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Exam Preparation Week 5

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

The Obstacle is the Way: turning SAC setbacks into a revision plan

Welcome to another episode of “Allen talks Biology” (we’ll come up with a better title soon, trust me). Where did we leave off last week? My last SAC went a bit pear-shaped, despite all my efforts to ensure otherwise. Short answer questions are painful, but they don’t have to be.

If you’ve seen the first post in the series, you might even remember me mentioning a revision plan made from the Frankensteined remains of the study design.

Like a good TV show, this is where the plot threads start knitting together. I want to go through two distinct (but very related) things that happen at this time of year: dealing with a less-than-ideal SAC mark, and bouncing back into a study plan for the last stretch of the year.

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t get stressed easily, you can skip on to the second half. For those of us who get worked up about tests and results- and if you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re that type- I hope some of this helps.

Not the end of the world (and other useful advice)

I can’t even remember what mark I ended up getting for the SAC, other than 1) it sucked and 2) I felt down for the whole first week of Term 4. I gave it my full attention. I stayed up late to make my notes. I wanted to make this work. Either what I did wasn’t enough, or I simply wasn’t cut out for Biology.

To continue with the TV show metaphor, at this point we’d expect the main character to stand up, remember some inspirational catchphrase, while the theme song plays in the background as they punch the villain in the face.

Obviously, real life doesn’t work like that. Getting a bad SAC mark- especially for a SAC you’ve worked hard for- hits different. At this point, the people around you might tell you the time-honoured advice: getting a 70% (or 50%, or even a fail) is “not the end of the world”.

What does that really mean? I don’t think it means you should ignore the disappointment; it’s virtually impossible when all my friends were in the habit of comparing marks for everything. I also don’t think it’s a cue to give up on studying (although if a break helps, absolutely do it- you’ve got nothing to lose), especially not in this critical period. For me, “not the end of the world” means exactly what it says on the tin. It’s not over yet. There’s still time left, and having time means I can do something about it.

When I had some time to reflect, I did the maths. Those marks counted for about 5% of my study score. They were there to establish a ranking for my cohort. Most importantly, if I did well in November, all of it would get scaled up. I think it’s incredibly easy to get lost in the hype and stress of it all: as long as it’s not the literal apocalypse, there’ll always be a solution within reach.

Moving forward from here

So what then? I didn’t feel like I was nearly as ready as my classmates were, but I did have that study plan I devised in Term 3. I had dissected the study design and listed down everything I needed help with; the goal was to tick off every item on the list before the exams. (Click here to download an example).

Now that all my SACs were done, I had the time and resources to go through the list and refine it down to its key components. I took a weekend to fish out my past SAC papers (in varying states of disrepair) and noted down the ‘problem areas’ in each one. Some of them were one-offs- I forgot to label the axes in an activation energy graph. But others, like my lack of structure in short answer questions, persisted throughout the year.

With close inspection, some obvious patterns begin to emerge. That was enough to start modifying my list: based on my SAC performance: for instance, I was better at Unit 3 AOS1 (respiration/photosynthesis/biochem) than I had thought, but was in need of serious attention on everything genetics-related across both units. I think it’s almost impossible to do something like this without the benefit of overviewing the entire year, especially not in a subject that covers a base as broad as Biology.

What I got out of that weekend was a clear, personalised list- both skills and content- that I needed to ask more questions about, consult more resources for, and tackle harder in practice exams.

If this sounds like something you need to do, a word of warning. Many SACs aren’t designed to mimic the exam; there’s a focus on knowing specific details, rather than the higher-level grasp of principles that the final exam emphasises. Reviewing your SACs shouldn’t turn into a keyword memorisation exercise; the purpose, if anything, is to figure out which key words you don’t need to memorise (so you can save your brainpower for tackling the tough stuff).

Likewise, be aware that it’s tedious stuff. Being confronted by your mistakes is also just… not pleasant in general. Ultimately, I can promise that it’s worthwhile. I can vouch for how much time it saved me when exam time for five other subjects hit me like a truck.

If there’s a weekend that you can be antisocial and feel proud about it, it’s definitely the weekend where you set up your final revision plan! Find those obstacles, because after you power through them, you’ll be on your way to a confident Term 4.

Have a question?

In the final weeks before exams Allen will be hosting 2 Live Q&A sessions to help everyone get fully prepared for exams. If you have a question on how to best get prepared, have been stuck on an exam question or want to clarify an area of content send it through here, and Allen might answer it live!

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