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How to get a High ATAR — 34 Pro Tips to Study Smarter

Worried about how to get a high ATAR? Don't be! With these pro techniques, you'll ace your exams and fly through the year stress-free.

VCE student at home studying for an exam
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Math Minds

Monday, 23rd May 2022

The ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) is used by universities to select students for undergraduate courses. It's a numerical score between 0 and 99.95, and it's calculated based on your results in your exams and SACs.

It's no secret that getting a high ATAR score can open up a world of opportunities. But with the pressure of school, extra-curricular activities and social life, how can you make sure you're studying effectively and giving yourself the best chance to achieve your goal?

We've put together a list of 34 proven tips to help you study smarter and get the dream score you're aiming for.

Study hacks

1. Understand concepts instead of memorising

One of the biggest mistakes students make is thinking that they need to memorise everything. This isn't the case – if you understand the concepts, then you'll be able to apply them to any question that's thrown at you. So, make sure you spend time understanding the material, not just memorising it.

While memorising facts might be needed for certain humanities subjects, your first attempt should be to try and understand the underlying theme or the 'big idea'. If you can do this, it will make recalling the information a lot easier and you will be able to apply it to different questions in an exam.

2. Pace yourself and space it out

Year 11 and 12 is not a sprint, it's a marathon. Pacing yourself is important to make sure you don't burn out too early. This means studying regularly throughout the year, and not trying to cram everything in at the last minute.

Research shows that 'spaced revision' is more effective than trying to pack it all in the night before or even prolonged marathon library study sessions. Long periods of study lead to a lack of concentration and therefore a lack of retention.

We recommend studying small amounts - but regularly. Space out your studying over several short periods of time and over several days and weeks. This will help embed the information in your memory and make recalling it easier come exam time.

3. Stay a step ahead of the class

As your school rushes through the curriculum, it can be easy to fall behind. You should make it your goal to always be one step ahead of your class. This way, you'll have a better understanding of the material and you'll be less likely to get lost.

confident student reading ahead in english advanced

Instead of waiting for your teacher to explain the next topic, you should read ahead, and dive in on your own. Even if the material looks unfamiliar, attempt to summarise the key points and even answer some questions. This way, when it is covered in class, you'll be able to consolidate your understanding rather than trying to learn it from scratch.

4. Review material frequently

Constantly revisit the material you've covered in class. No matter which active recall method you use, make sure you're regularly testing yourself on the material and your class notes. This will help to move it from your short-term memory into your long-term memory.

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve shows us that students will rapidly lose their memory of learned knowledge in a matter of days or weeks unless the information is consciously reviewed.

Ebbinghaus forgetting curve

And don't just focus on the things you find easy – make sure you're also testing yourself on the things you find more challenging. This is where many students slip up – they only revise the things they know well, rather than pushing themselves and trying to improve their weaker areas.

5. Interleaving practice

Interleaving is a study technique where you alternate between different subjects or topics. So, rather than focusing on one topic at a time, you would mix things up and work on several different topics in each study session.

This well-known strategy is your first step towards academic success. So why is it so effective? It forces your brain to constantly switch gears and adjust to the new material. This process aids memory retention and can also help you to better understand how different concepts are related.

6. Make use of technology

There are now many apps and online resources that can help you with your studies. Some of these are designed to help you summarise information, others provide past papers, practice questions and some allow you to create flashcards.

Find the tools that work best for you and make use of them to help you study more effectively. Whichever tools you choose, make sure you're using them actively and not just passively reading material. Technology is only effective if you're using it to engage with the content in a meaningful way.

7. Seek help from an expert tutor

student working with an online tutor to improve atar score

If you're serious about improving your VCE study scores or HSC marks, you cannot look past one-on-one tutoring. The best way to improve your understanding of the material and your exam technique is to work with an expert tutor who can tailor lessons to your individual needs.

At Math Minds, our VCE tutoring program is about more than just revision materials and practise papers. Our academic support includes simplifying difficult concepts, helping you stay motivated and fostering a deep understanding of the Maths Curriculum.

Tuition is a fantastic way of realising your true academic potential. It's an absolute no-brainer for anyone who is seeking a support network, access to high-quality resources and a 90+ ATAR.

8. Focus on active studying - Not just reading

Active studying means more than just rereading your textbook, highlighting or underlining text. It's about engaging with the material, testing your understanding and trying to apply what you've learned.

There are many different ways you can make your studying more active:

  • Take notes by hand rather than typing them out on a laptop. This will help you to process the information as you write it down.

  • Try to explain the concepts to someone else. This could be a friend or family member. If you can't explain it clearly, then you don't really understand it yourself.

  • Create mind maps or concept maps to visualise the information and see how different concepts are related.

