It’s 1 day until D-day. Your HSC English exam.

And if you’ve been procrastinating like crazy until this moment, and the adrenaline has finally kicked in, you’re ready to go to dive into study! 

But let me guess…

You have no idea where to start in the 24 hours before your HSC English Exam?

Well don’t worry – we’ve got you covered with a 5-Step Plan for studying the night (and day) before your HSC English exam!

Step 1: Write Practice Essays 
Step 2: Practice in Timed Conditions
Step 3: Work Out Your Exam Plan of Attack
Step 4: Get some sleep!
Step 5: Watch a movie (seriously!)

Step 1: Write practice essays!

The first step is perhaps the most obvious one.

The night before the HSC English exam, you need to be working on writing practice essays in response to practice HSC questions.

The goal from your study is that in the exam the next day you want to:
  1. Be familiar with the types of questions they could throw at you – so you want to get good at pattern recognition
  2. Be able to respond to these questions quickly and adapt all your knowledge, and model essays, paragraphs and notes to the specific question
  3. Have all your themes, quotes, examples and more memorised

How do you do this?

Rule of 3

Over the last 10 years I’ve interviewed thousands of students who scored an ATAR over 98 (including numerous State Rankers in HSC English) in a quest to discover the specific strategies used to excel and kickass in the HSC.

Here’s the formula I discovered for getting a state rank in HSC English – it’s called the Rule of 3.

The night (or day) before your exam do the following:

1. Pick 3 practice HSC English exam questions – they need to all be unique questions

2. In timed conditions write a response to the practice question

3. Initially start open book for the 1st essay with your notes and model essay available for inspiration

4. Move towards close book, so the 2nd run through only look at your notes when you really cannot remember anything

5. On the final practice essay you complete move to complete closed book – so no matter what you cannot use your notes (this is key as you need to recreate exam conditions)

And that’s it. Simple right?

Why does this work?

Firstly it gets you familiar quickly with the different types of questions they can give you. So it enables you get better at pattern recognition.

Secondly, rather than going in with a memorised essay, it helps you in timed conditions (so exam conditions) practice adapting your model essay and notes to any sort of question. So you’re building exam technique.

Finally, it the act of writing the essays (and moving from open to closed book) helps you memorise all the content!

How does this apply to the new HSC English Paper 1, Section 1 and the new Paper 2 Module C Section?

In exactly the same way! 

For the new HSC English Paper 1, Section 1 here’s how it works: 

1. Pick 3 different stimuli from the NESA Sample Paper 1

2. In timed conditions write practice short responses

3. Move from open to closed book to practice writing your short responses

For the new Module C section of HSC English Paper 2: 

1. Get a hold of the NESA Sample Paper 2, and use the questions provided for Module C.

2. Respond to the questions in timed conditions.

3. Move from open to closed book to practice writing Module C responses.


Step 2: Practice in Timed Conditions

It’s critical that all your practice responses occur under timed conditions.


Run out of time before in the exam?

If you don’t know how long it takes you write 1,000 words, how do you know you can complete the paper on time?

It’s like Usain Bolt going into the 100m sprint without knowing if he can run under 10 seconds. Additionally, doing practice under timed conditions will also improve memory recall.

But there’s an additional trick.

10% Less Time

In practice give yourself 10% less time when writing your practice essays.

So for example for each essay you normally have 40 minutes in the exam.

So give yourself 40 minutes – 10% = 36 minutes.


If you get comfortable completing your responses in 36 minutes in practice, when you get into the exam you’re going to feel like you’ve got all the time in the world.

You’re going to be less stressed and you can use this additional time to plan your response to the question you’ve been given.

If you’re running out of time… use dot points!

If in practice you’re short of time (or in the exam) just simple move to writing in dot points.

In both practice and the exam, the key is getting your main points on paper – and having something (dot points) is better than nothing!

Step 3: Work out your Exam Plan of Attack

The night (and day) before the HSC English exam it’s also critical you work out how you’re going to attack the paper.

How much time do you have for each section, and what order will you attack the paper?

