How I solved my math problems – from failure to 94% in less than one year

Why is a physio writing a blog post on maths?

  1. Because I can! It is my blog 🙂
  2. I tell this story so many times that it is time-efficient to write it down
  3. I was inspired by this article to write it
  4. I get asked by a lot of high school students about what they need to do to get into Physiotherapy at uni

What follows actually happened to the best of my memory

Let Me Set The Scene...

So, I am in year 11 at Trinity Grammar School in Summer Hill. I am in the 2nd of 3 maths classes doing 3 unit maths - the classes are arranged based on your ranking. I have Mr Mirrington - a good, funny teacher.

I had no excuses - good school, good teacher, supportive parents.

I was lazy. I did the bare minimum for homework to avoid getting into trouble (detention). I didn't ask for help if I needed it. I was pure and simply lazy. I knew I was smart enough and I had gotten by before. Why would Yr11 be any different?

Well, I guess I should have gotten worried when I got into the 60-70% range...ah, just silly mistakes I said. By the end of the year, the proverbial hit the fan.


I got 27/50 (54%) - never before had I come so close to failing a maths or science subject.

It hurt. Badly. I felt sick in stomach. I started to doubt myself (those of you who know me personally know I don't lack confidence!).

Getting Up Off The Canvas

Soon after that (early January), I decided I would need a new strategy. My final year of high school will not be a maths failure (I didn't apply this logic to the rest of my studies until 6 weeks before the final HSC exam...dumb huh?)

Anyway, I decided that I would do every question in the book. Nick Tsai was a friend in the year above me who did 4Unit maths. We used to get to school early and I would read the papers and he would do his 4unit maths. I would do badly at a test and ask him what I should do...he said "do every question in the book". I of course scoffed - why would I do that? That sounds like a lot of work!

I had my year 12 textbook for maths already (I actually don't remember why - maybe I was supposed to do something over the holidays...yeah, right!). What is the first chapter you do in the first week back at school? That's right, the revision chapter!

Back to School

So I thought "I will do every question in the revision chapter...and have a cruisy week". And I did... and I did.

I went back to school and found myself dropped to the bottom class. Never happened to me before. It fired up my determination.

My teacher was Mr French - he was a nice guy. Passionate and fair. So I went up to him and I asked to make a deal with him. I proposed that I do every question in the book, I asked that he leave me alone and in return I would not disturb his class, I would work hard and I wanted to stay at least a week or two ahead of the class - so he would have to tell me what chapter we were doing after the one we were currently on. To his credit, he agreed to this on the proviso that my grades increase.

What Have I Become?

And thus began the great maths experiment. I asked my dad to take me into school early - like 7am - on his way to work. He agreed. I secretly kept a window unlocked in my maths room so I could climb in every day and do at least an hour of maths in the morning. If the windows got locked, I would find the Marshall who would let me in (we had a good understanding). I did every question of every section of every chapter (except one small subsection - more on that later).

Who would have believed it? It worked!

My marks crept up off the floor. It was slow but tracked consistently upwards. I was at ~42/50 by the mid years and 47/50 at the HSC trials. I was on track (in my mind) for a perfect score in 3 unit maths.

I was doing maths everywhere. Before school, in free periods, during English (I hated English - I got 67% without reading the novel or finishing the play - it wasn't until after school I appreciated what they were trying to teach). I did my maths when I came home from school. I had become a perfect little Asian maths machine!

I simply tried to understand the examples in the textbook. What I didn't understand, I asked Mr French. Then I did every question in that textbook.

You see, it takes failure or the prospect of failure to get my butt in gear sometimes. At my trial HSC, I got a total of 395/500 - 79%!! That was terrible for me. I hadn't really been below 80% in general except for languages. And here I was staring down the barrel of what I considered failure.

(OK, I know that 79% is not the end of the world and there are plenty of people who would be happy with that mark but I was a high achiever...honestly, getting 1 wrong every 5 questions feels like failure)

So I had to then apply my maths discipline to my other subjects. I had carefully chosen my subjects to minimise the amount of study I had to do - typical! 3unit maths, 2unit related (advanced) English, 2unit physics, 2unit chemistry, 2unit computer studies, 1 unit general studies. The HSC takes your best 10 units to get your Tertiary Entrance Score (TES) - these names changed over the years but basically it is a rank based on the total student population in the state.

So in my mind, my subject choices simply meant that I had to understand the material, get it right and I would get good scores...problem was that I didn't study enough - I was doing maths!!

So, 6 weeks before the final exams, I was hitting the books. I did every past paper available to me - from other schools, from the Board of Studies, from textbooks. I went through reams of paper.

The only subsection I did not study was some obscure polynomial section that I didn't really understand and we never really got to in class. I had NEVER seen it in the previous 12 years of HSC papers. I was hitting near perfect scores in those trial papers. I decided to leave that subsection and focus on physics and chemistry as well. I didn't have to study for computers or general studies. Computers came naturally to me (you should see the syllabus from back then - too simple!) and General Studies was basically current affairs and I could BS my way past 80%.


And of course, that was the worst decision of my maths comeback. A 6 mark question on that stupid subsection. I nearly cried. I reckon I nailed EVERY other question except that one. I only got 47/50 - I reckon those 6 marks were the only ones I lost 🙁

In the end, my best 10 units totaled something like 447/500 - 89.4%. I scraped into physiotherapy, relied on a good friend to supply me with notes and graduated with a Credit average. I righted the wrongs of my undergrad life during my masters and I can proudly report that I got a High Distinction average.

So what do you need to get into Physiotherapy...I tell all the students who ask me they need an average of 90% or more in their subjects...but now there is the back door entry of Exercise Sports Science and then a Graduate Entry Masters in Physiotherapy...a much longer but easier path.


So what is the moral of the story?

Do every question in the book. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.

I tell students this and I recognise the "yeah, right" look they give me. Educators tell me that understanding is more important than volume. I think they don't understand that once you have understanding, you have to hit the volume every day. It is the only way unless you are a genius.

My recommendation is that you do every question in the book. And once you have done that, do them again. And again. If something is so familiar that you can "do it in your sleep", that is exactly the feeling you want when you open up an exam paper...isn't it?


My thanks must go to Mr French who honoured our agreement. He only ever forgot once when the whole class was mucking up. I was working on my maths as usual and he got mad at me for not looking at the board...I didn't protest. I just sat there until I could get back to what I was doing (which was next week's topic). Thanks also to the teachers and the Marshall (Disciplinarian) who turned a blind eye to me breaking into different rooms to study 🙂 And thanks to Nick who told me to do every question in the took a while before I understood why, but I got there!

I would love to hear your stories of school and maths...leave a comment below!

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