teachers (be it Matrix or school) are your most important go-to people. They know the course the most and have already taught many previous year 12 students.


Compare your answers to your peers, or if available, a sample exemplar answer. A handy tip is to take a good detailed look at the HSC marking guidelines and follow or adapt them to your questions.

Do not be shy in sharing your answers with peers!

Most likely they will find flaws or areas of improvement that you could not notice! Similarly, have a quid pro quo and look at their answers.

Read their responses and pinpoint areas they must also improve in, this will, in turn, benefit your own understanding of the concept/question as you will come to realise the common mistakes and improve your own answer.


Finally, improve! Revise and improve your answers.

There is no point in getting feedback and not applying it. You will not learn just from hearing someone’s feedback.

You must apply it to your own work and improve your answer until you feel confident that you can get full marks.

This is your most important step to ensure you do not miss out on those extra marks that differentiate your response from a mid-tier response to a band 6 response.


How I balanced my term and holiday study courses

If you are contemplating enrolling in a term/holiday course, I would ask yourself: how competitive are you in your respective subjects? If you are aiming for a strong lead on your class, then a holiday course is essential. This is what I did, I did the holiday courses for Physics and Maths Ext 2.

This will provide you with an invaluable advantage against other students as you will already be revising your topics while others are still learning!

Thus, you can revise for 7 weeks up until your exam, honing not only your understanding of the concept but also your exam skills.

For term course, this will be best if you are more suited to learning consistently and alongside with your classwork. The biggest advantage of this is that you will strengthen your understanding at a steady pace, so you will not fall behind in any concepts and will continuing refining your skills up to the exam date.

At first, I felt the Matrix term courses for some of the topics were a bit slow paced. So, I’d often work ahead, but this was mainly due to the topics that were taught. Afterwards, I made my choice based on the topics I was learning.

So, if it’s something you’re struggling in, go for the term course. If it’s something that you’re confident in, go for the holiday course.

The Matrix Holiday Course pace is much faster. But, also, do NOT let this become an excuse to be lazy and let the other students catch up.

Trust me, I am saying this from experience…

In addition, since you will also be meeting with your tutor and peers daily, you will create a stronger relationship and atmosphere. I enjoyed great communication and a collaborative working environment.


My Study and Exam Strategies

My most effective strategy for preparing for my yearly exams was studying collaboratively.

I only studied in a group of 2-3 thus reducing the chances of procrastinating. I used this as my way of working on my weaknesses, particularly being concise and having a clear structure in my English essays.

Not only would I be getting feedback continuously, but we would also be working towards a common goal: motivating one another. Thus, using each other’s areas of strength to better our own knowledge of the subject. This, however, does not mean that you can neglect individual studying.

It’s important to have that balance between relying on your peers and refining your independent skills. So, I always tried to get the most out of both strategies.


My Regrets

If I were to start the year again, I would make sure that I have learned all the necessary content required 2 weeks prior to the actual exam! This would have helped me a lot with managing my time since my yearlies clashed with my sporting commitments. I ended up having to juggle training along with my studies.

If I were to know all the content beforehand, I would be able to use my time with a stronger sense of what areas I needed to focus while more effectively maintaining my wellbeing.


My advice to future Year 12 students

You must do these three things:

  1. Prepare early:  Your best advantage is time. If you study early, you will be prepared and much less stressed when your yearly exams are closing in.
  2. Ask year 12s, get advice: The best advice you will be getting is from people that have already experienced the same situation you are about to go in. Talk to year 12’s and learn from their advice. Learn from their mistakes and do what they thought was most effective.
  3. Collaborate with your peers and teachers: Humans are wired to learn collaborative (something called social learning theory) take advantage of this so you can improve yourself at a much faster rate. Use the resources around you!

You must never do these three things:

  1. Not seek help: Not getting help from teachers/peers will make you plateau, since you will not know where to improve. Always seek help to make sure you thoroughly understand your subjects.
  2. Only study: The last thing you want to do is only study and burn out. Set some time to socialise and keep yourself physically healthy. You do not want to go into an exam fried.
  3. Invest into a new video game: It is ok if you have been playing an existing game previously since it will be easier to moderate. However, if you get invested in a new game, the early stages will make you addicted, thus, diverting your focus away from studying effectively and performing at your best. Try your best not to get addicted before your yearlies, save it for the holidays!


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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