07:04am Saturday 18 January 2020

Does the HSC cause too much stress?

As students around News South Wales prepare to sit their HSC exams, youth psychologist and honorary fellow at the School of Psychology at the University of Wollongong (UOW), Virginia Williams, warns students not to place too much pressure on themselves.

“For some, Year 12 and the HSC feels very much like the culmination of their whole school experience and the ‘finish line’. When viewed like this, the final years of school become ‘all or nothing’ and it is not hard to imagine that this could be part of a scenario when the stress becomes too much,” she said.

With 1 in 10 young people aged between 18 and 25 experiencing anxiety, Ms Williams said there are numerous stressors in the lives of high school students.

“In addition to the pressures of ongoing assessments and the HSC, there are social, emotional and physical changes that also affect young adults. The combination of these factors coupled with the highly competitive nature of tertiary education, internships and other programs can make the final years of school a peak time for stress,” she said.

Ms Williams said while stress itself is not a bad thing – “it’s a mobilising force that enables us to respond to any life challenge” – when we are placed under too much stress we are physically less able to meet our usual demands during and after a stressful event.

“While we are stressed, because focus is directed away from the ‘higher order’ brain functions to the ‘fight or flight’ areas of our brain, we are actually less able to use important skills like planning, organising and focusing attention. This is particularly problematic as these are obviously the very capacities we need to successfully complete for studies.”


1. Plan ahead and manage foreseen stressors: creating schedules or calendars that help break big things into more manageable pieces works.

2. Know your ‘stress signs’: we all experience and feel our stress differently. We may get quiet and withdraw from friends and family, we may eat for comfort, we may have a racing head. Know what your signs are and maybe even enlist the help of trusted others who can check in with you if they notice you under stress.

3. Know what works for you when you are stressed and practise these things even when you are not feeling stressed: think work-life-balance. Think wellness and connecting with nature or others. For some people, it’s going for a walk, for others it is talking with friends. Recent research has highlighted the particular value of exercising outdoors to human wellness. Proactively schedule things into your week that you enjoy.

4. Notice ‘all or nothing’ thinking or other mind-traps that may not be effective: what if Year 12 is not the end of the line but the transition to Year 13 (whatever that may be?). Buying into thoughts like “If I don’t get the ATAR I want – I’m a failure” is likely to undermine effective action and increase stress. Practise seeing Year 12 as a transition rather than an end point perhaps by seeking out work placements in areas that interest.

5. Stay connected with others, and seek help if it is needed. Social support is one of the biggest protective factors against the unhelpful consequences of stress.


1. Help them remember that the stress and worry that they feel is normal and not something they struggle with alone or because they are ‘not good enough’.

2. Be alert for signs of significant changes from what you know to be their ‘usual’ self.

3. Be willing to listen, and remind them that this point is an entry to the rest of their lives rather than the destination.

For more information on the UAC process, bonus ATAR point schemes and alternative entry options to university, contact UOW’s admissions advice enquiry team on 1300 367 869 or uniadvice@uow.edu.au.  


Virginia Williams is an honorary fellow at the School of Psychology at the University of Wollongong (UOW), and is also involved in the education and development of post-graduate psychology students at the UOW. Virginia is also Principal and Psychologist at Warehouse One7, an Illawarra-based service focused on enhancing the lives of children, teens and families.


Virginia Williams is available for interview on +61 2 4244 8118 or +61 438 771 239.

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