In this post, Stephanie Tam shares the tips that helped her make the HSC All-Rounders and Distinguished Achievers lists.
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.
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.
1st in course for Music 2 and Music Extension
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Mathematics Extension 1
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 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:
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?
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?
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 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.
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.