Stephanie’s Hacks: Conquering Self-Doubt and Scoring 99.85

In this post, Stephanie Tam shares the tips that helped her make the HSC All-Rounders and Distinguished Achievers lists.

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Stephanies ATAR Hacks

Matrix Graduate Stephanie scored an ATAR of 99.85. In this post, Stephanie shares her ATAR Hacks and how she overcame self-doubt to be first in course for Music 2 and Music Extension, and make the HSC All Rounders and Distinguished Achievers list.


Me, myself and I

My name is Stephanie Tam, and I studied at Abbotsleigh. I would like to study Medicine at university and specialise in trauma surgery, one day.


My HSC results

ATAR: 99.85

1st in course for Music 2 and Music Extension

All Rounders

Distinguished achievers

HSC Results
SubjectsAssessments MarkHSC Exam MarkHSC MarkPerformance Band
Mathematics Extension 1
Music 2
Music Extension

Even though my best result was music, I think I performed the best in Maths because I wasn’t expecting to get such a good mark.

I enjoy Maths because I really love to solve complex problems, and the opportunity to do so motivates me to push myself, in order to uncover the extent of my abilities. I like how a Maths question can incorporate a multitude of topics into one complex question, and that I get to utilise many parts of my knowledge to come up with a solution. Most people don’t realise this, but Maths requires a lot a creativity, which is a strength of mine (hence the music results). This means students have the opportunity to pick a method of approaching the problem which suits them best, rather than just learning a straightforward approach.

I went into my Maths exams with a relaxed mindset and made sure to NOT look at my notes because at that stage it was too late to study for anything anyway. Listening to your favourite music and clearing your mind is much better just before a 2-3 hour long exam!

I performed the worst in English because I didn’t particularly enjoy the subject, and kept putting off studying for English during the HSC year.

I’m not saying English is a bad subject! I have a lot of respect for those who are able to uncover the complex philosophical ideas behind texts, however, I personally enjoy subjects which allow me to solve problems logically. Also, a hand cramp is not a good feeling!

I think I wasn’t in the right mindset before my English exam, since it was the very first one, and after seeing the texts, I was too nervous to keep a clear mind. For English, I would definitely advise students to always focus on what they can actually understand (such as a line in a poem that makes sense to them), and they’ll find that the analysis will fall in place naturally.

Fancy techniques and abstract ideas do not necessarily mean good marks!


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My #1 problem in Year 11 and 12

My number one problem was always thinking that I wasn’t good enough to accomplish certain things. I started off in year 12 thinking a 99 ATAR was impossible for me, and as I heard stories about all these amazing students getting incredible results, my self-esteem gradually lowered…and lowered…and lowered some more. As a result, I had no motivation to work hard because “What’s the point?”. My term one results were atrocious – by the way – which didn’t help.

I began to overcome my problem in term 2 when I realised the HSC isn’t just a measure of someone’s intelligence, but also a race for the most resilient, hardworking, and motivated individuals. Even Einstein said, “Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work”. I can feel a lot of students rolling their eyes at me right now, and yes, I would have rolled my eyes a year ago.

So I told myself, “HSC exams aren’t designed to be impossible, only difficult. If [someone I know] can do well, why can’t I?”

Here’s a few tips to keep students motivated to push themselves to their absolute limit:


1. Set an almost-but-not-quite-impossible goal that you desperately want to achieve

For me, that was getting into medicine. I’m extremely passionate about becoming a surgeon, so it was a suitable goal for me. This was hard enough to make me sweat every time I thought about it, but technically not impossible. Every time I wanted to give up on study and just watch some TV, I’d remind myself of my goal, and 1 year of pain could result in a lifetime of fulfilment. So the question is, is your goal worth 1 year of hard work?


