In case you haven’t heard, the HSC Chemistry exam has been completely revised with changes from 2019 onwards!

The most notable changes include a shorter HSC Chemistry syllabus, a greater focus on calculations and standardised content testing across the entire state.

The only thing that has remained the same is the structure of the exam -including Section 1 with multiple choice questions and Section 2 with short answer and extended response questions.

So, don’t panic – as we’re to help you navigate the new HSC Chemistry exam paper!

Change #1: The word count is down

The 8 modules (Y11 + 12) of old-syllabus chemistry were about 8900 words worth of raw content dot-points.

This new one’s about 4800 words. 

That’s a 46 % reduction in syllabus wordiness! Awesome!

What that meant with the old syllabus is that you could study-up on a stack of ideas really solidly and have some of them, tragically, never even show up in the HSC Chemistry exam as winnable marks.

Because the new syllabus centres on a focused mastering of only the biggest machinery in the engine-room of Chemistry, it’s way easier to anticipate which ideas the HSC Chemistry exam will test you on… these core concepts.

There should be way surprises where you grimace in an exam and go “damnit! I forgot about that small hidden nook in the syllabus!

Change #2: More of a calculations focus

Where the syllabus declares something to be calculated, it’s handing you a tool and telling you to train yourself up!

Here’s the whole lot of them across the whole two years:

HSC Chemistry Exam

And here’s what the top of your formula sheet will look like from the 2019 HSC Chemistry exam onwards:

HSC Chemistry Exam

Change #3: Everyone learns the same content

For the first time in 18 years, you will do the EXACT same chemistry course as everyone else at every other school in the entire state.

You’ve also been brought in much closer to what all the other students are studying in Chemistry in all the other states in Australia (and, in fact, all the other countries in the world).

You’re staring at the old exams wondering if you, too, will be subjected to the same structure:

  1. Jump on the NESA website for Chemistry:
  2. Scroll on down to “Sample examination materials”

This is the structure of the HSC Chemistry exam paper:

hsc chemistry exam

Note: Section I is entirely multiple choice questions while Section II consists of short answer and extended responses.

few things regarding the format jump out straight away:
  1. You’ve got 1.8 minutes per mark on average. This is the same as the past HSC Chemistry exam papers.
  2. The Multiple-Choice section (at the start) is 20 % of the paper (in marks and time). This is the same as before.
  3. The 80 % extended response section is the rest of the paper and it’s the same questions or everybody (there is no “option” topic part to this).

So, let’s have a look at these sections!

Section 1: The Multiple Choice Questions

The easiest parts of the HSC Chemistry exam live in this section – but that also means they’re the easiest to mess up (because you’re off-guard). Just because they’re simpler, doesn’t mean they’re not worth marks, so make sure you don’t rush.

There are 20 multiple choice questions, one mark each, and the recommended time allocation is 35 minutes. That said, I reckon you can do it in 30 – this’ll free up some planning time in the modules. That boils down to 1.5 minutes for each question, on average.

Well-practised students will find themselves knocking some of these over immediately (particularly when 3 of the 4 options can be excluded). This allows you to bag some extra time for the back of the paper where more answer-planning and deep-thinking come in to play.

More than once, I managed to get full marks in the MCQs in 15 minutes. wThat’s not to say you should consider that to be the gold standard, but if you’re running something like the -10% model, where you aim to finish the exam with 10% of time spare, this can be a great place to win time. This is something you’ll never have enough of in your HSC. 

Note: It’s 1.8 minutes per mark on average throughout the wider paper: Do not spend two minutes on any of these multiple-choice questions until you’ve made your first pass through the rest of the paper.

If you do the paper in order and start with the MCQs, remember:
  1. Your chemistry brain (and your brain chemistry) is still warming up
  2. You’re at your highest anxiety level at the start – you’re still worrying about the rest of the paper.

