The student becomes the teacher: how HSC study set me up for life

Teacher Colm McCaughan  at Patrician Brothers College, Blacktown.
Teacher Colm McCaughan at Patrician Brothers College, Blacktown.

I remember preparing for my own HSC right from the end of Year 11.

I psyched myself up for it mentally, knowing that if I was going to take my habit of maybe one or two nights study before an exam into the big ones, I was setting myself up to fail.

I began to balance my time between my vast sporting commitments and study.

Every afternoon, instead of going straight home, I went and parked myself in the library of Warrane College, UNSW, finishing all homework and getting at least an hour’s study done each night.

When it came to the stu-vac just before the HSC exams, I basically told myself, “One month of pain now, three months of bliss afterwards.”

I woke up at 7 every morning for a big breakfast, and made sure I started studying by 9am each day, so as to get my mind in the habit of being switched on when the exams would start.

As I did a lot of history, I would practice writing essays within a 45-minute time limit, and surprise surprise, I found I could write more and more in a shorter space of time, to the extent that I could manage one page every seven minutes.

Other than that I had an essay plan for just about every question and had quotes/language techniques that I could adapt to fit any question.

In fact for modern history, which was by far my favourite subject, I did every past essay question from past HSC questions that I was able to predict what would come up that year.

I did General Maths (no shame!), and as maths is a drill subject, I worked at it just about every day.

Re-doing past HSC questions and making sure I was getting Band 6 results in them, really helped me, as I got used to the style of question that would be asked in the exam. Maths ended up being my best subject.

Looking back I’m extremely pleased with what I was able to achieve in my HSC exams.

My essay writing was quite weak before I began Year 12 and it was through constant practice and knowledge of the content (plus a lot of hassling teachers to mark them!) that I got a lot better at it.

The student becomes the teacher: Colm McCaughan.
The student becomes the teacher: Colm McCaughan.

This constant practice set me up for university.

In fact, if I was to go back to my old self preparing for the HSC, I would say, “Keep at it. Every minute is worth it.”

I never had to work as hard at uni because the study habits and techniques that I developed in my HSC preparation set me up for life.

I now teach Studies of Religion and history at Patrician Brothers College, Blacktown, with two classes of SOR boys completing their HSC this year.

The advice I gave them is the same I give to every student.

  • Give it your best shot. Push yourself hard for a few weeks and the feeling in the holidays after that will be amazing.
  • Get used to working at the times your exams will be (9-12, 2-5) so that your body-clock as you gearing to go once the timer starts.
  • Schedule in breaks and exercise.
  • Reward yourself after completing a tough study session, it gives you something to look forward to. For me it was chocolate!
  • Keep the phone away from your study desk. Particularly if you’re a bloke like me, you won’t give study your best shot if you’re too busy Snapchatting, checking likes on Facebook or Instagram, or messaging friends.

Finally, for all the families and friends. Ultimately you aren’t the ones sitting the HSC but my parents were extremely supportive during the exam period.

I was given special ‘HSC privileges’, which involved keeping the siblings quiet, special food (i.e. whatever I felt like) deliveries, and above all, prayers.

Either mum or dad would drive me to the exam venue (a rarity in my school days), and would pray a rosary while the exam was on.

Knowing that my family was behind me 100 per cent helped me remain calm throughout this stressful period.

More in our series of columns from young teachers as they reflect on their own HSC experience, and share how they are preparing students for the upcoming exams, which commence 13 October: