Each and every year, we see a lot of students aiming for great ATAR results - and a lot of them have the same (or similar) questions! In this article, check out the responses to some common questions from a past student who has achieved a 99+ ATAR. No matter what ATAR you're aiming for, you might find some of the tips and perspectives useful!
Keep in mind that the responses in this article are just the opinions of one past student. As you know, different things work for different people - so take the tips on board, but remember that not everybody studies in the same way.
Absolutely not, no. My marks were consistently pretty good from about Year 7-10, but I was never the top of the class or the top of the year or anything like that. I only started to really push into the very high marks later (so Year 11-12) when I was studying subjects more in my wheelhouse, and when I started to really get my study techniques sorted.
If you're reading this currently in earlier high school, and you think that you won't get a high ATAR (whatever that means to you) just because your marks currently aren't that high, it doesn't need to be that way. Things can change, and in my view, Year 11-12 is a bit of a different ball game. Don't lose hope!
It always feels like a cop out but there's really no clear answer to this. I know people who studied way more than I did, who received a lower ATAR. I also know people who studied less than I did, who received a higher ATAR. I think the main thing to realise is that not all study is equal, and studying for ten hours doesn't mean you'll do better than studying for five.
To try to give a more substantiated answer, through Year 12 I typically studied for an hour or two after school most days, and then a little bit on the weekend. It varied a bit depending on the time of year, and what assessments or deadlines were approaching. My study structure changed again when classes were done and I was focusing solely on exam preparation.
My study structure changed again when classes were done and I was focusing solely on exam preparation.
Perhaps less helpfully, I studied until I felt confident with the material - it was more of a gut feeling thing rather than thinking, "I have to study for three hours tonight" - I think that's the way to go. I liked being confident walking into tests and exams, so that really helped me, knowing that I'd prepared thoroughly - but you also don't want to burn out by never taking time for yourself.
This is such a common question, and it's understandable - through Year 12, I also wanted to know what sort of score I was on track for.
The unfortunate reality is that it's really hard to say without a lot of context, because there are actually heaps of factors that contribute to subject score calculation behind the scenes. I think it can be useful to have a general understanding of how the ATAR is calculated (see resources like these: Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland), but worrying about it too much after that point is potentially counter-productive. And that's coming from somebody who probably worried about it too much.
So my answer in the majority of these cases is probably "yes", but it depends a lot on the individual circumstances. In my view, the best chance you have of achieving your subject goals is to probably forget about the behind-the-scenes calculation stuff altogether, given you can't really control any of it. It's hard, but I think worth trying!
I'm big on the belief that you've probably already starting preparing for exams without even realising it. Pretty much any study for tests or assessments throughout the year - chances are that that study will also help you prepare for exams. And that's the thing, I guess - when people say "exam preparation", I think the natural instinct is probably to think about just the period of a few weeks directly before exams. But in actuality, exam prep can start super early - like the start of the year early.
I'm big on the belief that you've probably already starting preparing for exams without even realising it.
Now, that's not to say that you need to actively be thinking about exams all year. In terms of more dedicated exam preparation (so doing things like practice exams, simulating exam conditions, refining answer structure etc.), I think I probably started a month or two out from exams, but there's not just one "correct" strategy here.
As I mentioned earlier, I liked walking into exams feeling prepared, so a big part of dealing with pressure or expectations for me actually came in the preparation. I felt that if I was confident about the content, I'd be more likely to be in a good "exam space" on the day and, therefore, more likely to perform well.
On the flip side, when I haven't felt prepared, I've found it a lot harder to deal with pressure and expectations, and things can spiral pretty easily once you come across a question or two where you just simply don't know the answer.
But in terms of actual exam-day nerves, I think keeping some sort of structure was helpful for me. Assuming my exam wasn't super early or anything like that, I'd try to wake at my usual time, go for my usual walk, and things like that. I tried to avoid last-minute cramming as much as possible, because I found that doing that just made me stressed, and it made me worry about things I didn't know (and sometimes even second-guess myself about things I did know!).
I tried to avoid last-minute cramming as much as possible, because I found that doing that just made me stressed...
Once I was organised and sitting in the exam room, I tried to close my eyes and take a few deep breaths to calm myself. If I found myself stressing throughout the exam, I'd repeat this process for a few seconds to give myself a little break before moving on to the next question.
It matters insofar as it has some influence on your eventual ATAR, but I don't think it should be a strong consideration when selecting subjects. You don't need to study subjects that scale up in order to get a high ATAR.
My process was basically this:
Do I need to study any subjects as pre-requisites for pathways (like uni courses) I might be interested in after Year 12?
What subjects do I enjoy?
What subjects might work well together in terms of workload and what I'm good at?
I know there are lot of other factors that sometimes come into play, like what your friends are doing, family pressure, what you feel like you "should" choose, teachers, prestige, scaling, and so on. But for me, those three main factors above were the main ones.
Yeah, there is. It would be disingenuous to say that I worked heaps through Year 12 - I just tutored a bit on the side - but a lot of people maintain a part time or casual job throughout the year. You might need or want to drop hours, particularly around certain times, and that's totally fine - but being in Year 12 doesn't mean you need to stop employment entirely.
The same is true, I think, for hobbies and other engagements. In fact, I think keeping some non-school-related hobbies going is actually a good thing if possible - focusing on nothing but school for the entire year sounds draining, and not very enjoyable!
