It’s hard to believe that Melody Tam Lok-man, a top scorer from HKUGA College, who got 5** in seven subjects in last year’s DSEs, used to fail Chinese and Liberal Studies.
“I’m not super smart. I’m someone who worked hard and prepared for the DSE in a systematic way, taking advantage of the exams characteristics to get the scores I want,” she tells Young Post.
Even in primary school, Tam had trouble with her studies because her English was poor. For three whole months, she couldn’t understand what her teachers at HKUGA Primary School were saying. What changed everything, Tam recalls, was falling in love with reading.
“My teacher introduced me to simple English books, with just two lines on every page.They also set up an awards system, and I got hooked,” she said. “Every summer I’d go to bookstores and read almost 200 books.” With better language skills, Tam found it easier to grasp all other subjects, and her grades picked up in Primary Four.
“Novels are great for getting yourself into the habit of reading. Especially if it’s a novel series, you’ll soon find yourself reading one book after another,” she says.
To get good grades in the DSEs, Tam started preparing early. One of the most feared aspects of the Chinese paper is the classical Chinese reading passage, because students have trouble understanding the ancient text.
“However, out of the 30-something points in this section, you can get more than 10 points just by memorising the meanings of terms. With hard work, you could get all of those marks,” she explains. “And for the Chinese paper you only need 65 per cent to get a 5**, according to online forums.”
So for about six months in Form Five, Tam woke up at 6am to memorise classical Chinese terms. “It’s such boring stuff, I wouldn’t want to look at it in the evening,” she says.
Interestingly, Tam found tutor classes a waste of time. “I think the tutors drag their courses on for longer than they need to be. I think the intensive courses that open right before the exams are the most efficient,” she says. So, in the second term of Form Five, Tam began to preview Form Six material, signing up for intensive DSE courses and taking mock exams. When she didn’t have tutorials, she would head to the study room after school, studying until 10.30pm with a one-hour break for dinner.
Tam would also do extra exercises on top of her school work. When she got to Form Six, she did one extra English composition and one extra Chinese composition every week, which her teachers at HKUGA College would mark in their spare time. During study leave, this increased to about four compositions every week.
“For Chinese, sometimes I would just hand in an outline of my points, so the teacher can quickly check if I was off topic,” she says.
“Form Five was the toughest. When I got to Form Six, it was easy.”
By the time she sat the exams, Tam had completed 20 years of Hong Kong Certificate Examination for each subject, working through each year’s seven times.
“Some people say we should only start doing past papers right before the exam, but that’s not enough. The memory curve shows that the more times we repeat something, the better we remember it,” she says. “I jotted down the hardest questions and did them each 10 times.”
Studying so much didn’t mean that Tam didn’t have time for friends, reading, or exercise. She had a Whatsapp group with her classmates and used YouTube videos to fit in workout sessions. “Our classmates are really open; we share our study progress and discuss problems in a Whatsapp group. The teachers are also in the group so they really helped us clarify our concepts and give us moral support,” she says. Tam, who often got sick in her junior secondary school years, began exercising regularly in Form Four. In Form Six, she began following High Intensity Interval Training workout sessions on YouTube that had her sweating within minutes.
It’s easy to think her parents were behind this strict routine, but all her study tactics were self-motivated, says Tam. Her parents were never demanding of her academic results.
“I might have rebelled otherwise. Most of the outstanding kids I know with excellent grades don’t have pushy parents. Those with too much pressure from parents don’t do as well in exams,” she says.
After Tam’s perfect results came out, her school invited her to share her study tips with younger students, who soon began asking her to share her notes. So, in October last year, Tam decided to make a video explaining her study tips for chemistry, biology and economics, and uploaded it onto her YouTube channel. In just a few days the video had more than 10,000 views. It spurred her to make more videos. Some offer concrete strategies, such as how to present examples in Chinese compositions in a way that will impress markers. In others, Tam shares how she managed her time during study leave, and even goes into details of what food she chooses to eat for breakfast on exam day.
Tam says she bases her video topics on what people request to her through email. “A Band 3 student who had no motivation to study told me he watched all my videos. I’m happy that I can share my skills and positive attitude through my channel,” Tam says. “The fact is, we have a tough exam system. We have to do well to build a good foundation, and have any chance of changing anything in the future.”
Lately, she’s spent a lot of time designing her own intensive course videos. Students can watch them and access her complete notes for a fee that ranges from HK$200 to HK$600. Tam adds that around 800 students have bought her notes, which she sells for between HK$100 and HK$200. “Some people say I should give them out for free, but it’s a lot of effort and I spent a lot of time compiling them and making the videos,” she says. She doesn’t charge students with financial difficulties, and has given her complete notes to more than 40 students for free.
Tam says she plans to keep posting videos on her channel, but has no idea where this project will take her in the future. “My mum jokes that I should be a celebrity tutor,” she laughs. “I’m keeping that opportunity open, but I’m still finding my way. Spending so much time studying has meant I haven’t had the chance to explore where my passions lie.”