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How to benefit most from VCAA past exams

Jen Huang

VCAA past exams are a staple in the VCE student strategy toolbox, and for excellent reason. Not only do they offer you the chance to apply what you know (exactly what’s tested in the real exam); they and the examiner’s reports that come with them give great guidance on exactly what assessors are looking for.

However, it’s one thing to incorporate practice exams into your study routine, and another thing entirely to take full advantage of them. To make sure you’re benefiting the most from practice exams, here are five effective ways you can tap into the goldmine, like generations of high-achieving students already have.

Start before you’ve finished content.

Because past VCAA exams are such valuable mimics of the real end-of-year exams in terms of question style, aim to attempt as many as possible. And for most VCE subjects, past exams that date back to 2002 are still easily available on the VCAA website, meaning that you have more than 15 years’ worth of papers to choose from.

Now, it will be extremely challenging to attempt 15 full exams for each VCE subject in the tiny window of time between finishing the year’s content and doing the real exam. With this in mind, consider starting practice exams before you’ve finished all your coursework. The key here is to not focus on doing all practice exams under exam conditions from start to finish, but pick and choose questions that you are able to do with the knowledge you already have. So as soon as you finish the recursion and financial modelling core module in Further Maths, consider solidifying your knowledge with a handful of relevant VCAA questions from past papers. 

Of course, full, timed practice exams that you do without notes and in one sitting are also important for figuring out your ideal exam pace, and we recommend doing this for the final few practice papers you try. If you truly find yourself without enough time to do full timed papers, even consider timing individual questions according to the number of marks they're allocated. 

But that said, don’t get caught up in doing all the past papers available to you in ‘exam mode’. Remember, it’s about exposing yourself to as many questions as possible to familiarise yourself with both VCAA’s question style and what they are looking for in a response.

Write out your reasoning.

Imagine you're a Chemistry student working through the notorious Question 16 in 2007's Exam 1 at your own pace. You've never been a fan of questions on pH, and this one really stumps you: like most of the state, you have no idea how to approach finding any of the given answers, let alone choosing the right one.

Writing out your exact thought process forces you to think through each of the options closely. Thus, you’ve turned this tricky multi-choice question into an in-depth short answer question that tests your ability to express yourself logically (an essential skill to have in any VCE exam) and forces you to recap essential concepts in detail. In addition, laying out your reasoning on paper can make it much easier to identify exactly where your thought process veered off the right track – for this particular question, perhaps you forgot that the preexisting potassium hydroxide solution needed to be neutralised first before the pH could be further decreased. 

This insight into your own faulty thinking is the key to ensuring you don't make the same error next time. Therefore, writing out your reasoning, despite being a labour-intensive form of revision, is something we highly recommend if you are trying more challenging multi-choice questions outside of exam conditions. After all, these questions are often carefully crafted to be just as valuable as their short answer or essay style counterparts. So why not treat them with equal respect by giving them just as much time and effort?

Establish your order of operations.

We’re not just talking to VCE maths students here. By order of operations, we mean the order in which you will be completing the various sections of the exam. Having a solid game plan for which parts of the paper to tackle as soon as writing time starts can make a world of difference to your psychological state as you enter the exam.

After completing a few practice papers under exam conditions, you should be able to figure out an ideal order for yourself. However, we do have some tried and tested suggestions. As you’ll see, these tips also give you insights into how you might use your reading time most efficiently, too.

VCE English students might want to start their three hour marathon with the Language Analysis section. It can be wise to spend the bulk of reading time analysing the articles included in the exam booklet, as once writing time starts, you’ll be hard-pressed to meticulously look for persuasive techniques and decipher tone due to time constraints. So completing language analysis first makes sure the analysis you did during reading time is put into use immediately, before you can forget all about it.

For exams that include multiple choice questions, it might be a good idea to attempt multiple choice questions first. By mentally figuring out the first ten to twenty questions out before you even pick up your pencil, and powering through the rest within the first half an hour to forty minutes, you leave yourself ample time to attempt the more heavily weighted short answer questions. This generally works well for exams that have at least some content-based multi-choice questions like Biology and Chemistry.

Mark your work, and do it 'harshly'.

Let's consider two VCE Psychology students who tackled the same practice exam with identical prior knowledge. If only one student spent the extra half-hour correcting their paper using the matching exam report, they would be getting much more out of their exam preparation than the other.

The moral here is that while the past VCAA papers are highly valuable, the examiner’s reports that accompany each one are arguably even more precious. Not only do they inform you on how you did compared to the rest of the state; often, they include what the assessors have deemed to be outstanding responses that you can compare to your own work to and model your answering style on. 

When you’re marking your own answers against these sample responses, it’s rather easy to be ‘nice’ to yourself by giving yourself marks that don’t belong to you (especially for writing based subjects such as VCE Psychology, where the the correctness of an answer can be ambiguous).To set yourself up for success in the real exam, we recommend that you resist this temptation, and deduct marks if any part of your answer deviates from what the examiner specifies. 

This is because 'harsh' (i.e. realistic) marking usually gives you a more true-to-life outlook on how you will perform in the actual exam, when examiners won’t exactly give out marks left, right and centre. By gaining a more realistic perspective on your performance, you can more clearly identify problem areas. Once you've nailed this, you can tailor your revision patterns to address them before it's too late.

Track your mistakes.

Say you've finally completed all the practice exams you set out to do for VCE Biology. You know that quite a few questions went over your head from several of the papers, but are you really going to flick through all of them to determine which ones they were? Probably not: the most you might do is picking out the ones the rest of the state found challenging by looking through examiner's reports, but this only helps you identify what everyone else struggled with, not what you struggled with. And failing to understand and address your personal weak points can set you up for a terrible shock in the real exam.

To avoid this nightmare scenario, many Connecties relied on manual charts or, even better, digital spreadsheet systems, to track the questions they got wrong, and for what specific reason: perhaps 'cytokine' was mixed up with 'cytokinin' or the entire concept of adaptive radiation was misunderstood. Then, once they completed all the past papers for, say, Biology, they went back to this virtual scrapbook of ‘hard’ questions and re-attempted all of them, to further make sure they could go into the exam without an Achilles’ heel. 

Here's an example of how you might use a digital spreadsheet to track your exams in this way, for VCE Biology. You can download your very own, multi-subject digital spreadsheet template here

This practice of identifying weaknesses and specifically working on them not only protects you from nasty surprises in the exam, but can also contribute significantly to how confident you feel on the day. Knowing that you’ve covered all bases is a fantastic feeling to have before you walk into the examination hall.

In summary.

Practice exams and examiner’s reports are printed gold to the high achieving VCE student, regardless of the subjects they're tackling. We hope that the above tips help you reap their rich rewards in a more effective manner, and in a way that will really show when you walk into the real deal come exam time.

Don’t forget that what we’ve written here are themselves the tip of the iceberg, and that you’ll discover practice exam pointers of your own once you start completing your own practice exams regularly. On behalf of all of us at Connect, all the best on your exam journey!

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Our free exam tracking sheet.

Use this to track all of your practice exams – VCAA and otherwise.

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