2. Set a timetable, and don’t you dare stray from it

Setting a timetable is easy. Everyone talks about it, everyone writes one, but you’d be surprised how many people give up on it after a week. I was realistic with my timetable, which included plenty of breaks and absolutely NO studying after 10pm, to ensure I would not burn out during the long marathon of HSC. I’m not going to include mine here, since I don’t want to recommend something that may not be the best for each student.

Additionally, be specific! English time is for English time only, so on and so forth. If you leave a space blank for “whatever I need to do that day”, that means you’ll waste precious time thinking about it. The key thing to remember is this: if you have a reason to stray from your study schedule once, you’ll find a reason to stray from it a second time. So how are you different from the 99% of students who cannot achieve your goal?


3. Don’t study too hard (cue gasps everywhere)

During my HSC year, my friends would tell me how they stayed up studying til 3am before an exam. I always thought they were so cool because I couldn’t stay up til 3am even if I had 10 pots of coffee. Then I felt pressured to also stay up ridiculously late to do complete an entire Maths chapter. Obviously, that’s how you get a 99.95 right? No! I promise, no one needs that much study!

It’s much better to study when you’re wide awake, then relax afterwards, so you can reset yourself for another day of success. I studied for no more than 5 hours on a school night (including cello practice), and when there was no school, I studied no more than 10 hours.


My study/exam strategies

My pre-exam ritual consists of a good, hearty breakfast, listening to music, and getting a big hug from my mum.

I know how easy it is to get a bad case of the jitters before a test: continuously looking over your notes trying to retain content whilst you’re in the middle of a noisy hallway, leads to focusing on silly things like what Mum is cooking for dinner.

I liked to distance myself from the world in this case, by listening to music. Being the music nerd that I am, I love Classical music since focusing on individual instrumental parts helps take my mind off the stress. And since I’m so busy trying to figure out what the notes are (again, nerd) suddenly, I’m not nervous anymore.

I don’t try to cram anything last minute, because everything I know is already stored somewhere in my brain, and if I need it, it will pop out naturally. Same goes for anyone who’s reading this! Try to find a pre-exam ritual that works for you. It’s so important to walk into an exam with the mindset of attempting each question to the best of your abilities, rather than aiming to get a certain mark. And most importantly, you’re doing the HSC for YOU only, not because you want to please your parents or impress your peers.

For study, the biggest challenge was staying focused. I’m not one of those popular kids who gets a billion texts a day (did I mention I was a nerd?) but STILL I would get distracted by random things on my phone. So I downloaded this app called “Forest” that forces you to not use your phone for a set period of time. The best thing is, every time you manage to stay away from your phone, a real tree is planted somewhere in the world.

My best studying strategy is to write down a summary for each topic for whatever subject I’m studying.

Writing is 10 times better than typing! Even better if you can draw mind-maps and diagrams.

I wish I could tell you the number of times I visualised my chemistry notes during an exam and remembered them in perfect detail. This is truly a lifesaver. Speaking of note taking, I want to mention that taking the time to make pretty, neat and colourful notes isn’t necessary! Nothing against those who like pretty notes though – whatever works for you! My notes were always just a page of black scrawled all over it because at the end of the day, it’s what you know that’s important.

My last tip is to do heaps of past papers and exam-style questions. You could know your syllabus back to back, but if a slightly different HSC question pops up, you may have no idea how to approach it! Like with anything else in the world, practice makes perfect. I always found that diving straight into past paper questions helped me learn so so so much better than just going over my notes. Because from those, I could see what I didn’t know, what I could improve on, and what I feel comfortable with. From there, I would pick out my least comfortable topics and focus on those instead. And be sure to go over the model answers to really get an idea of what the markers want to see.


My regrets

Academically, I would have liked to be more proactive with my learning. I felt a bit awkward asking my teachers for help outside of class time, but I realise that my teachers only want the very best for me and will happily give up their free time to offer help. Having one-on-one time definitely would have helped me improve a lot quicker since I could focus on my weaknesses.

