Your ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) forms a crucial part of your journey into medicine or dentistry. You will usually need an ATAR of 95 or higher to have a chance of receiving a commonwealth supported place (CSP) offer.
Before reading on to find out how you can improve your grades, remember...
It’s not one size fits all.
The revision methods that work for your friends may not work for you and you won’t be able to use the same revision method for every subject. Similarly, ways to de-stress are unique to each of us and will change depending on the situation.
This article will give you an idea of some study, motivation, and planning/organisation techniques available to you. Figuring out what suits you personally is the next step on your path to academic success, and experimenting with different techniques will be well worth the time you invest.
It’s common for the peers and teachers you’re surrounded by to use and recommend diligent note taking for every subject. In fact, students often spend the majority of their study time taking or summarising notes without considering that other effective techniques are available to them.
Although note taking and summarising are incredibly popular among students, there is limited evidence that these strategies are effective ways to learn. In fact, you may effectively be handicapping yourself if you don’t try out other techniques. A 2013 study by Dunlosky et al. showed that some common strategies, such as highlighting and rereading, are not effective learning techniques. Instead, study techniques that utilise active recall and spaced repetition are far more efficient ways to learn.
You are going to spend countless hours studying, so it’s worth learning how to do it effectively. There are many resources available to help you find a technique that works for you (e.g. Science News for Students).
Your revision and preparation should begin as early as possible. By compiling and regularly practicing with your revision materials throughout the whole year, you’ll be well-prepared by the time you’re tested on the content. Research has shown that spaced revision is the most effective way to revise, which is why we recommend studying small amounts regularly instead of cramming just before exams.
It’s also important to understand things as you go. If there are any gaps in your knowledge at the start of the year, it’s likely that these gaps will widen as you get further into the subject. This is because what you learn at the start of the year often forms the foundation of what you’ll cover over the rest of the year.
You don’t need to be chronological in the way that you revise. Score yourself on each topic of the syllabus so that when you’re revising you can focus on the lowest scoring topics first.
You have the most room for improvement in your weaker topics, so focusing on these weaker topics is more efficient than spending hours remembering the small portion of content you don’t know in a subject you’re very comfortable with.
Create a list of all the resources available to you for each subject. This can include textbooks, websites, links to past papers and links to questions. This will give you an idea of everything that you can use for your revision.
This is particularly useful if you want to use many practice questions to study. Once you have a list of all the questions you can possibly (or practically) do, divide the questions over a period of time and regularly work through them until your exams.
Highlighting texts or re-reading passages can make you feel like you're familiar with all of the content, but re-reading is actually of limited value when studying. Trying to recall the information you’re studying (active recall) is much more beneficial and is similar to an actual exam, so focus on techniques that incorporate this.
Examples of active recall techniques include:
Regardless of which memorising technique(s) you use, regularly revisiting your materials is key to retaining information. The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve demonstrates how easily information is forgotten:
Spacing out your repetition of content will help you remember it for much longer.
It’s not uncommon for students to revise and memorise everything they need to know for a topic, but to be thrown off by a question that didn't look like anything they’d learnt before on exam day.
Understanding what you’re learning is more important than memorising pieces of information. You can only apply principles in unfamiliar situations or contexts if you understand the topic well. Memorising facts is also essential for many subjects, but make sure you understand the broader concepts before moving on to memorisation.
Use flashcards and carry them with you all the time. You will be amazed by how efficiently you can use bits of time here and there to boost your revision, and flashcards may work well as a main form of revision for some subjects.
You can also use digital flashcards to test yourself. Some benefits of digital flashcards are that you can share your flashcards and use flashcards made by others, you can copy and paste diagrams instead of having to draw them out, and transporting digital flashcards only involves carrying your phone, tablet, or laptop.
If you’re looking for digital flashcard programs, Anki and Quizlet are both great choices. Anki uses an advanced algorithm to space your revision, meaning that you will remember the content you need to as long as you revise flashcards when the programme recommends you do. Quizlet does not offer as much functionality as Anki but is more user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing.
Take a look at past exams as soon as you can. Familiarity with the structure will give you confidence, and also help you focus on learning the right things. However, you may want to space out your past exams if you have a limited number of them as they are very useful to practise with towards the end of your revision.
