Victoria Junior College has always held a special place in my heart because the philosophy of grinding it out, working hard as reflected in the school’s motto of “Nil Sine Labore” has truly left a lasting impact on me. The motto was not mere words, but they were etched into the fabric and culture of VJC. The ethos of diligence did not make us into mindless drones, instead, it inspired us to chase our dreams with rigour and perseverance.
I might appear to be romanticising my time as a JC student, but seeing how much VJC has groomed me, I find a need for me to contribute as alumni to the upcoming kiddos in VJ.
So this post is dedicated to all you JC kids, preparing for your promos/prelims. I had you in mind and I hope to share with you some of the strategies that have served me as well (both as a university student and a JC student in improving my grades).
A little about me…
Currently, I am studying at Yale-NUS College on the SPRING-EDS. (after serving in NS as an OCS instructor). During my time in VJC, I was barely making it through promos and prelims, I was probably pedestrian at best. (My grades were so bad that they had this program called ‘Edvantage’, like what you call a talent program for those academically inclined. I was never considered to be good enough for it.)
But long story short, with a copious amount of hard work and strategic planning I was able to exceed expectations and score a grand total of 88.75/90 with 4H2s. (My only B: H2 Math took a leap from a U, all the way to a B for A’s) .
However, the most important lesson I learnt from my journey in JC is that grades do not define you.
When I look back at my times in VJC, it was not the grades that I achieved or the distinctions I could get that gave me the most joy. It was the genuine friendships that were built through facing adversity together. (till today, I still keep in contact with many of JC friends). Success is always subjective, I have seen how so many of my friends who did not do well in JC go on to do amazing things with their lives, I never thought they could achieve.
Back to the topic! In this post, I have collected advice from my top performing friends who aced their A-Levels (3 H2 distinctions and above) and distilled the best and most useful tips that will help you improve your grades and hopefully aid in your endeavours on scoring for A’s.
Utilising Your Notes Well!
Most of you would have studiously annotated your notes well, with highlights and underlining done almost everywhere on that A4 page. The key to truly utilise your notes is not to re-read it repetitively, but integrate it into your practice for the examinations.
For example, in a History paper, if you are looking to write an essay on the Cold War, start with your notes by your hand and begin writing outlines using your notes as a fact sheet where you can refer to it when you require an accurate accounting of accurate factual detail. (i.e: What is the Marshall Plan? How much did it cost the USA? Who is Gorbachev etc)
As your exams draw closer, you should then reduce your reliance on your notes. The aim is to eventually practice full-length papers under time restraints without referring to it. Then your notes would serve as an effective guide to counter-check the facts you espoused in your essay, making sure that you have gotten your facts right. (not to mention this definitely helps you with memory reinforcement!)
Tip: Condense your notes (be it summarising or using a mind map) because you are training your brain to differentiate between essential information and fillers, you will definitely strengthen your learning.
Simulate Examination Conditions
Talking about practice, how does one practice for their exams?
Beyond following the timing of the papers and writing in a quiet environment where all distractions are completely eradicated (that means no Instagram, facebook, twitter. I actually deleted all social media apps off my phone 3 months before my promos and A-levels), deliberately plan for sub-optimal conditions.
For example, there were times where I would make writing well with undivided attention and clear focus deliberately difficult for myself. Some situations include:
– 20 minutes upon waking up and attempting a paper
– Sleep for 5 hours and doing a paper
– Stacking papers one after another. (I did a 9-hour marathon of papers from 12 pm to 9 pm with 15-minute breaks every 3 hours)
The point of this is to increase your confidence in your capabilities and being ready for any possible situations that can throw you off your game on the exam day itself. This planned, sub-optimal condition helps you establish you baseline capabilities that allow you to gauge yourself that even on your worst days, you can still produce quality work. That means, say there is a train breakdown on the day of your A-levels paper, but even when you get flustered and rocked, you can still be confident that you are able to turn in a good script. (therefore, no excuses to say that you had a bad day, extreme ownership people)
Testimony: This has helped me tremendously in university because there were days where my deadline was due and I was caught up in curricular activities. However, I have conditioned myself to adversity, (being able to look out for my common mistakes and look out for pitfalls in my paper on the fly), I could turn in good work even when I was running short on time.
