This article is from the perspective of Olivia, a current Year 12 student and ATAR Notes contributor.
Olivia runs a great studyblr Instagram account, which you can check out here.

Choosing your subjects for Years 11 and 12 can be quite difficult, considering how there are a large number of subject myths. On the other hand, some students may be interested in a large number of subjects but can’t narrow their selections down to 12 units. So how do you choose your subjects? The main tip in choosing subjects is to take note of:

  1. What subjects you’re good at

  2. What subjects interest you

These points are really important for helping you narrow down what subjects to choose. If you happen to be good at a subject, it can obviously help your ATAR since it can scale you up if you do really well in the HSC. Of course, you need to be interested in the subject as well – if you really enjoy a subject, you’re more determined to do well even if you don’t do as well or if you happen to not like the teacher.

Noting Strengths and Weaknesses

This is really important to take note of when going through your school Subject Handbook. If essay-writing happens to be your biggest weakness, then maybe humanities isn’t the way to go considering how all humanities subjects require you to write at least one essay. On the other hand, if you’re extremely passionate about the content but you still find essay-writing a weakness, you can improve throughout the two years. Essentially, no one really knows what they’re doing until Trials arrive, which is why you shouldn’t be too discouraged if teachers think you’re not capable of doing a subject.

However, you need to consider how dedicated you are in making sure you can improve. For example, if you think you can take on an Extension subject, be realistic with yourself and ask: How willing are you to spend more time studying for a specific subject? Are you capable of learning new concepts quickly? These are the kind of questions you should ask yourself because you need to make sure you’re willing to put in the effort. However, remember that you can drop a subject if you happen to not do well in the subject or if you found out you didn’t like the subject.

hsc subjects

I think this process is very important to determine what level of math you want to take. A lot of Year 10 students have asked me if they do 5.2 level of maths, can they do Extension Math? My answer: definitely. However, you need to be willing to work hard and keep up with the new content. A lot of students are shocked at the beginning of prelim year because they’re not used to the pace. However, if you enjoy maths, and you’re willing to work hard, then you are capable of taking any level of math. You just need to be realistic with yourself.

Math or No Math?

A lot of students go through this dilemma when choosing their subjects. Many think that you need to know what you want to do in university to help determine if you should take math or not. This is actually partially true. Unless you really know what you want to do in university or any form of tertiary education – maybe if you want to go into law or media studies – I would personally suggest taking a math subject; it doesn’t have to be Mathematics Extension 1 level, but even taking General Math (or I’ve heard they’ve changed the name to Standard Math) can be beneficial. This is because University of Sydney has become the first university to state that mathematics is becoming a prerequisite as of 2019 – of course, this is for selected subjects but if you look at the website, they’ve set out a table saying what courses have a mathematics prerequisite, including Combined Law degrees such as Commerce and Economics.

As for other universities, they haven’t implemented this prerequisite but keep an eye out just in case there are any changes in the future. If you happen to not take math but then you had a sudden career change, keep an eye out for some bridging courses. I’m not sure for other universities, but I do know Western Sydney University has a math course specifically for those who want to do Engineering but didn’t take math. So keep an eye out and do a bit of digging!

University Requirements: Prerequisites vs Assumed Knowledge

And thus, I segue into university requirements. When you flip through an undergraduate guide, you may notice a list of subjects that these universities have listed next to a degree. Note how it says assumed knowledge, which means you don’t have to take the subject they listed. It would be beneficial if you were to take the subject, but you shouldn’t force yourself just because the undergraduate guide listed it as assumed knowledge.

A good example of this is Extension Math for Engineering degrees. A lot of universities say that Extension Math is assumed knowledge, but that doesn’t mean they won’t accept you if you didn’t do Extension Math. Remember, universities also need to make money, and as cynical as it sounds, if a student is willing to pay for their fees, they’ll most likely accept you. There are stories of students who got into a course and their ATAR was slightly below the cut off. Will you struggle during university? I’ll be blunt, yes. But they’ll research everything to you during your first year. Following my Engineering example, a lot of people who did Mathematics struggled because they’re not used to the pace. However, it is still doable, which is why you should never choose a subject because it’s listed as assumed knowledge.

Prerequisites is a different story, and is something I touched on in the previous section.

Subject Myths

There will always be subject myths. There are so many rumours surrounding different subjects, such as “Society & Culture is really easy” or “Ancient History is just memorising key terms.” All these subjects have a level of difficulty. Plus, the level of difficulty differs from each person, so never follow any of these rumours.

