Chemistry is a pretty unique beast among the HSC subjects – there are lots of facts to memorise but also lots of complex concepts to understands. This means that of people don’t perform up to the standard they do in other subjects and can feel like they’re floundering under bad marks. While this may indeed be the case, don’t let it get you down. You’re certainly not the only one feeling that way, and there’s plenty you can do about it!


But before you do anything, put yourself first.

Exams can be really emotional and stressful, and it can really tax you if feel like your performance is sub par. Whatever you’re feeling right now, be it angry, frustrated or upset, it’s absolutely okay to feel that way. Let it all out now while you’re still in a safe place – otherwise you’ll just end up emotionally unstable going into your HSC, and there’s no telling what that could do both to your performance and your health. So get yourself back together again – scream at a wall, sleep for 28 hours straight, eat two family-sized blocks of chocolate by yourself in one sitting. Whatever it is that’s going to get your mood up, do it now.

With that said, how do you take action once you’re in a place to do so? Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered.


Step 1 – Be active in your learning

Chemistry involves a lot of what we call sense making, or the process of making connections between old information and new information, more so than almost any other subject. This means you really need to take the helm for yourself.

When you don’t understand a concept, rather than just running to your teacher or coach, take a while to research it on your own.

Action Point! Try a couple of practice questions, and reflect on your performance. Mark it, then give yourself this rating:

  • Silly mistake (SM)
  • Did not know answer (DNK)
  • Misunderstood question (MQ)
  • Incorrect knowledge (IK)

This way, you know how and why you got a question incorrect. If you are getting less than 70%, you may want to do some more revision. Identify your weak and strong points once more, and do practice questions on them.

When you feel like you can’t do any more by yourself, of course, it’s natural to look for help. But make sure that there’s really nothing else you can do before you go asking for someone to drop answers into your lap – you’ll be all alone in the exam, after all, so you need to be able to think on your feet without being prompted.

Also, try to be patient. Your coach/teacher may not just give you the answers, and that can be frustrating, because that’s how you were taught up until now. But again, you need to understand, and that’s not something you achieve by parroting words somebody else wrote for you. They may instead drop hints, or ask you to explain the concept in your own words, to force you to come to your own understanding.


Step 2 – Work as a team

Remember that your performance in the HSC is directly linked to how your entire year group performs – if you’d like more details, check out our series on how ATARs and HSC marks work. What this means is that group study is twice as valuable. Not only does it increase your performance individually, but also the performance of others in your cohort, which then doubles back on you and increases your marks again.

It’s also a very effective learning method – if you try to teach the concepts to peers, you’ll learn them very thoroughly yourself. We don’t have the best understanding of memory from a scientific perspective, but we do know this – we remember 10% of what we read, 30% of what we see and hear, 50% of what we write, 70% of what we read and write, but 90% of what we teach.

If you’re scared that you’ll just end up wasting time if you study in a group, check out our Maths group study guide – obviously you’ll have to make some little fixes but it’s a good place to start!


Step 3 – Practice, Practice, Practice

But here’s the catch – you’re not just practicing your content, you’re also practicing your answer style. It’s quite possible to gain free marks in Chemistry by structuring your answers well and using the right language. This is something I didn’t do enough of in my day- and I paid for it. In fact, Chemistry was actually the worst mark I received in my HSC (as an aside, it didn’t stop me from majoring in it, nor from succeeding at uni-level chem –  remember that the HSC is a the first step of the rest of  your academic life, not the last one).

The only way for you to refine your answer technique is to practice – and then seek feedback! You can try critiquing your own answers against the marking criteria, but you’ll always understand the way you naturally organise information – someone else, like your marker, may not. So mark your answer own answer first, by all means, but make sure to then give it a friend to mark, and then to a coach and then a teacher. There’s no such thing as too much criticism.


Most of all, remember that you are always your own top priority.

Your health comes before marks. There is always another way you can get into your dream uni course, or even circumvent uni entirely and enter your field of choice through vocational training. At the end of the day, being healthy and happy will get you so much further than receiving a single piece of paper in the mail with a high number on it.  If you need help not just academically, but personally, seek it out. talk to your parents or friends or coach or teachers or dog or even your wall, and if it gets really bad, maybe talk to someone at Lifeline Australia (13 11 14) or Headspace National Youth Mental Health Foundation, or another appropriate professional. There are plenty of people out there who would be honoured to take up the position of Head Cheerleader for your learning – and they want to see you succeed too! So let them help.

Exams are a stressful period, particularly with the HSC feeling like the summation of 13 very long and very formative years of your life. But keep it all in perspective – even if it feels like your world is ending right now, that only means your world has to start again fresh afterwards.


Good Luck!

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Matt Saunders is a huge nerd who first got into writing through fanfiction. He’d known science was the path for him since a young age, and after discovering a particular love of bad chemistry jokes (and chemistry too), he’s gone onto to study Forensic Chemistry at UTS. His HSC in 2014 was defined in equal parts by schoolwork and stagecraft, which left him, weirdly enough, with a love of Maths strong enough to inspire him to tutor any level, along with 7-10 Science and HSC Chemistry.