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VCE Study Tips
December 23, 2017
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Fact: The VCE is a competition.
Fact: There are so many brilliant minds out there with vocabularies that can wow the pants off examiners in seconds.
Fact: We have all felt intimidated at some stage of this race by these kids, but here’s the craziest fact of them all….
Fact: You can be one of them.
Do you really believe that the top VCE students, you know, those 99.95 geniuses out there, study religiously for 6-8 hours a day and feel totally motivated to work 24/7?
I used to think that these kiddos were on auto pilot - robots that never had difficulty remembering a quote, never struggled to find their next point in an analytical essay, could always find the energy to write another piece for their teacher to correct. It was as though these students weren’t real, but now that I have had a personal experience at tackling the VCE, I think that anyone can appear to be this ‘amazing’ in English, simply by following one piece of advice: changing your attitude towards studying.
There are no magic tricks, no gimmicks, and no simpler way to put this. If you want to see real results, you need a new perspective on not just English, but all subjects - start “wanting” to study. Today.
So how does this epic VCE competition - full of thousands of students - set apart the very top end students as opposed to the, well, only great students? I’m a firm believer in that your attitude towards your studies will always be indicative of how well you will perform in this race. So don’t start changing what, when or how much you study, make changes to how you study!
Easier said than done, right? Try me. Start by immersing yourself in English (or any subject for that matter) so that you can start to enjoy learning about it. For instance, go to a book club for context, debate the pros and cons of a character’s personality as if they are actually real, and watch the movie adaptation of the book you are studying etc.
Try to find as many avenues as possible that will allow you to enjoy writing an essay, even by taking baby steps. Why not start playing around with an imaginative story about your favourite TV show just to get the hang of creative writing before you hand in an imaginative essay tailored to your study requirements? Once you change that attitude from “I ‘need’ to write this” to “I ‘want’ to and ‘would like to’ improve on this” you will see an enormous shift in results, self-satisfaction and confidence! Don’t be daunted by a difficult topic in the text response section – view it as a way of “showing off” to the examiners; take your time planning about how much depth you can put into your response and make it a challenge to rise beyond expectations as opposed to meeting the bare minimum and providing a mediocre response.
So c’mon! Dive right into the deep end and throw yourself into your studies. You don’t need to take out a mortgage, nor a fancy exercise book with fluffy pink pens. You only need to pack your positive attitude.
1. You’re using too many
Bet you didn’t think that you could use too many quotes in a text response essay - it seems impossible, right? Wrong. There needs to be space in your essay for ideas to develop and some sentences (other than the introductory and concluding sentences) will have no quotes in them.
Each quote or group of quotes needs to be quantified in its own right so that it adds sustenance to your essay. If you use a quote, you need to pair it with a concept. The point of quotes is to justify that what you’re suggesting about the text is true and correct. If you can use quotes effectively, then you should be able to justify a huge number of abstract viewpoints about any work.
There is no set number that constitutes a correct amount of quote. It’s mostly about the ratio within an essay.
To ensure that you do not use too many quotes, read over your essay to check that your ideas are clear and the quotes substantiate the concepts that you put forward. For every quote you write, ask yourself, does it support my idea and is it relevant to my essay topic? For every small point that you bring up, you can collect quotes and perhaps use three to four short quotes (see point three).
Too many quotes can give you a headache.
2. You’re using too few
On the other hand, there is such thing as using too few quotes. You need enough evidence to support what you’re suggesting about the text, otherwise it seems as though you lack knowledge of the text.
This one is common mistake made among those students who decide that they can get through VCE English without reading the texts.
The solution is easy. Read the text and make mind-maps of themes and ideas along with quotes from the text that suit. In order to do this, you can read each text at least twice - once to soak in the work, and a second time to work out ideas that require that bit more understanding, and to find those relevant quotes that you need for text response.
You don’t want yours to be like the desert of essays.
3. Your quotes are too long
Quotes that are too long tend to become redundant and a waste of time to memorise and write down. The examiner or marker will also lose interest if your quote spans over more than a line or so. A group of smaller quotes might be more effective in supporting your contention. Of course you should rely on your own judgment and expertise. It is your essay, your ideas and therefore you should decide what types of quotes work best and when!