Past papers will help you track your progress and see if you’re making improvements and they’ll also help you to practise your timings. This will give you the best chance of completing all questions on test day.
You can use the past papers to practise your exam technique. If you have a choice, are you going to start with the multiple choice questions or do you prefer finishing the longest writing sections first? Doing past papers will give you the chance to experiment and find what works for you.
Read through the content you’ll be taught in each class before going to that class. This will give you an idea of what you’re going to be taught. Then, during the class, you’ll be consolidating what you’ve already read, and it will almost be like you’ve already started revising that topic.
Many universities teach with a ‘flipped classroom’ approach, where students are expected to have a strong grasp of the week’s content before coming into class. As such, reading ahead will help you prepare for university as well as helping you achieve a strong ATAR.
Interleaving, or studying multiple topics in a single session, is an evidence-based method for more effective and longer-lasting learning. Mix several topics during your study sessions, but don’t switch your subjects too often.
Use multiple resources to enhance and reinforce your learning, including your teachers, classmates, textbooks, practice questions, and videos.
For example, textbooks are great for covering all contents in sufficient depth. However, other sources might explain difficult concepts more clearly and learning from multiple sources will give you a deeper understanding of the topic.
Use mnemonics to help you with retention or retrieval of information. For example, memorising the sequence of orbitals for chemistry (s, p, d, f, g, h, i, k) can be hard as there is no pattern to the list of letters, but use the sentence, ‘Sober Physicists Don't Find Giraffes Hiding In Kitchens’ to easily remember this.
Use a mind map to brainstorm or help you remember information pertaining to a topic. Write your subject in the centre of a page and radiate out with a hierarchy of linked topics and facts. When brainstorming, write down as many ideas about the topic as you can, then remove ideas that don’t suit the project before adding more detail to each remaining idea.
Mind maps are useful for remembering information as they allow you to practice active recall. First, make a mind map with whatever content you want to remember. Next, try to recreate the mind map from memory without looking at the original mind map or your notes. Keep recreating the mind map until your exams to help you remember the information on it. Repeat this process with any content that translates well into a mind map.
Examiners’ reports give you an insight into previous exams and show which topics and question types are generally more difficult for students. This allows you to structure your revision to address commonly problematic areas. Once you have a solid grasp of the subject’s content, understanding the viewpoint of examiners and what they’re actually looking for in an exam can be very useful. The reports may also include advice for candidates which is certainly worth considering!
You may find that you need to work on the amount of time you spend studying. In that case, you should take small steps and build up the time you spend revising. Plan to start off by revising an hour a day for a week (or however long is an appropriate starting point for you). You can then bump it up to an hour and a half in the following week, and continue gradually increasing your study time until you’re doing as much as you think is necessary.
Engaging in your hobbies is an effective way to help prevent burnout because spending time on things you enjoy will lift your mood. Improved mood is important for your enjoyment and mental health, and it will also help you be more productive in your study sessions.
It can be tempting to forgo your hobbies in order to get a head start on that assignment, finish off that piece of homework, or any number of other school-related tasks. Doing so might work in the short term, but you’ll start feeling burned out after a while if you focus all your time and energy into studying.
There’s always more study that can be done and your academic work can suck up all your free time, but don’t let it! Use a planner to set aside time to unwind and enjoy your hobbies. This could involve spending an hour every evening practicing guitar, playing sport three times a week, reading a novel before bed, or going for a walk every weekend. Whatever your hobbies are, make sure to not let them be taken over by your academic commitments.
Year 12 will be stressful. It’s important that you know how to minimise and manage your stress, because letting all that stress build up will only do you harm. Some ways to destress include:
If you're struggling with an academic topic at school, ask your teachers for help. They will have the expertise to assist you with the topic - it is their job, after all! More importantly, most teachers genuinely want to help students and will support you in whatever way they can, once you ask for it.
Likewise, if you are experiencing difficulty with your relationships, struggling to cope with your workload, or concerned about any other aspect of your mental health, ask for help. Speaking to your family, school counsellor, psychologist, GP, or anyone else in a position to support you can be the best way to work through any issues you’re facing. Everyone needs help throughout their lives, and asking for it is often the best way to handle a difficult situation.
