Failed your HSC Trials? Our top 10 tips to turn things around

There’s a reason they’re called ‘The Trials’. They may be a practice round but they’re also harder than anything else you’ll do at school. If your HSC Trials didn’t quite go to plan, here’s how to fix things in time.

Top tips for turning test results around
Casey Standen Wednesday, 4 September 2019
When it comes to the Big Finale, you’ll be looking back on your completed learning, with no assessments or major projects left and, hopefully, very few life distractions. You’ll also have solidarity and support across the state because all the exams happen at the same time. Spring will be in the air, the jacaranda trees will be out, and the countdowns, calendars and note-recycling parties will be edging closer and closer to their satisfying conclusions. Not so the Trials. It’s the worst part of winter. It’s literally the darkest time of the year. The exams sneak up on you when you’re not quite finished the relevant units in class and when your major works are demanding your full attention. Frankly, you just hadn’t realised your HSC year would move so quickly. We get it. We’ve all been there (seriously, NSW has been putting us through this system since 1967). But how does that help? You’re still unhappy with your marks whether the rest of us suffered alike or not. You feel like a failure and there’s only so many times you can seek comfort in J.K. Rowling’s fabulous Ted Talk. The thing is, now you’ve got two or three months to turn things around. Take a few minutes to wallow in the frustration and disappointment of not meeting your goals, then stand up like a superhero, lift your chin to the sky and get to it!
  1. Work smarter not harder

Resolving to do nothing but study until the final exams is noble but misguided. You will break yourself, annoy or worry everyone around you and that’s not necessary or helpful. You won’t want to, but step one is to analyse your trial papers. Find out what worked for you (because those things you can stop worrying about). Find out what definitely didn’t (hint: teachers know when you make up your sources). Finally, learn what almost worked (there’s a reason teachers write all those pesky notes on your work – read them!). 
If it’s not clear from your trial papers what’s going on, do some practice papers and ask your teachers to mark them, too. If there’s a big difference in the marks you’re getting and you’re baffled, odds are your exam technique is off. You might know your stuff, but the anxiety of exam day gets the better of you. Maybe you froze up or freaked out, ran out of time to write in your normal style, cut corners or missed opportunities to show the depth of your understanding. Knowledge is power, so use it! Work to target your study to hone your exam technique as well as mastering the content. You can’t do it alone. Get some help with your action plan moving forward. If you need exam coaching, ask an older friend to give you some pointers and to keep you honest on your progress. If you just can’t wrap your head around torque, ask your physics teacher to explain it until you get it. Find a buddy to practice your languages with, read the text book you’ve been ignoring, join a study group or seek tuition in a format that works for you (online, live, group, at a centre, in your home, at your school). You are not alone, so use the help that is available!
  1. Invest time and energy into your networks

Your HSC is not just about you. Not only are your books, struggles and victories all over the family dining table, the people on your team are heavily invested in your success. They care, so tell them what’s going on. Not happy with your marks? Tell someone. Scared about the final exams? Tell someone. Questioning your ability to handle the HSC at all? Tell someone. The people around you want to help, know you better than anyone else, and are generally pretty chuffed when you confide in them. Use them now to help carry the emotional load of the HSC. You might just learn some new coping strategies, deepen a friendship or find a chance to say thank you to the people who cheer you on every day.
  1. Re-visit your goals

Why are you doing the HSC at all? That’s a dangerous question but worth thinking about. Are you one of the lucky few who know they’ll be a barrister by 30? Or are you hoping to make it to barista by 20 while you wait for the lightning bolt of direction in life? Are you trying to keep your parents happy? Or get into the army? Or has The Good Place inspired you to become a moral philosophy professor and travel the world? Whatever it is, now is the time to use your goal to motivate yourself. 
But what then? Make your goals smart. Literally, make them Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. Declaring you’re going to jump three performance bands by working 14 hours a day isn’t a SMART goal because it’s not realistic or achievable in ordinary circumstances. Raising your marks by 2% every time you do a practice paper, however, is SMART. Telling yourself to ‘do better’ isn’t specific, measurable or helpful so please stop mentally beating yourself up. It’s wearing us all out.
  1. Look after yourself