To evidence your understanding and knowledge of the text, collect several short quotes (one to four words long) from different areas of the text. If you choose several different pieces of evidence from the beginning, middle, and end, all from the same character, and/or from differing characters, this will prove that your idea exists throughout the entire work.
You trying to memorise an entire novel worth of quotes:
You memorising shorter, connected quotes:
4. Your quotes are irrelevant
A common mistake is simply peppering quotes that you remember throughout your essay to make it look like you know the text. Instead, you should actually know your text, and always choose quotes that fully support what you are saying in reference to the author’s contention.
The reader won’t know where your essay is going if you throw random quotes in that don’t support your argument:
5. You’re not embedding the quotes
Finally, to effectively use quotes, you should be embedding your quotes correctly to ensure that your essay flows. You should be able to read the essay aloud, with quotes, as you would read a speech.
VCE English (or any one of the 4 Englishes) can be one of the most daunting and difficult subjects to study. On top of that, as students of the VCE, we are plagued daily by distractions that seemingly inhibit our ability to maximize the time to fulfil our best potential. Feeling anxious about what seems to be such little time before the exam in October, we face mind blanks and find ourselves in a constant battle against feelings of doubt and anxiety.
However, these feelings only trick us into thinking that we are not good enough to achieve and consequently diminish our much needed motivation. Thoughts about having to write three 1000-word essays in three hours by October translate into doubt about our skills, generating to thoughts saying “I don’t know what to do!” when attempting to start, or whilst writing an essay. Amidst this, our mind is inundated with thoughts about competition: “what are other students in the state studying?” “How do other students tackle the tasks so easily whilst I’m here still figuring out how to start?” However, the more we align ourselves with such anxious thoughts, the more we convince ourselves that “I can’t do it”, and we unknowingly retreat to procrastination. Despite this, time mercilessly continues to move forward and October will eventually and inevitably arrive!
To overcome this negative mentality, therefore, we must reconstruct our perception about what VCE English is really about and what it entails. To most of us, English simply involves the repetitive 1000-word essay involving an introduction-body-conclusion, discussing the themes of a novel, play or film which appear not to have any relevance for our future. But believe me; English can be far more exciting!
Put simply, we must start thinking: collaboration, not competition. English is one of the more exciting subjects because it provides us with a platform on which we can debate and share ideas. It also grants us an opportunity to express, in our own style, the ideas we construct thus granting us freedom for creativity and a space where all ideas are worth sharing! Hence, rather than perceiving your peers as competitors, embrace them as your allies. They too are most likely undergoing the same doubts and stresses. Whilst being willing to share your opinions, make sure that you engage with students who enjoy debating and sharing theirs – VCE is not something that you can do on your own!
Considering this, there are a few things you must keep in mind when studying English. A blank piece of paper or a blank word document on your computer screen appears scary, especially if you are unsure of what to write about, let alone how to start an essay. The important thing that all students must remember, therefore, is to just put something down on paper first. It doesn’t matter how well you write or express yourself (at first). Remember: all ideas are worth sharing. If you are unsure of what to write, write exactly what you think! Prioritise your ideas over your writing style! Assessors care more about seeing a mind at work and do not reward superfluous writing. A talented writer is worse off if he or she does not discuss complex ideas!
Next, it is crucial that you don’t take subsequent criticism from teachers as a message that you can’t do it. Criticism is inevitable and it is a good thing. It means that your teacher really wants to help! Just remember that year 12 is not the end. It is often easy to think that once you finish school, your writing skill doesn’t improve. But this is incorrect. Even the best writers on this planet will always continue to strive to improve!
Essentially, it is important that you write often. The more you write the greater chance there is of improving. In light of this, your writing does not have to be focussed merely on what you study in English – spending time writing about anything you want in any style is a worthwhile mental exercise (it is the perfect substitute over jumping online on Facebook or YouTube when you feel like procrastinating)! Any concerns about writing within one hour should fade away naturally as you write more frequently – this is something you shouldn’t have to worry about.
Ultimately, English can be exciting when you are prepared to share your ideas and listen to the ideas of other students. See it not as a torturous race to scribble out three 1000-word essays in 3 hours, but more rather an opportunity to explore complex ideas that are challenging yet interesting at the same time. Just remember that ideas are the primary concern, and the final piece – the writing – is merely the polish. It is okay to inspire yourself too! Don’t get hung up on appearing modest. Everyone has a viewpoint and an opinion to share and the more you collaborate, the less you will be tricked into believing you can’t. Instead, you will be constantly reminded that you can.
