How to survive the HSC

Today is the first day of the HSC, those three letters calculated to terrify Year 11 and 12 students and which I still can’t hear without experiencing flashbacks.

So, to all HSC and other Year 12 students, please allow me to offer you my sincerest condolenceswish you the very best of luck!

Talk to anyone who’s slogged through and obtained the NSW qualification, or the VCE or WACE or anything like it, and they’ll tell you that end-of-school exams are a uniquely cruel prank to play on 17-year-olds, especially when uni is never anything like as harrowing as the hoops you have to jump through to get there.

On the bright side, today is the first day of a few weeks of inconvenience you have to endure before getting on with the rest of your life, whatever that may entail. Which is hugely exciting.

Here are a few things that might help you transition from the ranks of those dreading their end-of-school exams to those delighted that they’ll never have to do them again.

Sleep

You’ll be tempted to stay up all night cramming, but that really isn’t a smart idea. You’ve been studying all year. You’ve done the trials. You almost certainly know everything you need to know already, and the honest truth is that exhaustion will probably hurt your performance more than stuffing your brain full of last-minute facts will benefit it. Worst of all, you might end up confusing yourself in your exhaustion.

Get a good pen

Boringly practical, I know – but if you’ve got a crappy biro, you’ll write less and your hand will cramp. Get one of those nifty rollerball pens where the ink flows freely without needing any pressure from your hand. I got ridiculous and bought a fountain pen because I thought it would let me write the most, but there’s no need to get that stupid unless you get a kick out of the idea. Oh, and get some spares, too.

Plan your essay answers

As a humanities guy, my HSC experience was full of 40 minute essays. Despite the temptation to start writing immediately, things always went better when I took a minute or two to work out some kind of logical structure.

Unfortunately HSC markers still don’t recognise listicles like this one, so you will need to construct some kind of an argument. Being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ isn’t really a possibility – it’s all about trying to write convincingly.

Find a way to take your mind off it

In Year 12, I convinced myself that what I should do right before any exam was play Tetris on my monochrome Nintendo Game Boy, because it’s impossible to freak out about how maybe you’ve forgotten certain key characteristics of flowering plants when there are different-shaped blocks to stack to the sound of a mesmeric Russian folksong.

These days you probably have far more sophisticated games on your phone, but the point is the same – we benefit from taking our minds out of a stressful situation. Whether it’s having a bath, lying in the sun or going for a swim, having some brain downtime will help.

Know that courses with higher entry requirements aren’t necessarily better

At school, I had my heart set on a certain course because it was supposed to be prestigious, and I thought that if I got into it, everyone would think I was smart. I’d never even thought of that particular career before my ego and my insecurity combined to tell me that I should do it.

I got into the course, and got my qualification, but I’ve never been sure that it was a good decision – I’ve never really used it, and all it ended up giving me were a few more years at uni. In other words, I made a dumb decision because I wanted people to think I was smart. Better to be honest about what you’d really enjoy doing, and be good at.

Treat yourself

I’m not saying go out and rampage through every outlet at your nearest food court, but this is not the time to be imposing a rigorous new diet. I wouldn’t have made it through the HSC without regular splurges on chocolate and ice cream, but your rewards program can work in other ways, too – two hours of study might buy one more episode of an entertaining TV show, or whatever works.

Don’t worry – there are lots of pathways to where you want to go

These days, there are lots of way to get into just about any field. Most programs are available at graduate level, for instance, and Melbourne Uni is pioneering a model where everybody does generalist degrees when they first leave school. What this means is that while a mark that exceeds your target will let you get into a certain course, not getting in this time around won’t permanently exclude you. It’s tempting to feel that school exams are an all-or-nothing scenario, but they really aren’t.

Or you might not know what you want to do, which seems scary but is really quite liberating – it’s OK to take a few years to find out.

Drink cups of tea

Coffee before an exam, perhaps, but I’ve always tended to drink a lake’s worth of herbal tea when I had to do a lot of studying or writing. Somehow, it’s very soothing. I particularly recommend peppermint or rooibos.

Find out about your heroes, and how they did at school

It’s hard to avoid the impression that your Year 12 mark matters immensely. Looking at the biography of just about anybody who you admire will show you that in fact, school results are a very minor thing in the context of most people’s lives. In terms of my heroes, very few hilarious comedians, great writers or excellent musicians did brilliantly at school, and even if they did, their marks didn’t particularly help them to become who they ended up being.

Get ready never to talk about your mark again

After the second week of uni, it becomes socially unacceptable to mention any high school accomplishment, and especially your mark – unless you do really well and the newspaper rings up 20 years later, I guess. You might put it on your first graduate job application, but you probably won’t ever again after that. A few decades on, even you will struggle to remember the number that right now means everything.

Good luck, and I hope you get the mark you want – but if it doesn’t work out that way, you’ll almost certainly still be absolutely fine. You may even be considerably better off if you avoid a course you don’t really want to do.

Regardless, in a few week’s time, you’ll never have to wear a school uniform again, and that fact alone makes it well worth saying – congratulations!

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