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How to do past papers properly

By Danielle Barakat on 23 September 2015Study tipsExam adviceNSWblog

We all know that doing past papers is by far the best way to study for the HSC. I mean, we rave on and on and on about it in almost every post. And for good reason, they are important - the bee’s knees, the duck's nuts, the cat’s pajamas.

Doing past papers is great for SO many reasons. BUT they are only good if you do them properly and trust me barely anyone does.

Key principle: our main aim here is to replicate exam conditions as much as possible. The closer you can get to the actual exam, the better off you’ll be.

This is how you do past papers properly, to actually squeeze all the goodness out of them.

NB: this process does involve some pain. But, like many girls would know, beauty is pain. Wax anyone?

The Brief

Let’s get a few things straight:

What is a past paper? This can include HSC papers, CSSA trials papers, independant trial papers, random papers created by individual schools or exams you create yourself (Creating your own exams is expert level: pro).

What are exam conditions? replicating the cold depressing atmosphere of the exam hall. No devices, no notes, no talking, no breaks... nothing!

1. Complete vs incomplete

Doing ‘part’ of a past paper is not the same as doing the whole thing. Sorry. Although both can be useful as they serve different purposes.

Part 1 - Full is better than half

If your goal is to replicate the exam as closely as possible, then doing a complete paper from start to finish is the way to go. This is the only way you’re going to get a proper feel for timing and the burn toward the end of the paper. You wouldn’t train for the 100m race by only doing 10m sprints.

Complete. Every. Single. Question. Whether it’s an easy ‘no-brainer’ or an impossible question you have to do each and every one. Only then will you get an understanding of the paper in detail.

Half the battle with every HSC exam is how you pace yourself throughout the test, so you don’t end up with unanswered questions or incomplete essays when the random dude yells ‘pens down!’. There’s only so much you can continue writing without him noticing :P So doing the entire paper gives you a feel for how long to spend on each section and is the best way to cut down your responses. You’ll automatically prioritise what needs to be in each answer when you’re under time pressure.

This will also let you figure out which sections you’re flying through (you know your stuff) and which sections are taking forever to get through (stuff you don’t know that well).

So sit yourself down and plan to do the ENTIRE paper. No breaks, no excuses.

Expert level: Beginner

Part 2 - Half is better than full

FYI most 100m sprinters do actually train by doing 10m bursts. Because once you’ve practiced the entire race enough times, it no longer becomes efficient to keep doing it that way. You already know you can do most of it. You now have to work on the more difficult parts...like your start off the blocks.

The same with exam prep. You should start by doing every question of the entire paper. But after you’ve done that 10,000,000 times it starts to become repetitive. At this stage you know you’re stuff pretty well and a lot of the easier questions are now second nature, so it’s inefficient for you to keep spending time on them.

Once you know your strengths and weaknesses you can start to focus more. This is when you can start to pick and choose which sections of the paper you want to do.

For example: you might be really confident with your Essay but your story needs some major work. So instead of doing the entire paper, you just do section 2. Similarly, you might be able to smash through the first 5 questions of maths with ease. So you start the paper from question 6.

This is fine once you’ve done the initial ground-work early on.

BUT even though you are doing only parts of the paper, you have to keep doing them in exam conditions. That means timed, no breaks and no notes!

Expert level: Advanced

2. Timing yourself

This one is very very simple - Exams are timed therefore prep should be timed. No questions asked. No past paper should be done without a timer.

This will give you maximum results. But again this comes in two parts:

Part 1 - overall timing

You can time yourself for the entire exam. So set the stopwatch to 2 hours and GO! This will let you know if you can finish in the given time.

Expert level: Beginner

Part 2 - Section specific timing

A more advanced method would be to time yourself for each section. That way you get a better understanding of what you actually need to work on. Instead of simply saying ‘oh I ran 10 minutes over’ you can say ‘Damn my essay ran 10 minutes over, I’ve got to cut some meat out of that.’

Time each section as closely as possible.

Expert level: Pro

Pro tip: This one is a gem. Get yourself a countdown timer. Don’t just use a watch or a clock, get something that has a digital display and counts down not up. You want to know how long you have left, not how long you’ve been going for. Doing the maths in your head, or looking up at the clock and trying to count backwards is almost impossible. And it’s a time waster. On top of that - you look like an idiot because you can’t read time. Also get a timer that doesn’t make any sound. Don’t use your phone, because you can’t take that into the exam with you. Get a timer that’s simple that you can actually take into the exam. Also make sure you calculate for reading time on your timer! Otherwise you will be running 5-10 mins fast.

Our recommendation: The Electronic Countdown Timer

Using a watch or smart-phone as a timer... Expert level: Rookie

3. Notes vs no notes

There has been much heated, brutal and scathing debate about whether you should have notes present whilst doing practice papers. Our thoughts are...are you allowed notes in the exam?

Nuff said.

BUT if you’re not 100% around the content yet and you need some prompts there is a way to do it.

Part 1 - Using notes

If you are going to use notes you should have them face-down on your desk so you can’t just glance over and look at them. We also recommend that you don’t have your massive folder of notes, essays and resources there. It’s far better to have a summary version of the notes, with a few points of information (or dot point paragraphs) to prompt you when you run out of steam or forget.

Our cheeky method is to just have the syllabus there beside your desk. The syllabus is a dot point summary of your notes, so see if that can get you by.

However, you should only be using the notes to quickly prompt something you’ve forgotten. They shouldn’t be there to teach you. If you don’t know something, don’t sit there and look it up in the textbook - you should move on and mark that as an area you need to work on later.

Expert level: Beginner

Part 2 - No notes

This one is simple. You go cold turkey. No notes anywhere. Just you and the exam. 1-on-1.

Expert level: Pro

4. Exam conditions - the logistics

What does ‘exam conditions’ actually mean? Well here is a list:

  • No internet, phone, ipod, ipad, iwatch, fitbit - anything that wouldn’t be allowed in the exam room
  • No notes, textbooks, resources, paper
  • Nothing else on your desk - besides pen and paper
  • Isolated room - doing an exam in the middle of the TV room just doesn’t cut it
  • No breaks - you can’t get up from your seat
  • Include reading time
  • Make sure you use actual exam booklets - they have massive lines and is a lot different from writing on normal lined paper
  • Use a blue or black pen - don’t practice with some hot pink glitter pen...or a crayon.

Follow those and you’ll be on the path to glory.

Expert level: Expert

5. Review and marking

Simply completing practice papers is awesome, but it’s only half the deal.

It’s not nearly as effective to bust out an essay, say ‘sweet’ and then chuck it out. You have to review and mark your work. Without measuring to see how you’re going you have no idea whether you’re tracking well or poorly.

The best thing to do is jump on the BOSTES website and download the marking criteria for each of your subjects. After you finish a day’s worth of paper, go back over them very carefully. Give yourself a mark and take note of the elements that you’re failing at.

You should note down every single mistake you made, every topic you forgot, every answer you went over time on. Before each new past paper read over this list and try not to make the same mistakes again.

It’s also a good idea to jump back onto HSC Hub to see the Band 6 version of that answer so you can improve in the next paper.

Self-marking is such an important way to prepare and no one ever does it.

Everyone just practises and stops there. Trust us - the kids that are doing this are going to come out on top.

Expert level: Pro

So there you have it - the official way you should be doing past papers over these holidays. Just remember to try and get as close to an exam environment as possible.

The harder it is, the better prepared you’ll be when you walk in there on the day.

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