Time Breakdown for the HSC English Exam

HSC English Exam Paper 1 – Texts and Human Experiences

Section 1: Unseen Texts – 20 marks and approx. 45 minutes


Section 2: Extended Response – 20 marks and approx. 45 minutes

Note however that while this is the recommended timing, the reality is that you can likely complete each section in 40 minutes, giving yourself and extra 5 or 10 minutes.

If this is the case, how will you use the additional 5-10 minutes?

Use spare time for unseen texts

Why? Most students use additional time for the essay, but the reality is that it’s the hardest part of the paper to pick up additional marks. It might get you 1 additional mark. So your essay goes from a 12 to a 13 out of 15.

Unseen texts (Section 1) however is the easiest part of the paper to pick up significant marks, so my recommendation is use any additional time on this section to make sure you get 15 out of 15!

HSC English Exam Paper 2 – Modules

Section 1: Module A – 20 marks and approx. 40 minutes


Section 2: Module B – 20 marks and approx. 40 minutes


Section 3: Module C – 20 marks and approx. 40 minutes

Make sure you know these times, and can write all your essays comfortably within these. Often I find students have 1 essay that is longer and usually eats up more time.

Identify which one this is and whatever you do stick the time!

Usually spending more time on that additional essay only results in an additional 1 mark (if that) but it can easily result in you losing 2-3 marks on the other essays!

Attack the Paper Chronologically

You should also work out which order you’re going to attack the paper the night before. Don’t wait until you get into the exam itself as you’ll likely make a stress decision which puts you off your game.

The simplest approach is to attack the paper chronologically.

Pros Cons
  • This is the way the paper was designed to be completed
  • If it’s Paper 1 means you can get through Unseen Texts have more time for your essay
  • By the time you get to the essay there’s a risk you’ve forgotten key things you want to write
  • You end up running out of time for your essay

Start with Essays First

For Paper 1, many students want to start with the essay first because they fear they’ll ‘forget’ what they want to write.

Pros Cons
  • You guarantee 100% you complete your essay
  • You can write your essay while it’s fresh in your mind
  • You spend more time on your essay, and run out of time to pick up easy marks on Unseen Texts

Start with your Strongest Section First

For Paper 2, you’ve got 3 essays. So there’s less strategy around which order to attack the paper.

Generally speaking state rankers would start with their strongest section first.

Pros Cons
  • You can get your strongest section out quickly which gives you more time on the other 2 questions that you’re weaker in to make sure you can write great responses for them
  • You kick off the paper feeling confident
  • There’s a risk because it’s your strongest you spend more time on this section wanting to make sure you get 20/20, reducing the time you have on the other sections and risking marks

Make Your Decision

For Paper 1 and 2 for the HSC English exam make sure you’ve made your decision the night before – don’t make it on the fly, when you’re stressed when you sit down and look at the paper as you’re likely to make a poor decision!

Step 4: Get to sleep early

Studies reveal that losing a mere 90 minutes of sleep reduces your daytime alertness by a staggering one-third.

90 minutes of lost sleep = 33% reduction in your daytime alertness

It might be tempting to stay up late to do some last minute cramming, but the reality is that it’ll cost you big time in the exam the next day.

And given you’ve got a month of exams, it’s not wise to start the exam period this way.

So a simple bit of advice – make sure you get a good night sleep!

Students who scored an ATAR of 98+ usually went to sleep between 10-11pm prior to exam days.

Step 5: Watch a Movie to Relax

Ever hit your bed and your brain has still been whirring at 100 miles per hour and you’ve tossed and turned for 2 hours before finally falling asleep.

In fact, one state ranker I interviewed had a great solution for this:

Every night before an exam he would stop studying at 9pm and watch a 1-2 hour movie. It’d help him relax, and get his brain to slow down and he was still in bed by 11pm!

And it’s fun!

Rowan Kunz is the founder of Art of Smart Education, an award-winning provider of 1 on 1 tutoring and mentoring. Rowan has spent the last 8 years conducting research with thousands of Australia’s top students who scored ATAR’s of over 98 and is the author of Secrets of HSC Success Revealed. Rowan has 10 years experience in tutoring and delivers workshops across Australia on excelling academically at school. Rowan’s videos on YouTube have been watched more than 1,000,000+ times.