If you find yourself spending 2 minutes on any multiple-choice question, come back to them when you’ve got the bulk of the rest of the paper in the bag already. Some of the troublesome MCQs different when you view them with a brain that’s been in the zone for 2 hours!

Remember: Set your own goalposts for timing – make sure you’re allocating resources where you need them

So how should I approach the MCQs? 

Roughly speaking, there are two types of questions you’ll get in MCQs:
  1. Fact-checking types
  2. Concept-checking types

So, let’s go through them each separately!

1. Fact Checking

Fact-checking types are the easiest marks in the HSC chemistry exam.

All they require is that you recall a fact, and pick the right answer out of the four.

Have a look at question 3 from NESA’s sample HSC Chemistry exam for the new syllabus:

hsc chemistry exam

You’ll win this one by being well-versed in some facts.

Question 3 (above, left) looks quite busy, but it’s actually as straightforward as it gets – you either know how to draw out the structures of the listed chemical species from their names, or you don’t (which you clearly do because you studied diligently); you either know the absorbance wavenumbers of the functional groups, or you don’t.

That can make it a hard question in a sense: There’s not a lot of room to logic yourself in the direction of the answer. You can’t really apply a tool to the problem to deduce the answer.

I call questions like this the “have you read the textbook enough?” questions and they’re in every HSC. They sit there as gift-marks for the taking – and they measure effort spent throughout the year.

2. Concept-Checking

The other type of multi is a concept-checking multi. 

These are a little bit harder, because they require you not just to recall, but to think. Take a look at question 2, pictured below, also from NESA’s sample paper for the new HSC Chemistry exam.

hsc chemistry exam

You’ll have to bring deep understanding of concepts to this one as this one cannot be won by glancing at it and knowing.

First things first, to answer this one you need to appreciate (on a conceptual level) the difference between a system in static equilibrium and one in dynamic equilibrium (which look more or less the same when zoomed-out: the question is testing if you understand how kinetic particle theory gives rise to the reality observed “up here”).

To get this question, you have to logic the answer out of the information. It’s something that can’t really be remembered, it has to be worked out by applying understanding of ideas.

Let’s see if we can pull the answer out of the information:

Static equilibrium: The stable state of the system emerges because none of its constituents change – for this reason they stay in fixed relative amounts.

e.g. a system that completely depletes one of its reactants and none of the product molecules fall apart.

Dynamic equilibrium: The stable state of the system emerges because the system rate-matches its interconversion of products and reactants, keeping their relative amounts the same overall.

e.g.  A system that rate-matches the forwards and backwards reactions, so therefore must have stores of both available at equilibrium.

Based on this logic:
  • D cannot be the answer as both panels depict static equilibrium
  • C cannot be the answer as the right panel depicts dynamic equilibrium (the reaction will still be turning reactant in to product, since both reactants are still present in quantity)
  • B cannot be the answer as each panel depicts the opposite type of equilibrium
  • A is the answer (confirm this to yourself as a way of checking the logic applied to the other answer options)

See how, in this type of question, there’s a lot more than just picking out one essential fact?

It takes some active thinking on your part.

Similar to the concept-checking question is the calculation question – but these are generally a bit easier because there are not many different calculations you can be asked to do, so you’re probably ready for them all.

Let’s have a look at another example from the 2015 HSC Chemistry Exam:hsc chemistry exam

This is a calculational question, but it is quite involved. The key to calculational questions is to have made every possible mistake handling them prior to the exam.

How do you master a guitar solo? You play it as many times as it takes so that you can do it without error all the way through; and then you play it a bunch more times until you could do a sudoku while playing it because your brain barely has to even think about it anymore.

Same thing here. By the time you arrive at this HSC question, you should be highly-experienced at solving these type of problems – all the mistakes you could have made have already been done!

But you can actually solve this one without a calculator (what a time-saver!)

hsc chemistry exam


But why?

Because weak acids leave behind pretty strong conjugate bases that are really good at picking those H+ ions back up and re-building the acid as it tries to fall apart (even ripping protons off passer-by water molecules in the solvent).

