Top 5 Tips for Acing HSC Biology

The Head of Biology, Alex's guide to acing HSC Biology

Alex Loustau

Alex Loustau

Head of Biology & 99.45 ATAR

Did you know that in 2022, Biology was the course with the third highest enrollment, second only to all English subjects COMBINED and all Mathematics subjects COMBINED? And it makes sense: studying biology opens many doors in science, particularly healthcare, and even engineering (for example, biomimicry allows us to streamline many mechanical processes and improve the quality of manufactured materials!).

So no matter your plans for the future, you’ve made a good choice taking on Biology. Throughout the year, you’ll be learning all about how the body produces DNA and proteins integral to human development and how this DNA travels through populations and influences physical characteristics. You’ll then get to explore what happens when this natural bodily function goes awry in the study of both infectious and non-infectious diseases. And though Biology has a bad rep for being a very content-heavy subject, if you synthesise and optimise your study of the systems, you’ll become like a mitochondrion: a powerhouse!

In this guide, we’ll be discussing what it takes to build a good foundation for studying smarter, not harder for Biology. It’s all about making the most of the resources you have available and refining your information in a way that improves memory and develops a deeper comprehension of what you’re learning.

So what are we waiting for? Let’s dive right in!

The Top Tips

While it’s tempting to think that memorisation = reading your notes repeatedly, the retention of just looking at words on a page is usually ineffective. Regardless of whether you’re a visual, auditory or hands-on learner, there are so many approaches you can take to get to appreciate and wrap your head around the content. Here are a couple of strategies that I found particularly useful!

1. Familiarise yourself with the HSC Biology Syllabus

I’ve always liked to think of the syllabus as a roadmap: it tells you where you’re going and what you’ve done, and if you were to get lost you can just refer back to it to set you on the right path again. Let’s outline the key landmarks and then zone in on how to make the most of this powerful resource. The four Modules you’ll be studying throughout the year are:

  • Heredity

  • Genetic Change

  • Infectious Disease

  • Non-infectious Diseases and Disorders

The syllabus dot points can help you scaffold your notes and ensure that every base is covered. A good way to set them up is to start every new topic with a syllabus dot point on the top of the page for easy reference, then a list of all the necessary definitions, and then whatever you like to understand the biological processes that follow from there! It’s a bit of a cake model - you start from the foundations (the “what’s”) and build on top of that until we can turn all the moving parts into a full machine (the “how’s” and “why’s”). If you’re stuck on what that looks like, Project has a comprehensive set of notes you can reference to make your notes your own.

And the inquiry questions are your best friend! All the content underneath it should supplement your response to that question - if you were asked that question as a nine or ten-marker question, how can you pool together everything you’ve learned to answer it? It’s one of, if not the, best indicators of whether you’ve understood the content. None of the topics exist in isolation, so the inquiry question helps to keep us grounded and continue to make links back and forth between topics, and across modules.

I also strongly recommend tracking your progress and understanding of the different syllabus dot points and inquiry questions, so that you know which areas to focus on when it comes time to prepare for your assessments. For example, this spreadsheet here is a really powerful tool that many Project Academy students find helpful. It’s based on a traffic light prioritisation system. To use it, simply:

  • Copy and paste the template into your own Google or Excel spreadsheet.

  • Reflect on your confidence level for each dot point.

  • Change the colour of the boxes accordingly. For example, red means you are struggling a lot, whereas green means you are confident, and orange is somewhere in between.

  • When revising, prioritise red boxes and slowly move your way through to green.

For example:

2. Explain it to someone else (and get creative with it!)

This one I found the most effective once you reached a comfortable point of confidence in the content: explaining the content to someone not only makes sure that YOU understand everything but demonstrates mastery by adapting the way you talk about it so you’re not just rambling on to someone. It works great as a diagnostic tool as well - if you can’t explain it well enough so that people can understand you, there’s probably something you’re missing along the way.

And I mean it when I say “get creative with it”: explaining stuff can be fun for both of you with silly analogies and clever mnemonics because they will stick with you better. After all, you’re linking it to something you already know which makes it easier to remember, and if it’s funny it’ll stick out to you more. For example, I linked the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses to what your body does when it tries to fight a tiger, and what it does when it eats the tiger it just defeated respectively. In Project’s Biology PROCON, we discuss the assembly of a protein as ordering and assembling a piece of IKEA furniture. Do whatever it takes!

3. Make flowcharts and diagrams

Biology discusses many processes and details that flow into each other, like a stepwise machine. As such, having a visual representation of what exactly these processes are is going to be super useful, especially during those crunch times. When you can see each of the individual steps and the key players, you can also more easily see what exactly happens if one of the key players is not functional.

And similarly to the discussion of explaining it to someone else, make these flowcharts and diagrams your own! Turn them into mascots, use different colours, and doodle little analogies along the side as you move along. Ultimately, these notes are for YOU and nobody else, so what matters is that it’s tailored to suit how YOU know yourself and your content.

4. Listen to podcasts

Learning can continue outside of the classroom - and podcasts are the perfect, bite-sized way to enjoy your content on the go. There is this fantastic one on Spotify that I listened to religiously to help supplement my learning. They also have supplementary diagrams that you can follow along with yourself if you want to visualise what he’s talking about, especially when it comes to the body systems in Module 8.

In a similar vein, some people like to record themselves talking about it to play back later, listen to other people talk to them about it, or monologue about what’s going on, which is super effective if you’re an auditory learner. No one singular learning style is going to work for everyone - so what’s important is that you find what works well for you. In the end, you’re never going to be assessed on how you study or what helps things stick, you’re assessed on what you produce.

5. Think about real-world applications

The best way to test whether you understand how something works is to see what happens when it doesn’t work - what happens with a frameshift mutation? Or when receptors detect insufficient water intake? It gives you the chance to start to think about how the steps flow into each other and the different kinds of problems that arise if an earlier step is inhibited compared to a later one.

What’s super important is that you stay curious about the concepts you discover - don’t just wait around for things to be given to you! Look deeper into medical journals and YouTube videos, think in hypotheticals, and debate with your friends. Though not explicitly “exam preparation”, these provide a deeper appreciation for WHY you’re learning what you’re learning, which makes studying for Biology more enjoyable and gives you an insight into the adult world and applications of your knowledge.


At the end of the day, everything in Biology is like a conveyor belt in a factory: all the parts of the body and cells work together to produce some kind of optimal output, and in understanding these functions we can appreciate how it does this, and understand the implications of medical issues. And though it seems daunting at first, once we take a step back and start to really think about what each of the parts means, it becomes a lot less intimidating and becomes a lot more fun. And if you’re ever feeling stuck or concerned, Project Academy has got your back!

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