To be specific, my ideas for English could be described as a big bundle of confusion. I think if I took the time to talk through my ideas with my teacher, she could have helped me organise and pick out my ideas in order to pump out the most effective essay. I would also have liked to be better prepared for English. I must admit I only did the bare minimum for English, whilst putting a lot of time into Maths and chemistry, which in hindsight was not wise. English is the only subject that must count, so it would have been in my best interests to do better in English.

My biggest regret is not “living my fullest life” during HSC. Year 12 is truly the best and worst year of your life. In order to aim for my goals, I dropped out of a fantastic music program outside of school in order to focus on study, and I stopped playing sports so I would have the time to practice the cello. (For all you musicians who play contact sports, that’s a different story. Protect those fingers!!!).

Study is important, but as I mentioned before, no one needs THAT much study.


My advice to future Year 12 Students

You must do these three things:

  1. Recognise what’s important to you
    There’s bound to be a time where something will clash with your allocated study time. This is where you need to sort out your priorities, and really think about what is worth throwing away an opportunity for you to get a better result. A big event that will be a lot of fun, or a lifetime of doing a career you truly love? Your choice.
  2. Be confident!
    This is true for all students, but especially true for us who do performing arts. Chances are, the examiners have never heard of the piece you’re playing or the play you’re acting out. Just own it, and be convincing so you can capture their attention. If you make a mistake, don’t react (give your best poker face), and they might not even notice! Same goes for essay writing. Even if you have no clue what you’re talking about (which I hope won’t happen), still put up a piece of work that’s convincing and has a strong voice.
  3. Stay healthy
    Eat plenty of nutritious foods such as nuts (almonds worked wonders for my brain power), fruit, veggies and rice. I often feel a bit peckish when studying, but eating too much junk food makes me feel sluggish and sleepy, which isn’t great if you’re trying to do Mathematics problems! Roasted almonds are your friends. Additionally, always have a glass of water by your side. One of the side effects of dehydration is headaches, and while you may think it’s because of studying too hard, it’s probably because you need water. Snacks I recommend, for you to eat and write at the same time: Roasted almonds / Roasted chickpeas / Any kind of fruit (grapes are my fave) / Carrots and dip / Those cute mini sushi rolls / Tea or coffee in moderation (don’t be the person who chugs 5 cups of coffee a day, it doesn’t help).
  4. Set mini goals throughout the year
    That way, you’re working your way up the ladder gradually, and each goal won’t seem too daunting.
  5. Thank everyone who has helped you with your journey
    This is pretty self-explanatory, but probably the most important of all. Your teachers and families have sacrificed so much to get you to where you are today and will continue to do so during Year 12. Make sure they know how much you appreciate them!

You must never do these three things:

  1. Don’t let anyone tell you what’s best for you
    Only you know what you need in this year of hardship. I was very confident about which 10 units would count for my HSC, so I insisted on dropping to 10 units only. Every single person (family and teachers) fought so hard to tell me what a stupid decision it was, and that I was jeopardising my future. But I fought so hard to convince everyone that I knew what I was doing, and at the end, the school finally let me do 10 units. And that turned out pretty nicely! For you guys, it may relate to subject choices, the number of units, or choices in relation to your major works. Definitely take your teacher’s advice, but at the end of the day, you gotta take your future into your own hands.
  2. Don’t let a bad result define you
    This is so cliche, and everyone says it. Your HSC is a combination of many many marks that you will get throughout the year, so one bad mark only counts for a small percentage of your overall result! Instead of dwelling on your mistake, take the opportunity to make sure you don’t make the same mistake in your final HSC exam. If I told you how many internal exams I stuffed up, you’d probably laugh.
  3. Don’t compare yourself to others
    We all know that one student who’s amazing at everything and doesn’t seem to break a sweat even when smashing through a 4U Maths paper in an hour. That student is probably admiring at something you can do that they can’t. Just do your very best, and aim to beat only yourself in each exam, and that will be enough. Truly.


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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