To be honest, my entire Year 12 felt like a longwinded mass of trial and error. One week I ate hot chips for lunch for five days in a row. Once I spent a free double period watching ‘1 HOUR of AMAZING HQ SPACE VIDEO’ (twice over) on one YouTube tab, while ‘2-Hours Epic Music Mix’ played in the background. Crying for no apparent reason became somewhat of a hobby. I would be lying if I said I was some extremely disciplined, studious pupil who wrote my ATAR goal above my desk or slept with it under my pillow. However, despite the constant feelings that I wasn’t doing enough, that I had no self-control in making myself study, and that at any point I could completely burn out and betray my high expectations, I managed to score better than I ever let myself imagine.
I wish I could give you a step-by-step, foolproof guide on how to achieve ‘ATAR goals’, but if I could, I’d probably just use it to get rich. What I can do, is tell you how I coped when the pressure and the ambition and the sheer magnitude of the content you need to know, becomes too much.
1. Expectations are probably not reality
Like many who are facing Year 12, the summer before I started, I was absolutely terrified. Images of long nights glued to my desk filled me with dread, and I looked at the extensive content of my subjects with great fear. With the high ATAR hopes that a lot of you have, I expected a lot from myself, that I didn’t exactly achieve.
Expectation: Exercise Regularly
Reality: Went on two runs throughout the year and got puffed after 500 metres, both times.
Expectation: Watch less TV
Reality: Six seasons of Gossip Girl, three seasons of Orange is the New Black, five seasons of Parks and Recreations, and a billion episodes of the Simpsons.
Expectation: Study constantly: after school and weekends.
Reality: Admittedly, I spent a lot of time studying, but I also spent a lot of time drinking coffee with friends and sleeping until 1pm.
Ultimately I had to learn that extreme self-pressure would not do any good, and setting impossible goals would only lead to guilt and the feeling of failure. Remember that you aren’t going to meet every goal, or be constantly successful, but one promise you should really keep is to be kind to yourself, even when you don’t meet the mark.
2. ‘Heck no Fridays’
Sick of the constant feeling of guilt when I spent long periods of time binge watching Netflix instead of studying for an upcoming English SAC, I decided I needed to create a real, carefree, lengthy break that I could depend on each week. And so I decided that I would no longer study on Saturdays. The name is not imperative, but I’m a sucker for alliteration ;).
It’s a bold move to cut that much time out of your study timetable, but after a week of classes and afternoon spent at the desk, it can be necessary. Having a routine afternoon where I knew I couldn’t study at all meant that I didn’t feel guilty about it, and thus could truly rest.
3. Study outside the box
Two nights before my Literature exam you could find me sitting at my local cafe with my best mate drinking coffee and playing charades. Before Year 12, the idea of doing that would have seemed like I was giving up, like I wasn’t putting in the effort and that I should be studiously writing practice essay upon practice essay.
However, at a certain point, it doesn’t help just repeating your usual study techniques, or repeatedly doing practice exams. One of the best ways to retain information, and better understand concepts, is to learn them in an interesting way. Therefore, playing silly games based off our Literature texts was both enjoyable, and super helpful for the exam.
4. Five minutes… just five minutes.
Throughout the year there’ll almost definitely be days when you come home from school and stare at your desk like you’d rather sit anywhere else in the world. There’ll be moments where you stare at a blank page for twenty minutes having lost all control of the English language. There’ll be free periods when the idea of doing a practice SAC is so repulsive that you reconsider all future goals and ambitions. When you feel like you can’t study, but you’re in a moment where you really, really have to (five SACS in one week), try the five minute trick.
Say you are trying to write a practice English essay, but you are completely blank. Set a timer on your phone for five minutes. In that five minutes, force yourself to write anything. Even if you don’t use grammar, even if you make no sense, even if your sentences aren’t real sentences, just write whatever you can about the topic. Generally, when the five minutes are up, you have either though of enough ideas and have gained enough motivation to keep going, or can at least say you did five minutes.
There’s no be-all, end-all, Year 12 advice, but I think many would agree that the best thing you can do is stay positive, and try and see the funny side of all the screw ups and let downs that are bound to happen, while appreciating yourself for all that you will achieve.
