It’s the night before your HSC Chemistry exam – what do you do?!

The first step is not to panic – you still have all night to work on your short-term memory retention.

Before we dig in, remember that this is built to maximise short-term retention. This is fine every now and again, but it’s kinda silly to stress over your trial, learn everything for the short term and then forget it again and redo the stress all over for the HSC. It’ll be much less painful if you’re diligent throughout the year, and then you can use this Chemistry cramming time as a supplement to your existing knowledge, not as your main base. Long-term retention is important, especially if you want to pursue a career in this pathway or the pathway of any other subject you’re studying.

Tip #1: Pick your Battles
Tip #2: Revise from the Syllabus
Tip #3: Leave your Strengths till Last
Tip #4: Look for Patterns in Past Papers
Tip #5: Develop some Emergency Mnemonics

Tip #1: Pick your Battles

The chemistry syllabus is pretty content heavy, and lots of it is very complex content that requires more understanding than memorisation. There’s also things like answer structure and exam technique the can help you gain marks. The only problem is, it’s too late for lots of that now. You can’t teach yourself this amount of content with the level of understanding you need in one night, and you can’t make any drastic shifts in the way you answer questions. This may sound pretty bleak, but it’s important to stay realistic.

Chemistry cramming can’t solve all your problems. If you try to do everything tonight, you’re going to burn out and go into your exam tomorrow flustered, tired and unprepared. So you have to use your time wisely – make the changes that you can make. Similarly, remember to stick to your guns! You know what you know, so when you’re standing outside the exam hall with 10 minutes left, and you hear two people bickering over what an acid is or something, don’t let what they say derail you. Have confidence in what you’ve learned!

Tip #2: Revise from the Syllabus

Remember, everything you need to know is in that document somewhere, so this’ll keep you from wasting your time on anything you don’t need to cover. Also, all the possible questions you can be asked are in the syllabus, so the more familiar you are with the syllabus, the less threatening the questions in the exam will sound. Half the battle in any exam that goes over 2 hours is keeping your nerve, so if you can avoid freaking out over a question you weren’t ready for you can save yourself a lot of pain.

Use this little system to rate you confidence with each syllabus dot point – next to each one, give yourself a rating from 0-5 for your confidence with it.

  • 0 = I know nothing about this dot point and unless I study am screwed
  • 5 = I know this dot point back to front – I’m going to kill the exam

After a while, it should look a little like this:

You can see in this one that our hypothetical student is good at memorising little facts, but not so much at figuring out more complex concepts. Yours might look quite different – and that’s totally okay. Use your rankings to figure out what you need to address. While you’re on the syllabus, keep an eye out for any concepts that build off of others – it’s not any good trying to learn the more difficult concept before you understand the foundations!

Tip #3: Leave your Strengths till Last

It can be very tempting to just go for broke with the content you’re confident on – for example, if you’re really confident with the modules, but not your option, should you not just double down and get a brilliant mark in the modules to make up for your poor performance in the the option? Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure this has worked in the past.

But it’s a colossal gamble.

You could, conceivably, perform very well using this. But suppose that the modules this year are easy, and everyone performs well, and the option is the part that separate the good from the great. You’ve just cost yourself a huge amount of marks, since Chemistry papers are marked holistically – that means your mark is relative to the performance of your peers.

So you should spend this chemistry cramming time making yourself as well balanced as possible. Use short-term memorisation techniques like repeatedly writing the content out or using rhymes or songs to encode it into a smaller form to maximise retention.

Tip #4: Look for Patterns in Past Papers

The people who write Chemistry exams aren’t exactly famous for their creativity – so you can exploit the predictability this creates. Just read through maybe three years worth of past papers and identify questions or question structures that appear religiously.

Pay special attention to the what 6/7-markers have been in the past and see if you can guess what module yours might be coming from.

Don’t get hung up on your guess though – it’s wise to be prepared but nobody’s psychic so you could be wrong. And you don’t want something silly like that catching you off guard on the day! This is an easy way to target your chemistry cramming where it needs to go.

That said, don’t forget about all the little 1-2 markers! They mightn’t be worth much on their own, but if you miss them all, they’ll add up real fast.

Tip #5: Develop some Emergency Mnemonics

Frankly, this is a long-term skill you’ll need as a chemist. Since there are lots of formulae and little factoids that, while you can just look them up, are common enough that you’ll want to know them rather than having to stop to leaf through a textbook every 3 minutes.

And it’s no secret that chemists love terrible puns, so use some to your advantage to encode information in an easy-to-remember form. The lamer it is the better it sticks in your mind! One I still use, even at uni, is PORK – Products Over Reactants = K (the equilibrium constant). It works so well because it’s so stupid! 

There’s nothing worse than dropping an easy mark because you stressed out. So set these up as your safety net!

I’ll even throw in a 6th tip for free – take care of yourself! It’s very threatening when tomorrow is the big day, but make sure you sleep well, eat well and take some time to breathe. Being calm will be just as powerful a weapon as having the syllabus burnt onto the back of your eyes.

Looking for some extra help with HSC Chemistry?

We pride ourselves on our inspirational HSC Chemistry coaches and mentors!

We offer tutoring and mentoring for Years K-12 in a variety of subjects, with personalised lessons conducted one-on-one in your home or at our state of the art campus in Hornsby!

To find out more and get started with an inspirational tutor and mentor get in touch today!

Give us a ring on 1300 267 888, email us at info@artofsmart.com.au or check us out on Facebook!


Matt Saunders is a huge nerd who first got into writing through fan-fiction. 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.