HUNTER students have received statewide recognition for their extraordinary achievement outperforming tens of thousands of their peers across NSW to come first in five Higher School Certificate subjects.
Lambton High's Rayna Lamack achieved first place in the state's most popular course, English Standard, and said it was "surreal" to have beaten 31,346 other students.
"I was so shocked when I got the call," Rayna said.
"I said 'Are you serious, is it me?'. It feels very amazing that all of my hard work has paid off, especially in this tough year."
Hunter Valley Grammar School's Alexandra Gibb topped the state in the third most popular course, English Advanced, outperforming 24,873 others.
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"I'm still in shock, I'm thrilled though," she said.
She said she expected a call back that it was a mistake.
"I'm just trying to comprehend it all, it happened very quickly.
"It was not expected at all. I got into the exam, I did the best I could, I walked out and tried not to think about it."
Merewether High's Genevieve Ball said she was "still not sure I believe" she is number one in Ancient History.
"I feel like I'm about to wake up and think 'Oh, I just got the marks I expected'," she said.
"It's definitely a surprise, I came out of that exam and said 'That was so much harder than the trial'. I did not expect it whatsoever, I thought I did badly."
Fellow Merewether High student Zeraphina Freeman said she was "pretty happy" about scoring the top spot in French Beginners.
"I put in a lot of hard work so it's nice to have it pay off," she said.
"I would not say I expected it, but I did really well at school and it's one of my better subjects."
Kotara High student Andy Kinkade said it was a "really good achievement" to have beaten all of his peers in the Electrotechnology exam, which he studied at TAFE Tighes Hill.
"I tried really hard, but it's a pretty big surprise," he said.
"This was the one I was most scared about going into the test."
The five students said even though they all enjoyed their subjects, reaching first place required time and effort.
Rayna, who moved from Malaysia to Australia at the start of year 11, said she spent about two hours a day on English Standard in the lead up to the exam, writing essays, seeking feedback from her teacher Samantha Wass and rereading her texts.
Alexandra said she poured "hours and hours" into English Advanced until studying "became habitual" and sacrificed time with friends and relaxing to write practice essays.
Genevieve completed three HSC units last year - including sitting her Studies of Religion I exam days after evacuating her Martinsville home - and juggled Ancient History with Modern History, History Extension and English Advanced this year.
She estimated she spent about 50 hours on Ancient History in the lead up to the exam.
Zeraphina, who decided after spending five months on exchange in Germany in 2018 to pick up French too, said languages were "the one thing I do and not get bored of".
"It's my favourite and I made it part of my life, I listen to a lot of French music and watch a lot of French shows and movies," she said.
"I kept a vocabulary book and wrote down every new word I learnt and did a bit of extra reading."
Andy said he studied for Electrotechnology the most out of all his subjects and did every past paper from 2012 several times.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the class of 2020 has endured one of the most challenging years in a generation, with bushfires, drought and a pandemic.
Rayna said it was easy to lose motivation without contact with friends, but she kept looking towards her goal of university.
Alexandra said her netball season was cut short and she was unable to do her usual volunteering at a Maitland community kitchen.
"There were periods where I felt completely overwhelmed and I wanted to put all my notes away and sleep... but trying to keep in mind my long term goal really helped."
Genevieve said "it has not been the easiest year" and remote learning was difficult, but she was lucky her school worked hard to keep students engaged and ensure they could have a graduation and formal.
She said future historians would see the pandemic as a "point of no turning back" and "just the beginning when it comes to these massive sort of events". "It's going to be a learning experience we're going to have to use to change the way we live repeatedly into the future."
Zeraphina said she'd remember 2020 "in a positive light" and that despite the struggles, year 12 "is just a fun year".
Andy had his weekly four hour Electrotechnology lessons cut to one hour over Zoom, but he "just kept pushing through" on his own.
"The HSC and ATAR are very important to me, I've always wanted to do well."
Students are now waiting for the release of their other HSC results at 6am on Friday and their Australian Tertiary Admission Rank at 9am.
Rayna left on Thursday for a trip to Manyana and hopes to study biomedical science at the University of NSW.
Alexandra plans to celebrate with friends after Friday's results and wants to study law and international development at the University of Adelaide.
Genevieve is waiting for her other results before celebrating. She has received an early offer to study arts at the Australian National University (ANU) but is also hoping to receive an offer from the University of Sydney.
Zeraphina planned to enjoy a French meal and champagne with her family. She has received early entry and two scholarships to study languages at ANU.
Andy had a family dinner, will attend a mate's barbecue and hopes to study civil or electrical engineering.
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