On the topic of not beating yourself up, if your body’s not on side, your brain and writing hand won’t perform the way you want them to. Stay hydrated, keep moving and please eat some vegetables. Yes, nutrition matters two months out, not just the night before.
 Caffeine is a friend to be careful with. Pay attention to when you find yourself wanting a cup. You might just want the comfort of a warm drink and herbal tea, warm milk with honey or warm water may do the trick. Coffee, black tea and hot chocolate will stimulate your brain to get work done, but they can also stimulate anxiety, and keep you awake worrying. Invest in decaf if you need a taste of coffee after lunch (that’s what the red Nespresso pods in the welcome pack are). 
Looking after yourself means looking after your brain, too. Add some self-care moments to your to-do list, henny! A ten-minute walk around the block, colouring in, having a bath, making something, or researching your gap year helps your brain perform better.
  1. Track and hack your time

Once you’ve got a plan, you’re looking after yourself and your goals are clear again, track your time for a day or two. How much time are you losing to scrolling? How much to YouTube videos? How much time is genuine, productive study? 
Once you can see where your attention goes in the day, hack it. Spending 30 mins on YouTube could become 10 minutes of targeted YouTube (bookmark some videos so your time is uplifting but also controlled) and 20 minutes of memorising quotes for English. Two episodes of Rick and Morty could become one episode and a quick Section 2 practice of whatever maths paper you’re attempting. You get the idea.
You can’t hack your time until you’ve tracked it, so start today.
  1. Timetable your life

You’ve been used to timetables for the past 13 years. They’ve scheduled your lunch, sport, learning, assessments and relaxation time. Keep using that structure once you’re on your own. Without the school bell, it’s easy to get lost in the woods of Netflix, brunch time and multi-hour naps. You need this time to work for you so keep yourself organised, accountable and in the moment. 
Follow in President Obama’s footsteps and cut the unproductive decision-making time! A timetable lets you know what you could and should be doing at any given moment. By filling one in, you’re making hundreds of hours’ worth of decisions in a few minutes.
  1. Team up with your peers

Once ranks are set in the Trials, the HSC truly does become a team game. Share essays, keep each other accountable and look after each other. Yes, our school and university system is a competitive race to the top where the Hunger Games meets The Bachelor and only a few young witches and wizards will get into law and medicine in the first round of offers. So what? You’ve been friends and colleagues for years now. Take a minute, ask how your peers are going, listen to them and be honest in return if you want their help and support. 
The friendships forged in the lead up to the HSC will serve you for the rest of your life. Do not waste this time on petty rivalries.
  1. Teach someone else

One of the most efficient ways of studying is to teach someone else. This could be someone in your class who’s struggling, a friend or sibling in a lower year group or a patient grandparent. This won’t feel like study so don’t beat yourself up for wasting time. This is the academic equivalent of hardcore weight-lifting as opposed to the light jog that is reviewing your notes. If you’re using time to measure your goals, one hour of teaching someone else is worth three or four hours alone.
  1. Help someone else with something else

The HSC determines your worth as a human, right? No! You’re sick of hearing that by March next year no one will remember your ATAR but it’s true. If you’re struggling to find meaning beyond your schooling right now, please go out and help someone else with something else. Mow that patient grandparent’s lawn in exchange for teaching them how to do calculus again, walk your neighbours’ dog to make up for that rowdy end-of-Trials celebration or help your parents with the weeding and chop the veggies for dinner because you live in their house too. Stepping away from your desk will get you back on track, renew your sense of purpose and give you a fresh burst of focus.
  1. Take the time to celebrate your victories

Finally, and most importantly, make sure you take the time to celebrate the small wins. Whether it’s doing a practice paper, memorising ten English quotes, sticking to your timetable all day, figuring out the difference between assonance, sibilance and alliteration, cracking relativity, getting the battles of WWI in order or finishing your SoR content, it’s worth celebrating. You may not have jumped four bands in two days but you’re building a habit of doing your best. That, friends, is where the value of the HSC really lies. Good luck!

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