Physics & Maths Tips that Helped Me Score a 98.85 ATAR

Posted on December 16, 2016 by Olga Zerefos

Matrix Graduate, Calvin Xiao, achieved an ATAR of 98.85, and graduated from Sydney Boys High School. While being purely dedicated to his studies, Calvin was also a part of the Student Representative Council, and partook in volunteering throughout his schooling years. Calvin hopes to study Aeronautical Engineering with a Space Major at the University of Sydney.

Calvin’s HSC Subjects

HSC Subject Overall HSC Mark
English Advanced  91
Mathematics Extension 1 99
Mathematics Extension 2  95
Physics  93
Engineering Studies  90


HSC Experience 

Year 12 was the final stretch of my 13 years of schooling, really pushing me to my absolute limits.  I heard horrible stories from the Class of 2015 (even the brightest students of the cohort!) which made me feel extremely nervous and anxious before entering this daunting year. Hearing these stories enabled me to realise that at the end of the day we are all human and that it is all a learning experience. After-all, there is no high-tech designed robot that has been created to specifically to dux every subject.

I was determined to go all-out in my final year of school. It wasn’t a one-step process, but a long series of tiny steps towards an end goal. Motivation and discipline were key.

Yes, it was a struggle. Yes, there were moments where I so badly wanted to give up. However, putting myself in a good learning environment and picking subjects I enjoyed made my final year of school one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.


Calvin’s Top Tips 

 1. Know everything 

It sounds ridiculous, but every subject has a rubric or a syllabus, and everything can, and most likely will, be tested. Make notes (I highly recommend this), or use somebody else’s if you must, that you can learn from and will teach you the entirety of the subject. There are only so many questions that they can ask, and if you know all the theory then you can answer all the questions. I know, it seems difficult and really tedious, but it’s better than going into an exam losing an automatic five or so marks, just because you couldn’t be bothered learning a dot point.


2. Confidence

Sitting exams is not just about knowing the content well. It’s important to keep a good mentality and maintain confidence in your own abilities throughout your HSC year. I have seen too many people write themselves off right outside the exam room: “Oh I’m going to fail… I’m so screwed… I don’t know anything.” That’s just setting yourself up to fail. Walking into your exams expecting to not do well is the worst thing you can do.

Of course, it’s natural to feel nervous – everyone does. But instead of letting your nerves take over, try combat them and calm yourself down. If exams have given you the jitters, take a few deep breaths outside the exam room, as well as right before reading time begins, to help you focus and stay self-assured.

Being confident, in a humble way, both in and outside of school will do wonders for your psyche, and can translate directly into your marks.


3. Exam Techniques (Maths and Physics) 

You’ve made it into the exam. What do you do now? Most students will spend their reading time going through and doing as many multiple-choice answers in their head. Once writing starts, they’ll do the rest of the test in order, front to back. But is that really the most optimal method?


  • Maths

Since I did Extension 2 Maths, these tips will mostly apply to Extension 1 and Extension 2 students.

While not exam technique per se, learn from your past papers. At this point in time, you should be well aware of your strengths and weaknesses in each subject, and you should know which topics you need to spend more time on. Spend more time than you normally would (perhaps 1-2 minutes), and sacrifice time from questions you are strong at. Remember, it’s a better use of your time to try squeeze out a few extra marks from the difficult questions, than to triple check marks you’re going to get anyway.

Don’t underestimate multiple-choice. Due to its nature, it will be “easier” than the long-answer section. For this reason, your school or the Board of Studies may choose to amp up the difficulty of the multiple-choice section, but the questions will remain at one mark each. So instead of completing the test in chronological order, I suggest you do questions 11-12 (and 13 if you do 4 unit) BEFORE the multiple-choice. Question 11 is usually “standardised”, where the types of questions asked will rarely vary from year to year, and thus can serve as a warm-up for your brain before you get to the harder questions 13-14 (14-16 if you do 4 unit).

Do the Circle Geometry question during reading time. Most of the harder Circle Geometry questions require you to “see” the solution, and there’s no real step-by-step formula you can use to solve.

Finally, and this might seem blindingly obvious, but ATTEMPT EVERY QUESTION. Before every Maths exam, one of my teachers would constantly say, “You don’t need to give marks back to us, we don’t want them”. Despite the difficulty of the question, I highly recommend that you have the mentality to at least write something down to get a mark.


  • Physics

Like in Maths, the multiple-choice in Physics is difficult, and is designed to trick you and take away cheap marks. Be extra careful with the wording of every question and sometimes even each potential answer. If there is a question with potentially two correct answers, pick one and come back to it later; if you run out of time at least you have an answer down.

In calculation questions, write down all your known values at the top, always start with a formula and never skip steps. Sometimes this means writing down some extremely obvious steps, but the few seconds wasted is not worth the risk. This is to make sure your marker can follow your working, and can’t weasel you out of some marks. Your working should be airtight, just like in Maths.

In the long response, again, be especially picky with the wording of the question. Highlight key words/phrases, and the verb (outline, explain, justify, etc). This is especially important in the 4+ markers.

Plan your response. Really think about what the question is asking – remember the key words and don’t just regurgitate a rote learned response to a vaguely similar question. Try to think how each mark is allocated. The BOSTES website has all the past HSC papers, as well as marking criteria – these can give you an understanding of what is required in your answers.

In any “high-difficulty verb” questions (eg explain, justify), start with a high modality statement (do not use words such as “maybe” or “sometimes” – you must be certain) that answers the question, and then explain your response. Try to start your explanation with a known Law or mathematical formula, and build your response from there. Get the marker to follow your train of thought, and get them to understand how you came to your conclusion. Throughout your response, include more Laws and formulas to strengthen your argument.

My Final Top Tip

My word of wisdom from this entire experience is not to give up on the 99.95 dream. If you set your heart and mind to a goal, you can achieve it!


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