Yeah, I think the student-teacher dynamic changed a bit as I progressed through high school. It felt quite different (to me, at least) in Year 12. I felt like I had more trust, and the relationship was sort of "flatter" - you're working together to achieve the same outcome.
... you're working together to achieve the same outcome.
I think establishing good relationships with your teachers is pretty important. My advice is to chat with them early in the year if possible about your goals, and what you want to achieve in the subject that year. Being on the same page makes things a lot easier in the long-term.
In the limited sense that it gave me access to a certain course, I suppose so. I think it also made tutoring prospects easier. But beyond that, its application has been pretty limited. It never came up at uni.
Just by having a system. I say "just" here as though it's easy, but it's not.
My own system was using to-do lists on a day-to-day level (I recommend this article), but I know a lot of people like study timetables. Study timetables never worked for me - they actually stressed me out a bit - so to-do lists felt like a good compromise.
In general, though, what I suggest is to try to get into the habit of making a start on things early. It seems like basic advice, but if you have something due in 10 days, don't leave it for eight days before starting. If you have an exam in two weeks, don't leave it until the night before to start revising - even if you think you can get through all the required revision in one night.
Giving yourself a buffer by making a start on things early is potentially beneficial for multiple reasons. For one, it means that you have enough time to clarify anything about which you're unsure. That was actually something I started doing really well in Year 12 - I started asking questions about everything, even if the questions seemed really basic. I just wanted to make sure I was doing everything required of me, and it's a lot harder to ask questions about an assessment when the deadline is super close!
Think about your study set-up. By this, I'm talking about things like your desk ergonomics, the amount of light you have, noise or lack thereof - things like that. If there's something that seems distracting, try to either fix it if there's a solution available to you, or try to move location entirely. I found studying at home to be really distracting, so I tried to study at school as much as possible instead.
Try to limit distractions. Honestly, any time I've tried to study with my phone next to me, it hasn't gone well; either I'll get a distracting notification, or I'll start mindlessly browsing the internet. If you don't give yourself that option, it won't happen. If it's possible, try to set up a space where you exclusively study - for me, that was a specific section in our school library. Once you're there, you're in "study mode". Don't give yourself the option to be distracted.
We all struggle with study from time to time. If you're really hitting a wall with one particular subject, try mixing it up with something different. My least similar subjects were probably a maths subject and a folio subject. If I was really having a hard time with maths, I'd turn to my folio - or vice versa. I found that they required a different type of effort, so I could "re-set" a bit by changing subject.
I found that they required a different type of effort...
Change the way you're studying. There are countless ways you could potentially study, and they don't all have to be completely boring. If you're absolutely not in the mood to do revision questions, maybe you would benefit from making a mind-map of the content, which might make question-answering easier in the future. A lot of the time, doing something is better than doing nothing.
A lot of this probably seems obvious, but honestly I think a lot of the time we just straight up don't give ourselves the best chance to study effectively. If you're trying to study in sub-par conditions, you'll probably get sub-par results. I acknowledge that, a lot of the time, there's no other option. But sometimes, some little adjustments can make all the difference.
As many as you feel necessary.
But my main advice about practice exams is to not just treat them as a number. I think they're useful, but if you're only doing a practice exam for sake of ticking off a practice exam, it's probably not an overly beneficial way to study.
Once you've finished an exam, go through the solutions and see where you went wrong - see where you can improve next time. Keep track of your mistakes and how you can address them going forward. You don't need to mark the exam straight away (exams can be tiring, after all), but completing an exam and then doing nothing with it seems like a massive wasted opportunity to me.
In terms of number, there is no correct answer. Some people do very many and excel. Others do very few and excel. And there are many cases in between. Trust your instinct.
No, I don't think they need to be. I did some practice exams in simulated exam conditions (time constraints, reading time, no distractions - I even went as far as trying to do the practice exam at the same time that the actual exam would run), but certainly not all of them.
In fact, I found a lot of benefit from starting to do practice exams open book and with no time conditions, and gradually working my way up to conditions that better simulated the actual exam. I guess that's where early exam preparation comes in handy - you have the time available to take things a bit more slowly.
If you're reading this and you're not currently in Year 12, there are two main things I recommend focusing on before your final year in high school:
Finding a balance between school stuff and non-school stuff. And I guess more specifically, getting into the habit of regular and consistent study.
Finding study methods that you vibe with. Year 11 was sort of a tester year in a way for me. I tried a whole heap of different study methods (flash cards, revision questions, writing songs, diagrams, being tested, theoretical definitions, rote learning, memory tricks - you name it). Some of them worked for me, and others I didn't vibe with at all. But because I had tried a wide range of techniques, I had a pretty decent going into Year 12 about how I was going to study - and then I just stuck to those techniques throughout the year. If you want to chat or ask about different study techniques, I recommend heading across to the "Study Techniques" discussions section here.
Year 11 was sort of a tester year in a way for me.
Until exams are done, it's not too late to improve your marks - or to improve the likelihood of you being awarded marks through exams.
If you're in Year 12 (or earlier) and you feel like you're hitting a bit of a study wall, it might be time to take a step back and reassess how things are going. Maybe take a look at your goals, and see if you can improve any of your strategies.
Consider the syllabus for each of your subjects. Go through and highlight the areas you feel like you need to work on most. Make a list of ways you can do that. Tick them off one by one. Depending on the time of year, free digital ATAR Notes Lectures might be helpful, too.
Best of luck!