Dissect Your Paper
Understand exams are not linear. I repeat exams are not linear. This means you do not need to answer Question 1-30 in order. Your mission is to finish the paper in the stipulated time. Thus, to do well for a paper, your task is to build momentum that will allow you to score the most number of marks in the least possible time. (A 75 mark ‘A’ and a 100 mark ‘A’ is still an A. So secure your 75 ASAP, and try to build the buffer with your remaining time) This means two things to do FIRST:
Focus on your strengths first. As for every subject, there are topics that you are strong and weak in. So when the paper starts, take the first 5 minutes to identify your strong and weak questions. This will determine your priority in how you go about doing the paper. This means while you are still at the peak of your mental state, you can answer these questions confidently without exerting too much mental effort. This gives you the capacity to tackle the harder questions later.Example: H2 Math. Being excellent at Integration and Differentiation, I attempted all these questions first and worked on Plane Geometry (my lousiest topic) last.
Big Marks first. Tackle questions with the big marks first because they need your time and attention to unpack and analyse. And sometimes, they even help you work out the smaller questions. This is especially true in your GP paper where most people often commit the rudimentary mistake of tackling the AQ and Summary last. These two are the major components in your paper with the highest marks and need you to answer them comprehensively to score well.
Newton’s First Law states that an object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an external force. It may be seen as a statement about inertia, that objects will remain in their state of motion unless a force acts to change the motion. The principle applies in your exams as well. These two techniques not only bolster your confidence (that you have secured marks that you are capable of), they provide you with an efficient mechanism to best utilise your mental energy, causing maximum progress with the least resistance.
Tip: Once you start your GP, immediately work on your summary and AQ. (so even in a time crunch, you have secured a big chunk of your marks. (Think about it would you rather lose 4 marks from writing a poor summary or 1 mark from an incomplete compre-question) And writing your summary and AQ first helps you get a good understanding of the text. (Refer to point 1!!)
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Go to your teachers for consultations! They serve as a ready and available resource for you to tap on. When consulting teachers, here are some things to take note of:
– Don’t do it during peak season (just before exams). Build a routine of consulting them. This way, you are constantly learning and integrating their feedback into your assignments. And your teachers will be more available to address your concerns.
– Leverage on your assignments! Teachers mark your essays in batches and often the comments might not encapsulate all the feedback they have for you. What you should do prior to the consultation is to retool your areas of weakness (not write a whole other essay), this helps you clarify the feedback they have given and allows them to look at your essay specifically. An additional plus point is that you have established to them that you are also a hardworking student who is actively looking for feedback to improve and not a passive hoarder of their time hoping to get more marks or asking them to explain points they already provided you with. Practice papers with solutions that you do not understand also serve as a good way to improve your understanding of unfamiliar concepts.
– Go in groups of 2-3 ( a bigger group is just a class). This allows for peer-learning and maximises both the time of your friends, teachers and yourself.
The key is that you must have put in the hard work yourself, and not rely on your teacher. Your consultation should mainly be focused on understanding techniques and clarifying concepts not an extra class of them teaching what they have already taught.
Team up with other students.
Other than your teachers, capitalise on your friendships.(This means both your stronger and weaker friends!)
Learn from the ‘smarter’ kids. Identify the top performing students, whose essays are usually printed as model essays. Your aim is not to copy them because the question will never come out again! However, annotate and take note where they have succeeded and gotten marks where you did not. Then, approach them! Ask them specific questions on how they crafted/formulate their answers! If possible, you should ask them to check your essays/assignments which would be instrumental in improving the quality of your work and boosting your learning FAST!
Tip: Find your seniors. In case this is sensitive because people are hyper-competitive. A senior who has walked through your path has nothing to lose in helping you because you are not a threat to them so they might be more inclined to aid you!
Tutor the ‘weaker students’. This allows you to not only build friendship points which help you score in LIFE, it further reinforces and consolidates your learning. By repeating yourself and teaching others on a subject that you are strong in, you are consolidating knowledge you have learned, furthering your mastery over the subject. Repetition breeds perfection.
Tip: Foster mutually beneficial partnerships. For example, I was weaker at Math so I paired up with a Math genius who was struggling with Economics which was my strength. This proved to be an awesome pairing!
“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”
Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father of the United States of America
I hope this post has shown you the weapons warriors utilise to get themselves over the hump in their academic pursuit. Your feedback would be invaluable, so feel free to shoot me an email or…