  • For non-technical subjects (e.g., English, Ancient History, Psychology), learn to explain, contrast, and analyse the big ideas.

  • For technical subjects (Maths and Science), work on the problems, and explain the steps and WHY they work, rather than a regurgitation of a process.

Exam revision techniques

9. Start early - Make an exam blocks timetable

The key to effective exam revision is to start early. Don't leave it until the last minute – you'll only end up feeling stressed and overwhelmed.

setting up an exam timetable to get a 99 atar

Start by creating an exam revision timetable that outlines when you're going to study, which topics and for how long. Make sure you allow yourself regular breaks and try to stick to a routine as much as possible.

It sometimes helps to start with your favourite subject first. This is a great way to get into the swing of things and build some momentum. You can then use this positive energy to help you power through the rest of your revision.

10. Short bursts of high intensity (Pomodoro technique)

One of the best ways to revise is to break down your study sessions into short, manageable blocks of time. This technique, known as the Pomodoro technique, can help you to stay focused and avoid burnout.

Here's how it works:

You work for 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break. After four rounds of this (i.e., two hours of study), you then take a longer break (15–30 minutes). There are lots of apps to help you apply this technique.

11. Use mnemonics

Mnemonics are memory devices that help you to remember information more easily. There are lots of different types, but the most common ones involve creating an acronym or using a rhyme.

Here are some examples:

My Dear Aunt Sally (for the order of operations in Maths: Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction). Or Every good boy deserves fudge (for the notes on a treble clef: E, G, B, D, F)

Creating your own mnemonics can be really effective – especially if you're able to personalise them to the way you learn best.

12. Flashcards

Flashcards are a great way to revise key information and test your knowledge in the lead up to your final exam. You may remember using these in primary school for things like spelling tests and times tables.

To use them effectively, make sure you:

  • Create a deck for each subject or topic area.

  • Include key concepts, definitions, formulas, etc. on one side of the card and the answer on the other side.

  • Test yourself regularly and shuffle the cards so you don't always start with the ones you find easiest.

  • Use a larger deck of 20 rather than 4 small decks of 5.

Try different revision methods for creating and using your flashcards until you find one that works best for you. Some people prefer to use apps like Quizlet, while others prefer the more traditional pen-and-paper method.

13. Practice with past papers

You can't just sit down and do a few past exams or SACs the night before the real thing and expect to ace it. You need to build up your exam stamina by doing regular practise exams under timed conditions. If you want to feel extremely prepared, develop more confidence and improve your time management, this is the way to do it.

The more practise papers you can complete and correct before the real exam, the better. Space them out properly, to allow for some revision in between attempts and to track your progress. Each paper not only exposes you to potential exam-style questions but also gives you the opportunity to experiment with different exam techniques.

Due to poor planning, most students are unable to complete all the previous year's papers in the lead up to their final exams. Don't let that be you!

To give yourself enough time to get through, let's say, 20 prior end-of-year exam papers, your ultimate goal should be to finish the school syllabus by the start of term 4. And the only way this can happen is if you get a head start on the curriculum from day dot, put in the hard work and study efficiently during the first 3 terms.

14. The Feynman Technique

The Feynman Technique is a great way to learn and memorise information. It's named after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman and it's based on the idea that if you can't explain something simply, you don't really understand it.

Here's how it works:

  • Choose a topic that you want to learn about

  • Write down everything you already know about it

  • Identify the gaps in your knowledge

  • Do some research to fill in the gaps

  • Teach someone else what you've learned (preferably using simple, layman's terms)

explaining maths extension to a friend

The process of teaching someone else forces you to really understand the material at a deep level and commit it to memory. It also helps you to identify any areas that are still fuzzy in your mind.

15. Mind-mapping

Mind maps are a great way to visually organise information and see the connections between different concepts. They're also really helpful for memory recall.

To create a mind map, you start with a central idea or topic in the middle of a blank page and then branch out from there, adding new ideas and information as you go.

First, create a mind-map with all the content you need to recall, then try to recreate the same map from memory. This technique is especially useful for visual learners.

There are no hard and fast rules for creating mind maps, so feel free to experiment until you find a method that works best for you. Some students prefer to use pen and paper, while others use mind-mapping software like MindMeister or FreeMind.

Get motivated

16. Visualise yourself starting

Procrastination is a common enemy when it comes to studying, but there are a few simple techniques you can use to stay on track.

One of the best ways to overcome procrastination is to visualise yourself starting a task. It can be as simple as getting your laptop out and opening your books. This simple yet powerful method tricks your brain into thinking that you've already started studying, making it more likely that you'll actually do it.

It can also be daunting to try and study for hours on end, but if you break up your study goal into smaller, more manageable chunks, it'll seem a lot less daunting. You'd be surprised at how much you can get done when you focus your attention on that first small step.

