The State of Play

Exam time is around the corner, but it feels different. There is a lot of weight to these exams both emotionally and actually in terms of marks!

But sit back – I guarantee by the end of this article you’ll know just what to expect in the HSC Physics Trials so you can stay relaxed and do your best. After all, failure to prepare is preparing for failure!

Scoping out the Board

So what will the Trial paper look like? Well, the whole point of this set of examinations is to get you prepared for the HSC. So the Trial paper is structured almost identically to the actual HSC Physics paper. It is divided into two main sections.

Section I

This is comprised of the core modules i.e. Space, Motors and Generators and Ideas to Implementations. This section is common to all students and generally worth 75 marks.

  • 20 marks worth of multiple choice questions worth 1 mark each.
  • 55 marks worth of short answer and extended response. (these range from one sentence responses worth 1 mark up to and including an essay potentially worth 6+ marks)
  • Questions will not be sorted by topic, they will be a random order!

Section II

This section will be the Option topic your school has chosen it could be any of the following:

  • Geophysics,
  • Medical Physics,
  • Astrophysics,
  • From Quanta to Quarks,
  • The Age of Silicon.

This section will likely be worth 25 marks.

Time Management

Here’s how you’ll want to manage your time:

  • You will have 5 minutes reading time.
  • Try and complete the multiple choice questions in Section I within 35 minutes.
    • 35 minutes to do 20 questions is about 1.75 minutes per question.
  • Try and complete the short answer and extended response questions in Section I within 1 hour and 40 minutes.
    • There is no set amount of questions here unfortunately. It generally ranges between 10-13 questions, some of which will have sub parts. Just make sure you finish this section in no more than 1 hour and 40 minutes
  • Try and complete Section II within 45 minutes.
    • Again there is generally not a set amount of questions here, it does vary! All I can guarantee you is it will be much shorter than Section I as there is only 25 marks here! It is quite possible all the questions from this section are contained within 1 page.

The strategy

Below is a detailed breakdown of different parts, complete with tips for how best to tackle them.

The Multiple Choice


There are so many rumours about multiple choice that go around. It’s a common myth that it’s impossible to study for the Multiple Choice. We can however look at what’s been asked in the past and make sure we don’t make any omissions in our preparation.

I can tell you this: questions generally focus on theory or experiment.

Thanks Vamsi, that’s the entire course!

Yes, and no! What exactly are they asking, what should we focus on that we may not have considered. If you look at questions from previous years, this is the general form you’ll encounter.

1 – What does this piece of equipment do?
2 – What information was/wasn’t learnt from this experiment?

Theories and Hypothesis
3 – What did scientist X say about this?
4 – using the theory you’ve learnt, explain/calculate this?

So if look at question type 1, how well do you know the experiments? Do you know why there was a collimator in Thompson’s experiment? Why is there a spring in the galvanometer? You are expected to know these experiments inside and out, and that means what components were used and why. Multiple choice seems easy but don’t underestimate it. They’re giving you options to choose from and this means the detail you’ll need to select the correct answer can be quite subtle.

What about question  2? What was Thompson trying to measure? What did we learn from it? Make sure you know the motivations and consequences of experiments not just what happened.

As for the theories, make sure you have an awareness of the contribution of all the Physicists mentioned in the HSC course. You can find this information in the syllabus. Make sure you’ve deconstructed the syllabus and appreciate the role of all the scientists in the course. This is a common line of enquiry. You can find some help on how to do this here:

Here’s how you can go about breaking down the Physics Syllabus

As for the last question, it’s not uncommon for there to be a calculation in the multiple choice. Some students find this comforting since they have an answer to compare to at the end. Remember, there are no marks for working in the multiple choice!

Protip! Take care with silly errors such as failing to convert units.

The people who designed the paper know this, the options given to you aren’t necessarily the correct answer and three random answers. They know there are some common mistakes and will deviously include these in the options.

Don’t rely on the fact that the answer on your page happens to be the same number as one of the options, check your work to make sure no silly errors have taken place, and then check again!

Don’t give up when you’re not sure of the answer! You may not know the correct answer but at least try and isolate odd answers. By getting rid of an odd answer you will reduce the number of options you have to pick from, improving your chance of success. Below are some samples of the trolling you may encounter.

If I need to launch a rocket, I’d want to go as fast as possible not slow it down!

How fast is the train moving, not sure yet, but it’s definitely not faster than light!

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 9.49.41 PM

Short Answer – Graphing:

The graphing question is your chance to collect yourself in the exam. Take a breather, it’s not too hard. If you follow a few basic guidelines.