Study breaks are important for improving your productivity as well as benefiting your mental and physical health. Be aware of your attention span and plan your study sessions accordingly, with quality breaks in between.
A common way to structure study sessions is around the Pomodoro Technique, which involves working for 25 minutes then having a 5 minute break, and giving yourself a longer break every 4 cycles. This can help you work more efficiently for longer, and you can turn it into a game by seeing how much you can get done in each 25 minute block.
Motivation can have an effect on your academic performance. Staying motivated means that your revision sessions will be more productive and you’ll be less likely to burn out. Everyone keeps themselves motivated in different ways, but here are some strategies that might work for you.
Optimise your main study environment. Ensure that you have a well-ventilated room with adequate lighting, and a comfortable chair with your desk at an appropriate height. You might prefer to study in a quiet environment, but many study better with some background noise. Do whatever you can to help you focus.
Be free from distractions and interruptions: put your phone on silent during study sessions or, even better, leave it outside of the room. If this is not practical, turn off your notifications from distracting apps such as Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat.
Equip yourself with the resources you need, including stationery (e.g. notepads, pens, highlighters), study materials (e.g. notes, textbooks, workbooks), digital devices and study planners/calendars. Make sure everything you need is easily accessible to you. Having to go down upstairs to get your biology textbook can be a distraction and interrupt your work flow.
A lot of people say to choose subjects that are going to scale well. In reality, you need to choose subjects that you enjoy and are prerequisites for medicine or dentistry (e.g. English and chemistry). You also don’t need to prioritise choosing subjects that will help you with your university degree, like human biology, since you will learn everything you need to know in the degree itself.
It’s true that some subjects that are less challenging tend to be scaled down, whereas other subjects may get scaled up. Don’t let this factor into your decision making too much. If you enjoy a subject and are passionate about it, you’ll do well in it, provided that you work hard.
Stressing and over analysing scaling will cause unnecessary anxiety and won’t necessarily translate into a higher ATAR.
Find out in advance when your exams will be and add them to a calendar. Have a weekly plan of what you want to cover in that week. This could include making flashcards for the topics you learn that week, working through practice questions, and revising topics from the previous weeks.
Set yourself deadlines that are earlier than the true deadline. If you need to hand in an assignment for Tuesday of week 8, set yourself a deadline for Friday of week 7. This will help you stay on top of your work and will give you a few extra days to review your work.
Learn to prioritise your tasks. A useful system for prioritisation involves assigning your tasks into four quadrants based on importance and urgency, as well as factoring in your readiness or progress. Remember to balance your study between your subjects, as you need high grades across most of your subjects to get into medical or dental school.
It’s important to have a break as you need time to refresh and reset yourself for the next term. However, it’s also important to use some of your holiday to revise the content from the previous term and read ahead into the next term’s content.
This will help you to consolidate all the new things you’ll have learnt so when you revise these topics next time round they won’t feel as old. It also means you’ll have a head start on the content you’ll learn next term, so your workload will be more manageable.
Get to know the syllabus inside-out as it’s an exhaustive list of what you need to know. There's absolutely no point learning things that don’t appear on the syllabus, as you can’t be assessed on them! So the first step is getting to know the contents, and the second is finding out how you will be assessed.
One way to use your syllabus is as a checklist. You can tick off topics as your study progresses throughout the year to help you keep track of what you’ve covered and what’s yet to be covered. This will help you organise your study as you'll know exactly what to revise.
Another good way to use the syllabus for revision is to turn it into questions. If you can answer the questions, you can confirm that you know that topic and move on. For example, a statement on the VCE study design for biology is ‘nucleic acids as information molecules that encode instructions for the synthesis of proteins in cells.’ You can write that statement as a question such as ‘what is the function of nucleic acids?’ and if you feel comfortable answering the question then you should move on to the next statement.
Setting targets for yourself is one of the best ways to organise your time, measure your progress, and ultimately realise your dreams. However, setting goals that aren’t clearly outlined is a sure way to not achieve them. An effective way to set sharply defined goals is by using the SMART mnemonic:
Example of a poorly defined goal:
'I am going to do some chemistry study and ace my exam.'
Example of a SMART goal:
'I am going to do 40 practice questions on organic chemistry each day this week in preparation for my exam next Monday.'