LOOKING back, Mac Gilligan said he didn't necessarily need to devote the 250 hours to studying that he did in the weeks leading up to the Higher School Certificate exams.
The Australian National University (ANU) had already made him an early offer to study a double degree in engineering and economics. "I didn't have to get a good result and could have saved myself a lot of time and cruised along, but I did keep pushing hard just to do well."
Merewether High's Mac, 17, achieved what is understood to be the region's highest Australian Tertiary Admission Rank on Friday, 99.85.
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Fellow Merewether High student Chris Beck and Hunter Valley Grammar School's Alexandra Gibb, who topped the state in English Advanced, received the same ATAR.
"I'm pretty elated," Alexandra said.
"It's definitely not what I expected, I'm still trying to comprehend it.
""I blinked a couple of times trying to see if I read it right."
She is waiting on an offer to study law and development studies, either in Newcastle or Adelaide.
All three were All-Round Achievers and received marks in the highest band for 10 or more units.
Merewether High principal Rochelle Dooley said it was the first time in at least nine years that all the school's students with ATARS over 99 were boys.
Fellow Merewether students Liam Prince received 99.55, Harrison Lack 99.5, James Punch 99.45, Martyn Cox 99.2, Jeremy Burns 99.1 and William McCombe 99.
Newcastle Grammar School's Evgenia Petrelis received 99.4 and Rosie Charge 99.2.
St Philip's Christian College Waratah students Claire Andrews received 99.4 and Esan Hasan 99.15.
St Joseph's Catholic College Lochinvar's Josephine Witherdin received 99.3 and Lambton High's Rayna Lamack received 99.1.
Mac said his ATAR was "higher than I had been expecting".
He received subject marks of 98 for Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics Extension 1. He came second in the state in Physics and 16th in Chemistry.
"I saw those three and thought 'That's going to lead to a fairly high ATAR', then with English Advanced I got 90 and thought it might let me down, but it turned out okay."
Mac said achieving his ATAR required "a fair bit of work". "I would have put around 200 or 250 hours in from the start of the [term four] school holidays."
He said moving to remote learning during lockdown was "very stressful", especially as it included an exam period, and he was glad the NSW Education Standards Authority gave principals flexibility to decide on the number, type and weighting of school-based assessments.
Mac said balance was key and he made sure to make time to see friends, work part time and walk his dog every day.
"For some people, if they were away from their desk for an extended period of time that would be a source of stress," he said.
"But if you're using that time for something else and it's benefitting your wellbeing, then it can help. Don't worry if you want to keep doing other things."
Chris Beck, 17, said he continued to play cricket and soccer and make time for himself. "It helps so you don't get burnt out in the first term."
He was 10th in the state in Physics and 13th in Chemistry and has received early offers to study actuarial science.
"I timed how much I studied every day, so I could improve how much study I did each week," he said. "I started with about ten hours a week but this rose to about 20 to 30 hours during the exam period.
"I feel I was self motivated. I did not have a goal but I wanted to do well."
Liam Prince, who was 20th in Chemistry, was "very relieved" his ATAR exceeded his goal of 99.
"I felt if other people were not going to put in their best effort during online learning, then I could get an advantage just by maintaining mine, rather than having to go beyond to get an advantage."
He said past papers were invaluable.
"The best way to prepare for the HSC is to practice doing it," he said.
"It tests gaps in your knowledge and finding other schools' exams online means you get exposed to a range of questions."
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