  • If you have to choose axes, be sure to put the dependent variable on the y axis. If you’re asked to plot A vs. B, A should be on the y-axis and B should be on the x-axis.
  • Label your axes, make sure there’s a title and make sure your scale allows your graph to use all the available space! You will often be asked to draw a line of best fit, so if you have a big canvas to work with it makes the job easier.
  • USE your line of best fit. Why am I saying this? Many students are capable of drawing a good line of best fit, but they proceed not to use it, in subsequent questions! Any analysis of the data you make such as taking gradients or calculating values should be done from the line of best fit, NOT from data points! (It is likely the data points don’t exactly lie on the line of best fit! So it is incorrect to use them!)

Short Answer – Calculations:

What are some common calculations? Well for the Space module, the usual suspects are:

  • Projectile Motion,
  • Orbital Motion,
  • Special Relativity

For Motors and Generators they are:

  • Force on a motor,
  • Forces on parallel wires,
  • Voltage and current changes in transformers

And for Ideas to implementations, it is likely:

  • Forces on charges in electric fields,
  • Forces on moving charges in a magnetic field
  • The photoelectric effect

You should be familiar with the formulae you need to solve these questions, and how to use them. This article has all the information you need to master the HSC Physics Formulae.

Some handy hints!

Ask yourself if you are being asked for a vector quantity, if so you will need to provide the magnitude AND direction. E.g. if you were asked for a velocity. Your answer may be: The velocity of the particle is 10 metres per second upwards. This is not just semantics, there is a fundamental difference between speed and velocity. You MUST give a direction.

Be reasonable with decimal places. Don’t write down 10.00003234N. If all the numbers in the question were to 3 sig fig. The correct answer would be 10.0N. There is an important reason behind this it’s not just simply convention. By writing so many decimal places you are claiming accuracy you don’t have! If measuring something with a ruler we might say something is 13mm, you wouldn’t say 13.0000000mm because you can’t measure that accurately with a normal ruler.

And of course it goes without saying, don’t forget units!

Extended Response Style Questions:

Try and plan for everything, whether it be a 3 marker or a 6 marker!

Why plan?

Have you ever written a few sentences only to realise you’ve taken the wrong approach and have to start again? Or perhaps you end up trying to furiously patch up an answer that’s started off on the wrong foot. A good plan should be a mind map of your thought process and a rough scaffold of the final answer. It will give you direction when you’re writing your final answer, and expose any holes in your answer before you begin writing it.

It also has some other great advantages! If you’ve mismanaged your time and find your running short, even if you don’t have time to write a full answer a great plan can get you most if not all of the marks you need. If you do have time at the end of the test, when you’re checking your work instead of looking through a long essay answer you can go through your plan and see if you’ve missed anything, you wanted to mention. I could ramble on about why this is so important but let me just show you a few sample plans!

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 8.38.24 PMIn summary, highlight key words of the question, and then address them briefly. Notice how brief my answers are, this is just a plan. They are detailed enough to be meaningful to someone who reads them, but not so long that I’m wasting time.

The Physics exam is not an English exam, they are not testing whether you can write a poetic answer, but whether you understand the Physics. Clarity is more valuable than a meandering answer. In the event I didn’t have time to answer this question in full, the plan alone is potentially clear enough to collect 2 marks on its own, as brief as it is!

Finally, I will close this post by showing you a more detailed plan for a longer question:

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 9.12.23 PM

As you can see, I’ve highlighted key words, and tried to rationalise what the marker might be looking for. Once I know what I’ll have to write about, I list all the things I’ll need to explain it all. Notice the entire experiment is described in one sentence. Don’t waste time elaborating in your plan. This is just so I can remember what happened, so it will jog my memory and I can write efficiently when writing my complete answer.

I also draw diagrams to remember how Hertz verified the properties predicted by Maxwell. When writing my final answer I would probably redraw these diagrams. Don’t be afraid to draw a diagram. Just because there are lines on the page, doesn’t mean you can’t draw a diagram. A picture tells a thousand words, if you can roughly draw the experiment in a quick sketch, do so! It doesn’t matter if you’re not Picasso, as you can see I’m clearly not an artist.

Practice Makes Perfect

Hopefully you now know what you can expect, and how to tackle the different types of questions you’ll face. The worst way to find out if you’re prepared or not is after you’ve already sat the trial! So try and get some practice in, we’ve compiled a master list of practice papers (with ANSWERS!!!) to help you get prepared

Good Luck!

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Vamsi Srinivasan is looking to uncover the next hidden truth of the universe. He was so fascinated by the beauty of Physics and Mathematics during his HSC that he went on to study Physics at University. He is now in his second year of a dual degree in Physics/Computer Science. He loves physics and maths so much, he wanted to share his passion and has been an Art of Smart coach for the past 2 years. He’s helped coach students in physics as well as all ranges of HSC Maths from General to Extension 2. In his spare time you can find him watching Tennis or Formula 1 or perhaps listening to his favourite podcast ‘Hello Internet’.