Then, a solution of a salt of a strong conjugate base will remove hydrogen from water (as it does in a solution of its conjugate acid), forming OH in solution. This will be the solution with the highest pH: The one with the strongest base (associated with an acid with the highest pKa)

Answer: C

What a tester of a question, checking concepts and calculational skills!

Some questions (not all) are calculational but can be won with raw logic; others are just purely computational.

Note: This question is of a band-6 type. Expect Q19 & Q20 to be at about this level in the real exam.

Other MCQs tip: You just need to identify the most correct answer out of the four provided.

So, use them to help you work backwards.

  • If there’s an answer that’s definitely wrong, cross it out, just like we did with options D, C and B in question 1 (about static/dynamic equilibria).
  • If there’s one that’s kind of the odd one out from the other four, it’ll either be the right answer or very, very, wrong
  • If you can narrow down your choices, you may even be able to find the right answer by taking out three wrong ones, or at least narrow your chances to take an educated guess between two.

As a finishing note, generally speaking, the answer you pick first is probably correct. Statistically, when you change your answer, it’s more common not to gain a mark, or even lose one, than it is to gain one. These questions are designed to be easy, so trust your gut!

Remember: The options often involve 1 correct answer and three “trap” answers, which NESA created by guessing at common ways to trip over the question.

Also, expect a difficulty gradient through the MCQs: Question 20 is often at a band 6 level, taking more than 1.8 minutes (and worth coming back to when you’re sure you have the time – and also when your brains warmed up!)

Section 2 – The Modules

This is the bulk of the HSC Chemistry exam paper – 80 marks, so allow more than two hours.

The recommended time is 2 hours 25 minutes, but since this section runs on well-planned, well-thought-out and well-phrased extended answers, try to get 2.5 hours by winning back minutes in the MCQs.

However, if you are practicing the -10% model like before, you might want to do this in 2 hour and 10 minutes. It’s up to you.

Just like we subdivided the MCQs, this section is best divided into 1-2 markers, 3-4 markers and 5+ markers. We’ll go through each in sequence.

1-2 markers

The old HSC papers used to be littered with these little fact-checking questions. They often just asked you to “identify” something, which is another way of saying you’ve seen it before at some point in your textbook and know the fact.

You never really had to “explain” anything.

You’ll see these in old HSC Chemistry exam papers, but expect them to be gone now.

A quick browse of the new syllabus will also unveil that there are almost no requirements for you to merely “identify” something as being true anymore. It’s all “explain”, “analyse”, “deduce”.

3 – 4 markers: The mid-range

3-4 markers take a bit more work. They tend to come in two varieties – skill questions, involving things like graphing or experiment design, and then word questions, where you need to right a little diatribe.

Let’s take a look at skills questions first. This one here involves an IR spectrum.

If you’re super switched-on, you’ll notice this is kind of a concept-checking version of the Question 3 we looked at from the MCQs, where all you had to do was ID the compound.

This time you have to “justifytwo possible answers as the question asks; and this also requires you to know some facts (absorbance wavelengths).

hsc chemistry exam

hsc chemistry exam

hsc chemistry exam

While the criteria doesn’t spell it out, generally speaking, it’s one mark for hitting each of 4 requirements correctly.

For example, in this case it’s likely a mark for the right answer (two structures) and then 3 marks for correctly justifying the structure from each of three absorbances (shown or conspicuously absent from the spectrum).

Let’s take a look at an experimental-type graphing-skills question:

hsc chemistry exam

hsc chemistry exam

hsc chemistry exam

hsc chemistry exam

Note: You could also have determined the Fe3+ concentration by ruling some lines and carefully reading it from the graph.

3-4 markers tend to use verbs like “describe” and “explain” and “justify” – These are verbs that involve not only recall of facts but ask you to draw connections between several facts, often cause-and-effect. Often these require you to draw links between the fundamental chemistry (i.e. what’s going on at the atomic level) and the effect that we actually observe.  