17. Establish SMART goals

Your goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound (SMART).

For example, setting a goal to "study more" is not SMART because it's not specific or measurable. A better goal would be to "complete 30 short-answer legal studies questions for one hour every day."

It's important that your goals are achievable, otherwise, you'll get frustrated and demotivated. And they should be relevant to your long-term goal of getting a good ATAR score.

Finally, every goal should have a time frame associated with it so that you can track your progress.

18. Study with your friends

One of the best ways to stay motivated and on track with your studies is to find a study buddy or join a study group that is doing the same VCE or HSC subjects as you.

HSC students learning how to work smart in a library together

Not only will you be held accountable for your actions, but you'll also have someone to bounce ideas off and help you when you're stuck. Just make sure that you choose friends who are serious about their studies and who won't distract you from your goals.

You can also join an online study group or forums where you can ask questions, get advice and share resources with other students.

19. Reward yourself

During your final year, you want to celebrate your successes, no matter how small they may be. When you reach a milestone or achieve one of your goals, give yourself a pat on the back and reward yourself with something that you enjoy.

It doesn't have to be anything big or expensive; it could be as simple as watching an episode of your favourite TV show or taking a break to play some Elden Ring. The important thing is that you take the time to celebrate your accomplishments.

20. Exercise around study sessions

Exercise is a great way to boost your energy levels and improve your focus. Just make sure that you don't overdo it, as too much exercise can actually have the opposite effect.

student playing tennis at school young melbourne teenager doing tricks on a bmx bike

A moderate amount of exercise is the key to success. A good rule of thumb is to aim for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as walking or cycling, 4 or 5 times a weeks.

Exercising before or after you study:

You can also try some brain-training exercises, such as crosswords and Sudoku, to improve your cognitive function.

21. Find meaning in the content

high atar student focusing in chemistry lab to get into her university course

The most effective way to stay motivated and focused when you're studying is to find meaning in the content. When you're doing your work, think about how it will help you in your future career or how it can be applied to real-life situations.

This will not only make the material more interesting, but it will also help you to better retain the information.

It can also be helpful to connect with a mentor who is already working in the field that you're interested in. They can provide you with insight into what you're studying and how it's relevant to the real world.

Boost your health & wellbeing

22. Get a good night's sleep

Self-care is vital for students as they journey towards a high ATAR. One of the best things that you can do for your mental and physical health is to get a good night's sleep.

A recent study actually found better sleep habits lead to better grades. However, this doesn’t mean getting a solid sleep the night before a test. It's about building consistency in the nights before you do the bulk of your studying.

Seven to eight hours of sleep each night is just what the doctor ordered. Do not underestimate the power of sleep as a way to rejuvenate the human brain and body. A good night's sleep will help you to:

  • Be more alert and focused during the day

  • Think more clearly and creatively

  • Make better decisions

  • Be more productive

  • Relieve stress

  • Cope with change more effectively

23. Set aside time for your hobbies

Balance is everything. This means making time for your hobbies and interests. When you're studying, it can be easy to become so focused on your work that you forget about the things that you enjoy doing, in your free time, outside of school.

HSC students playing guitar in spare time

But if you set aside some time each week to do something that you love, it will help you to relax and de-stress. This will improve your focus and concentration when you're studying, as well as your overall mental health.

24. Schedule relaxation and eat healthy foods

From taking a break to watch some Netflix or going for a walk in the park, don't forget to schedule some relaxation time into your day, so that you don't become overwhelmed by your studies. Make sure you set aside time to enjoy yourself! This includes socialising and partying.

You must take time to relax, unwind and 'switch off', so that you can come back to your studies feeling refreshed and ready to focus.

Furthermore, what you eat has a direct impact on your energy levels, focus and overall health. So, it's critical to fuel your body with healthy foods that will give you the nutrients that you need to function at your best.

25. Develop stress coping strategies

Stressful times are a normal part of these few years, but they can become a problem if they're not managed effectively. In fact, not all stress is bad. Some amounts push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioural and cognitive performance.

However too much under pressure can have a negative impact on your health, both physically and mentally. That's why it's important to develop some stress-coping techniques to deal with situations in a healthy way.

Some helpful tips include:

  • Deep breathing exercises

  • Meditation, Yoga or stretching

  • Spending time in nature

  • Listening to music

  • Sketching or writing in a journal

  • Talking to someone who you trust about what's going on for you

26. Surround yourself with positivity

Elevate your company and surround yourself with positive people. These are those who will support you, lift you up and help you to reach your goals. They will also be there for you when things get tough and celebrate your successes with you. So choose wisely who you spend your time with.

Positivity is contagious, so being in a positive environment will help to improve your own outlook on life. This can lead to increased happiness, motivation and success.

