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The ultimate guide to doing past papers

By Danielle Barakat on 8 October 2018NSWblogExam adviceStudy tipsHSC

Welcome to your next 3 weeks!

There’s no doubt about it, past papers are the best way to study for the HSC. And when I say past paper I don’t just mean the NESA ones, I mean old trials papers, random ones that your teacher gives you, ones from your friends at other schools - just any form of exam paper you can get your hands on.

Now if you’re a big fan of the Atomi blog posts then this is definitely not the first time you’ve heard us go on and on about past papers. But they’re actually that important so buckle in and let's go over why they’re so important and how to do them properly… again!

#1. Do the whole thing first

Doing 1 or 2 questions from a past paper does not count as doing a past paper. Sorry! A past paper only counts if you do the entire thing…

That doesn’t mean that it’s completely useless doing random questions from past papers, however, that doesn’t count as doing a past paper and at this stage, you should be focused on doing whole papers, from start to finish. Your goal here is to replicate the exam as closely as possible. You wouldn’t train for the 100m race by only doing short 10m sprints. You have to actually know what it’s like to run 100m before stepping foot on that track on game day.

👏 Complete 👏 every 👏 single 👏 question 👏

Yes that means even the easy ones. Only then will you get an understanding of the paper in detail and get an idea of how to pace yourself in the exam. After all, timing is everything. You don’t want to be halfway through the last question when you hear ‘pen’s down’. That hurts. Doing the whole paper will train you to be really concise with your answers and you will start automatically cutting down your extended responses on the spot. Win!

So now that you’ve done that, it’s time to let you in on a little secret: most 100m sprinters do actually train by doing 10m bursts because once you’ve practised the entire race multiple times it no longer becomes effective. Now it is actually time to focus on the more difficult parts and really master a few of those specific techniques. Once you’ve done the whole paper 10 000 000 times, you know what your strengths and weaknesses are and it is now time to focus on perfecting those weaknesses. So go through the paper and pick out the section or the questions you always struggle with and work really hard on them (still under exam conditions though).

#2. Timing is everything

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. Timing is everything when it comes to doing exams. The exam is a race against the clock, so why wouldn’t you practice getting your timing perfect before your exam?

Essentially no past paper should be done without a timer. It’s that simple.

There are multiple ways to time yourself. You can time yourself doing the whole paper, from start to finish and seeing if you can do the whole paper in the 2-hour time slot. Or you can get really specific and time each section of the paper.

This is a more advanced method of timing yourself and gives you a really great understanding of what you actually need to work on. This is where the recommended times on the exam paper actually come in handy. If the paper says to allow 40 mins for the extended response section, then set your timer for 40 minutes, give yourself an essay question you haven’t seen before and GO! See if you can do it in the time limit and if not then you know your essay is too long, or you rambled too much and need to work on being more succinct.

Timing yourself also allows for more efficiency. For example, if you can write your English creative writing in 25/30 minutes even though the paper recommends 40mins, you’ve given yourself an extra 10-15 mins which can be put to great use in the essay section of the paper.

So buy yourself a countdown timer (just because they’re easier to read) and get timing. Tip: don’t use your phone as a timer. There is way too much temptation and distraction and you can’t actually take that into an exam room with you so it defeats the point of trying to replicate exam conditions. But you can take in a timer to the exam. So win-win.

#3. Notes, notes, notes

If you’ve been paying attention to what I’ve been saying for the last 7 minutes, you’ll know what my answer will be to the ‘should I study with my notes open?’ question. My answer is simple… are your notes allowed in your exam?

Nope… that’s all.

There’s no point becoming reliant on your notes when you know they won’t be there in the actual exam, so get your notes memorised and start doing your past papers closed book.

#4. Recreate exam conditions

So what does ‘exam conditions’ actually mean?

Let me break it down for you:

  • No laptop, phone, iPod or any other piece of technology that wouldn’t be allowed into the exam room
  • Nothing on your desk besides your pens, paper and calculator (non-programmable of course)
  • No notes, textbooks or unnecessary paper
  • An isolated room (so not the TV room) with no distractions
  • No breaks
  • Include reading time in your practiceUse exam booklets (ask your teacher for some)
  • Use a black pen

This is the path to successful exam prep.

#5. Mark your work

Doing the past paper without marking it means you’ll never actually improve. It’s not effective to write an essay and forget about it, never knowing if you even answered the question or hit the right point in your answer. You have to review and mark your work for any of this studying to actually count.

The best way to do this is when you download the past paper from NESA, download the marking guidelines and criteria with it, but don’t look at it until after you do the paper. Go through all the sections and actually give yourself a mark. Take note of what you can improve on or the content that you didn’t know quite as well as you thought.

Before you start the next paper for that subject, make sure the list of improvements has been worked on. A good idea would be to jump onto your Atomi account and watch the videos of the topics you struggle with. They’ll help you better understand it and will actually show you examples of how to answer the exam style questions. Another win-win situation!

So, there you go - if this is your first time reading a post about past papers, I hope you’ve learnt the best ways to go about it these holidays and have some fun putting some of the things you’ve learnt into practice.

Above all, just remember to try and practice as much as you can. You’ll come out on top!

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