Burn out. According to my good friend Wikipedia, ‘burnout is a psychological term that refers to long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work.’ It’s a phase that most of us are used to hearing throughout our VCE years, especially as workload intensifies in the lead up to the VCAA examinations. Today I will be sharing something much more personal on VCE Study Guides, because I want you to avoid the same mistakes that I made when I was in VCE. Even though I was quite successful with my ATAR score, there are some study habits that I look back upon and I think to myself, ‘why didn’t I do that differently?’.
I suffered from severe burnout in the last month prior to my VCE exams.
Here’s the primary reason why I burnt out: I was too hard on myself. My exam study plan was rather ridiculous and unattainable. My target was to do at least one essay per day from the start of Term 4. In fact, in my September holidays I did not just one essay a day, but often two or three! Sheesh! No wonder I burnt out. I found that over the next few weeks, I started to repeat a lot of similar essay prompts, I would write the same phrases or quotes over and over again, and I personally think that this hindered my development because I was starting to regurgitate everything I had done so far, rather than pushing forward and writing with new ideas and thoughts.
And it wasn’t just English. I was lucky (or was it perhaps unluckiness in disguise?) enough to get my hands on all past sample exams produced by VCAA and other VCE companies for Mathematical Methods, Specialist Maths and Chemistry. And when I say all, I mean I had exams dating back from 1997. Yeah. I made it a mission to do one exam everyday for these subjects and boy did that take its toll on me. You might be thinking – ‘this girl is crazy!’ or ‘how can anyone do that?’. And if you have developed an intense exam study plan just like this but are doing just fine, then I applaud you. I really do! Because I know that for a lot of people, it’s simply way too draining and exhausting. I felt like I had to complete all my resources but in the end, it was simply counterproductive for me.
I ended up hardly touching English during the final 2 weeks before exams because I simply had enough. I felt as though I had hit a brick wall and no matter how much more writing I did, I probably wouldn’t improve any further. Some of you (especially the Psychology students) may know of the ‘plateau effect’. I had basically hit this point (or should I say, flat period?) and I’m sure that many of you reading this will understand or have even reached this plateau yourselves. Below I have quoted James Hayton, a PhD and thesis writing coach on what it means to plateau:
…you can’t improve without practicing- but not all practice is equally effective in improving your writing skill and simply engaging in the activity of writing on a frequent basis is not enough.
If you started playing tennis every day, you would probably improve quite quickly in the first few weeks. But if you continued to play every day without adapting your training, your rate of improvement would slow to the point where you are no longer improving with practice.
The same is true of many skills. You can drive a car every day without becoming a better driver, you can go to the gym every day without becoming stronger and you can write every day without becoming a better writer.
The relationship between practice and skill is not linear. You may experience a rapid improvement early, but this improvement slows and your skill level reaches a plateau. This is known as the learning curve.
Sometimes your skill level can even decline with practice, so it’s important to understand how to practice well. To read more click here.
As you can see, studying more or studying harder does not equal more success or a better ATAR score.
When you organise a study plan, be smart about it. So my biggest tip is this: don’t feel compelled to write one or more essays everyday. This is so not the way to go. Strategically, I think the best approach is be time-efficient. In the last week before the exam, I simply stopped doing any essay writing and just wrote plans for prompts I hadn’t seen before.Work on topics that you haven’t dealt with before, because at least then you can apply your skills. Try not to do too much repetition. Repetition is good for drilling ideas into your head, but it can be problematic if it becomes rote-learning (this applies to other subjects too). Some of my most successful students did just two essays a week, and on other days they would write plans, or simply broke their essay up and wrote a paragraph a day. If you can’t even do that, and you feel like you’ve really hit that brick wall and can’t go any further then take a break. It might seem like you’re wasting time, but if you spend a day off in the sun, or even just going out to eat lunch with family or friends, you will notice the difference as you come back to study with a more refreshed mind and positive attitude.
If you didn't already know, I have a YouTube channel. Here's a video below where I talk about 'burn out' a little more...
I hope through sharing my experience I’ve been able to help you feel less ‘guilty’ if you haven’t done as much English study as you would like today. Remember to study smarter, not harder. Good luck for your exams!
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