Another issue I hear is subject hierarchy. You shouldn’t be pushing yourself to do a 3 Unit subject just so you can say “Oh I did Extension Math/ English.” You should be choosing the subject because you enjoy it. That being said, a lot of schools discourage doing Extension Math and Extension English. Initially, I didn’t understand this because I wanted to pick up both subjects. As a Year 12 student taking Extension Math, I can understand why. These subjects are quite heavy in their own respective ways.

hsc subjects

Extension Math is quite demanding with how many hours you spend doing homework and how long some of the working out is (especially geometric proofs). On the other hand, your writing skills for Extension English needs to be on point! I have many friends who take Extension English and they rant about doing more than three body paragraphs because you’re expected to write more in Extension English. Also, the texts you study are much harder. The first Year 11 Extension English task was an essay on T.S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, which is approximately a twenty-page poem. You need to be prepared to spend a significant portion of your study time to take up a 3 Unit subject. You’re wasting your time if you’re only choosing an Extension subject just for the glory. Plus, no one’s going to care what subjects you did in the future so the glory of taking an Extension subject isn’t going to last as long.

STEM vs Humanities

STEM vs humanities is another debate I hear often. Personally, you shouldn’t be categorising these subjects based on if they’re STEM or humanities. As someone who does a mix of STEM and humanities, there is a benefit in taking a mix of subjects. You often hear people who do more humanities subjects say that it’s easier to take a bunch of subjects that lie in a similar field because there are overlaps. Although this is true, I like to think that taking a variety of subjects is great during my study sessions because what if I get sick of writing Modern History essays? I can put that aside and do some math, or vice versa. Plus, there are some small overlaps between the two areas.

For example, Extension Math and Modern History may sound like completely different subjects, but the essay structure in Modern History is actually quite strict; Susie – our amazing HSC History lecturer – described the structure to be almost formulaic. Although there is a high chance that Modern History students also take Extension English, the essay structure in English is extremely different to Modern History. Your thesis is a mix of your opinion and the rubric and your arguments are more thematic, whereas Modern History is extremely factual.

Pre-Subject Night

Before subject night arrives, make sure you have a good flip through your subject handbook. It should give you a guideline on the expectations of the subject – such as what skills are expected when taking the subject – and the list of topics and electives your school has selected. Prioritise what subject you’re interested in. Shortlist a bunch of subjects that you’re interested in. During my subject night, I was going to walk around the subjects with my friends but then I realised it wasn’t the best idea, so I decided to walk around on my own. Your shortlisted subjects shouldn’t be based on what your friends are interested in.

hsc subjects

By shortlisted, I don’t mean having a definite list of what subjects you know you will take. You might change your mind during the subject market. Just have at least ten subjects you know you have a level of interest and once you’ve gone through each subject. Plus, just by looking at the list of subjects, you may be able to easily rule out a specific department you know you’re not interested in. For example, a lot of my friends easily ruled out the LOTE department because they knew they weren’t interested in learning another language.

What to do during Subject Markets

Subject markets are a great opportunity for you to ask questions. This doesn’t mean asking the students if there are ‘bludge’ subjects. Ask questions such as how heavy the workload is or how content-heavy a subject is. Unless you have developed strong study habits, it’s great to take a mix of content-heavy and maths in this section. Science subjects, on the other hand, are a mix of content and practical so I’d say it’s beneficial picking up a science subject in conjunction with a math or humanities subject.

Another thing you should remember is to ask for a scope and sequence. It basically tells you want kind of topics they’ll go through during a certain time frame. This is more for the math subjects. Not only does it tell you what kind of content you’ll be going through, it will also tell you how fast they’ll be going through the content.

For the humanities subjects (and maybe science as well), you should also ask what kind of assessments they usually do. By this, I mean if there are going to be speeches, or hand-in assignments. It gives you a taste on what are the expectations when doing a subject, such as how much time you are expected to spend on this subject. For example, when I was volunteering for subject night, I went through all the types of assessments for Society & Culture for a Year 10 student. This actually helped her decide whether or not she wanted to do the subject because Society & Culture can be demanding, in the sense that you have to conduct primary research. To some, this may not be attractive, considering how you have to promote your primary research to gather some quality results. To others, assignments may be something they do better in rather than exams, which is why assessment format is another important factor to take note of when going through your subject list.

So here are a few tips on how to choose your subjects. Subject selection may take a while for you to decide, and sometimes you may not expect yourself to take a subject. For example, I never thought I would take Society & Culture but then at last minute, I ended up taking it. Also, remember that you can pick up and drop a subject. I’m not entirely sure if other schools do this, but during the first two weeks of Term 1, it was like a period of experimentation to see if you were interested in the subject. After those two weeks, you were able to pick up a different subject as long as they were able to fit the subject with your other subjects. Also, remember that you can always drop down to ten units at the end of Year 11, so don’t panic if you just discovered you disliked a subject half-way through Year 11.