Here’s a stack of marking criteria from NESA’s sample HSC Chemistry exam for the new syllabus, with a clear verb pattern:

hsc chemistry exam

5-9 markers: The heavyweights

5+ markers are what separate the Band 6s from the 5s.

Basically, they involve the really high-order verbs like “discuss” (provide pros and cons), “assess” (make a judgement as to the value of) and “evaluate(Make a judgement based on criteria).

Make sure to spend some time planning your answer before jumping in – you only have limited space to convey lots of information! As an example, try this on for size:

hsc chemistry exam

hsc chemistry exam

hsc chemistry exam

Notice the quality gradient in the marking criteria above for high-end scorers.

See how the verb slips downwards:
  • Explains: Relate cause and effect; make the relationships between things evident; provide why and/or how
  • Describes: Provide characteristics and features)
  • Outlines: Sketch in general terms; indicate the main features of

You can grab the rest of the terms and definitions here!

Also: For the full 9 marks you have to not only know what “Accuracy”, “validity” and “reliability” mean and how they’re different; but you also had to include experimental methods that would enhance each of these (i.e. all three).

Slip down to 8 marks, and you only addressed 2 out of {Accuracy, validity, reliability}.

As a general note for this section, try not to go over the allotted number of lines for your answer, particularly if the rest of the page is blank. The writer allocated that number of lines for a reason, and that reason was to try and keep your answer concise.

Of course, they can’t account for things like differences in writing size and so on, so this isn’t absolutely set in stone, but try to keep yourself within that constraint as best you can.

If you go wildly over the line-space you haven’t treated other questions with adequate time somewhere in the rest of the paper.

Remember: Your answer here is like a mini-essay.

You have to address the question directly and quite methodically. If it were an essay, you would have a structure with an introduction outlining the main points; the main points paragraphed out; and a summary statement that brings it all home and sums up each element the question wanted you to address.

How to Approach a 5-9 Mark Question:

Step 1: Outline Main Aspects of the Question

To plan these, start by outlining the main aspects of the question.

That way when you’re about to write your conclusion statement, you can return to the question and it’s immediately clear if you’ve actually addressed every point the question wanted you to (It’s easy to forget what the question was when you’re writing away in the line space over on the next page!)

Step 2: Structure and Write Your Answer

Structure your answer using the main aspects you underlined. Some questions are begging for you to use sub-headings. Don’t be afraid to dot-point some things in to a list if that would express the point more clearly than a block of text.

As a general rule, you can never win all the marks in a heavy-marker without several chemical equations (always include some real chemistry in your word answer!); and if something is more easily explained graphically (as a diagram of apparatus or a flowchart), incorporate that in your answer.

If you’re agonising over phrasing and struggling to articulate a chemical concept mid-way through a wordy mini-essay, switch in to table/diagram/dot-point mode.

So that’s the HSC Chemistry exam in a nutshell!

I know it looks like a lot, but it’s important for you to know which of the sections you’ll need to direct most of your attention to in the HSC Chemistry exam. Use this to guide your practice so you can go into this exam almost completely bulletproof in your confidence.

Looking for extra help with HSC Chemistry?

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Matt Saunders is a huge nerd who first got into writing through fanfiction. He’d known science was the path for him since a young age, and after discovering a particular love of bad chemistry jokes (and chemistry too), he’s gone onto to study Forensic Chemistry at UTS. His HSC in 2014 was defined in equal parts by schoolwork and stagecraft, which left him, weirdly enough, with a love of Maths strong enough to inspire him to tutor any level, along with 7-10 Science and HSC Chemistry.

Adrian Wendeborn is a qualified science and maths teacher with a physics/chemistry double-major degree from USYD and a GDipEd from UQ. Adrian has taught in QLD and NSW and has worked with Art of Smart Education as a campus teacher, tutor, resource developer and Head of Faculty.