Some ways to surround yourself with positivity include:

  • Spending time with family and friends who make you feel good

  • Doing things that make you happy

  • Practising gratitude

  • Helping others

  • Smiling and laughing more

  • Listening to and reading positive affirmations

Relaxing with friends in a park

27. Focus on being the best version of you

Stop comparing yourself to others and focus on being the best version of you. This means accepting yourself for who you are, valuing your own opinion and setting your own standards.

Remember, you are unique and there is no one else like you in the world. So focus on honing your own skills and talents and reach for your personal best. If you're serious about a 99 ATAR, this is the way to go.

Organisation 101

28. Choose subjects you love

Many students think that in order to get a 99 ATAR, they should choose subjects that will scale up. But this isn't always the best approach. VCE scaling should not be a primary factor in your subject selection process.

You're more likely to do better in subjects that you love and feel passionate about. If you're not interested in the subject matter, it will be difficult to stay motivated and focused, especially when things get tough.

29. Optimise your environment

Setting the stage for success starts with creating an optimal learning environment. This means having a dedicated study space that is comfortable, well-lit and free from distractions.

vce student doing extra work in her study room

It's also important to manage noise levels and eliminate any sources of procrastination, such as TV, social media or your bed! Creating structure and routine will also help to optimise your learning space.

Some students actually require a bit of noise or music in the background, so experiment, work out what works best for you and then adjust your space accordingly.

30. Create a study timetable

One of the best ways to stay on top of your studies is to create a study schedule. This will help you to organise your time, set priorities and make sure that you're covering all the necessary content. You'll need to form at least 2 or 3 study blocks a night with subjects assigned to each block.

Your timetable should be realistic and take into account other commitments, such as work, dinner, family time or extracurricular activities. Remember, it's there as a guide. Keep it flexible and allow for some 'wiggle room' in case things come up.

We suggest printing out a couple of copies and pinning them up - one in your room and another on the fridge. This will keep you accountable and your parents in the loop (and off your back).

31. Set rules for yourself

When it comes to studying, some students prefer complete freedom while others do better with set rules and boundaries. If you're the latter, it might be helpful to set some ground rules for yourself. This could involve setting a study start and finish time, limiting social media use or banning phone calls during study periods.

These rules need to be realistic and achievable. They should also be specific enough so that you can measure your progress. For example, a rule like 'I will only check my phone during break times' is much more effective than 'I won't use my phone during study'. Another great rule could be 'I'll always finish my essay 2 days before it is due'.

32. Break down the material into chunks

One of the best strategies to study effectively is to break down the material into smaller, more manageable chunks. This will make it easier to retain information and spot patterns or connections.

A good technique is to create a summary sheet for each topic. This will force you to engage with the material and identify the key points. Once you have a good understanding of the main ideas, you can then start filling in the details.

33. Use your holidays

During your holidays you must design a different timetable to complete your goals for the upcoming year. It is important that you don’t become a slacker over the holidays, or you will regret it when you get your results.

It's the perfect time to catch up on any content you may have missed during the school term or to consolidate what you have already learned. You can also use the holidays to get ahead by starting on next year's content.

34. Take and make good notes

If you can organise your thoughts clearly on paper, you'll have a much better chance of understanding and remembering the material.

student learning how to take notes the same way as high atar achievers

Try to use a variety of study techniques to keep your notes interesting, such as mind-maps, bullet points, flow-charts or diagrams. And don't forget to add your own personal touch - write in your own voice and use colour and highlighters to make the notes stand out. The key is to make sure that your notes are concise, clear and focus on the most important information.

Some students think that, because their teachers have provided them with notes, then they don't need to write any of their own. But this is a huge mistake! Their notes are meant to be a guide, not a replacement for your own. Be sure to write your own to engage with the material on a deeper level and promote better retention.

Ineffective learning techniques

Many students utilize time-consuming methods that give a false sense of expertise. They work hard just before a test but do not focus their efforts on long-term learning.

Student who decided not to follow the top tips and is feeling stressed

Here are some things to avoid:

How do I make my ATAR higher?

If you're aiming for a high ATAR, then you'll need to put in the work. But as you can see – it's not all about studying. There are other things you can do to make sure you maximise your score.

To get into your desired course, you need to achieve the ATAR requirements. No matter what you're aiming for – a 99+ ATAR or an 85, these tips will help you get there.

Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all solution and what works for one student might not work for another. The most important thing is to find a study method that suits your learning style and stick to it.

Your success does not depend on what you study, but on how you study. Whether that means following a timetable, developing good habits for exam revision, or maintaining your physical and mental health, make sure that you are using your time effectively.

Achieving a high ATAR is possible with the right attitude and approach. Believe in yourself, stay positive throughout the process and seek help when you need it. Most importantly, don't forget to enjoy the journey!

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