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Cracking the Code: Strategies for Success in ATAR Exams

Let's face it - external exams are tough! Just the thought of having to cram 2 whole years of content into your brain to sit one 90 minute or 2 hour exam is enough to overwhelm anyone. STEM subjects in particular such as Maths Methods or Chemistry also come with an extra dose of stress for many students as the external examinations are worth 50% of the final grade for these subjects; however, most other subjects will still weigh the exam at a minimum of 25%.  It's safe to say having a solid plan in place for how to best attack the externals is essential for ATAR success!


We asked some of our top senior school tutors as well as past students for their top tips to cracking the code that is excelling in ATAR external exams and we've shared those with you below!


One of our awesome tutors, Doreen had the following two top tips she used herself and also advice she passes on to her own students to help them excel

1. Make time for consistent revision and repetition. 

If you can incorporate spaced repetition into your study schedule (especially with subjects that have big end of year externals), it helps information 'stick'. If you google a picture of 'the forgetting curve', it shows that most content is remembered when you revise the content shortly after you first learn it (e.g. the day after or that afternoon after you get home from school).  The amount you remember rapidly declines the longer you leave it to revise the content again.  If you stay disciplined in always revising content shortly after you learn it for the first time, you can spend less time studying each session & retain more information in the long term (instead of cramming for hours the day before the exam & not retaining anything!). Doreen gave the following example for how she approaches her own study


Day 1: completing a practice paper without looking at notes

Day 2: refer to notes to annotate the practice paper with any knowledge gaps I had which prevented me from getting the correct answer (e.g. forgetting what evaporation was so I couldn’t draw all the steps in the water cycle)

Day 3-4: Re-doing the questions that I got wrong initially


2. Active vs Passive Recall

You should aim to primarily do activities that involve active recall (e.g. practice questions, flash cards, teaching concepts to yourself or a friend without looking at notes) instead of passive recall (e.g. looking over notes, reading the textbook, looking at the flash card & immediately flipping it over to see the answer) as this skill is what is being assessed in the exam!  It also give you much more honest insight into how much information you truly understand.  Using passive techniques like reading over notes can lull you into a false sense of security that you may know more than you actually do.  You may understand the content as you read it but being able to recall this information with no reference to your notes is a lot harder!


We spoke to several of our other tutors and between our team, also came up with the following tips!


 3. Preparation is key!  Try using a separate study book to compile key ideas

It's hopefully pretty obvious that staying organised and prepared is the foundation of getting a high ATAR.  There is so much content to remember and be able to apply in complex, multi-step questions or tricky short-answer responses/essay questions.  One fantastic idea is having a separate notebook for each of your subjects.  Throughout both Yr 11 and 12, at the end of each week, add summary notes containing only very key information into these notebooks so by the time externals roll around, you already have your revision material ready to go.  Taking the time to reflect on and condense knowledge at the end of each week also has the added benefit of helping you make sure you 100% understand all the content as you are going and quickly identifies any weak spots you may need to strengthen.


4. Before you start your intensive external exam revision, sit down and reflect on your weakest areas and write all of these down.  Start your revision here and then work your way back to the easier stuff

Starting external exam revision can be very overwhelming!  To get through it all, many students take a front-to-back approach.  This means they start with the first topics they learnt in the year and work through them in order of topics until they get through it all.  While this may seem like a perfectly logical approach, the issue is that many students end up spending approximately equal revision time on all topics.  Some topics will be much easier than others and when you have limited time to cover everything, this approach may leave you underprepared for topics you struggle with.  Instead, when you are starting revision and have the most energy to get stuck in, do the tricky topics first!  As you progress through your revision, you'll undoubtedly start getting a little exhausted so it's great to leave the easier topics until the end for this reason.


5. When doing practice exams, if you don't have time to do the whole thing, pick and choose questions that look challenging instead of just starting from the beginning and not getting time to ever revise the harder questions at the end

This point piggybacks off the point above.  In an ideal world, we'd have infinite revision time and the ability to complete every single practice exam in its entirety.  While it is important to do a full practice exam or two and try to practice it under exam conditions, if you don't have enough time to do this for every exam, make sure you do the questions that challenge you.  Just sticking to the easier knowledge questions at the beginning may give you a burst of confidence but won't help you get better at the tricky questions if this is all you focus on


6. Teach someone else the content - study sessions with friends can be great for this!

Teaching someone else the content can be one of the most effective ways to test whether or not you really understand when you are studying.  It also leads to some of the highest content retention compared to other study techniques.  It's said we remember between 90-95% of the content we teach others.  If you don't have a study buddy to give a mock lesson to, you can do this at home by yourself too.  It might look a bit crazy to anyone who pops their head into your room while you're studying but the results will be worth it!  Grab a notepad and pen or a whiteboard if you have one and pretend to teach someone else while you study.  Grab your favourite stuffed animal and teach them if you really need to get into the mood


7. Beware of productive procrastination.  Don't obsess over making your revision notes perfectly neat, colour-coded and pretty

Long story short, it's important to make sure that you are being as efficient as possible with your revision time.  So many students start preparing for externals and instead of jumping right in and attacking challenging questions or problem areas, they subconsciously procrastinate.  This may take the form of spending excessive time re-writing all your notes and making them pretty, preparing revision cards for topics you already pretty much have down pat, spending more time putting together a study schedule than actually studying etc.  It's super important to be brutally honest with yourself and always question whether what you are doing is the most effective use of your time or whether you are completing easy tasks to put off getting stuck into what you actually struggle with!

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