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How to nail past papers

By Lauren Condon on 17 April 2017Study tipsNSWblogHSC

Past papers tend to bring up… mixed feelings.

If you’re drowning in the sea of year 12 work, past papers are the equivalent of someone throwing you a life raft but you have to set it up yourself, while still drowning, without instructions. Nice.

Seriously though, past papers will save your life this HSC and these holidays are a great to time get cracking. But you do have to use them right or you’re just giving yourself extra work for no extra marks.

Are they really that important?

Yes. 100% yes.

If the HSC was a marathon, past papers would be the difference between reading 30 different books on ‘how to run a marathon’ and actually training for it by running 15 km a day.

All the content you learn is worth NOTHING if you don’t know how to answer an HSC question. Past papers also:

  • Are the easiest way to find out what you don’t know.
  • Give you an idea of the marks you could expect in your HSC.
  • Take the pressure off the HSC exams because you’re pretty much doing them all year long.

Like anything worth doing, they’re worth doing right (#mumtalk) so here’s what you need to know.

Time it and commit

If you’re doing a past paper, do it under exam conditions.

That means: use a countdown timer, no notes, no phone, no sneaky google searches and you can’t give up if you’re struggling.

Because you haven’t finished learning all the year 12 content yet, you probably won’t be tackling a full paper right now. But you can tackle certain questions or sections, so make sure you still follow those exam condition rules and give yourself a really strict time limit.

If you’re practicing a Mod A essay for English, you know it’s a third of a 2 hour English exam so set your countdown timer for 40 minutes!

Seriously, if you aren’t sticking to exam conditions then you just aren’t going to get the benefits of the past paper so no excuses, do it right!

Get it marked

Actually answering a past paper or past question is only half the job (sorry). Every single time you finish a paper, it needs to be marked.

This gets a little tricky because different subjects have really, really different types of questions.

Something like Maths, Physics or Chem exams are pretty easy to self-mark if you have the answers. Even subjects like History, Bio and PDHPE are manageable because the short answer questions should come with a clear marking criteria telling you exactly what was needed for each mark.

English, well that’s where it gets harder. Your best option is to just send it to your teacher to mark and hope that they are so impressed by your dedication, they won’t be annoyed by the extra work (just kidding... maybe).

Pinpoint your weak spots

As you get them marked, past papers will name and shame your weak spots.

Start writing a list of all the topics and the types of question where you are losing marks and as you do more papers/questions, you’ll start to see a pattern.

Maybe the topic, Series and their Applications, in Mathematics just hasn’t ‘clicked’ for you yet or you haven’t perfected the art of a short answer.

Even exam technique can’t escape this scrutiny - are you terrible at time management? Do you always misread questions?

Past papers will be brutally honest in showing you where you keep falling short and where you’re in danger of losing some serious marks. So the earlier you get started, the more time you have to find these problems and pick up your game!

Strengthen up your weak spots

So here’s a fun way to use past papers that’s a little different.

Instead of working your way through past papers start to finish - you can actually use them to tackle that list of your weaknesses.

Say you’re always losing serious marks on the circle geometry question in the Extension I Maths exam. Well, you need to really hit circle geometry hard to make sure it’s not the question that drags you from an E4 to an E3.

Collect a few past papers and just do every single circle geometry question in a row. You will learn a new trick in each practice question, recognise patterns and start to develop a killer strategy to tackle any problem in the HSC.

It’s intensive training and a great way to break through whatever barrier is keeping you back from nailing those questions.


If you want your past paper game to be on point, remember to set up exam conditions, get them marked, follow up on the marks you’re losing and use past questions to really practice your weakest skills and topics.

You’ve got so much extra time these holidays and past papers really will save your life during the HSC so time to get cracking!

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