|Kathryn Blowers, HSC high achiever, in Uganda with her brother, Jonathan, for Favor of God, November 2010|
"It's a lot of pressure building up," she told me, sitting at her desk in the Queensland home she shares with her parents, Phil and Jenny, and older brother, Johnathan. "I went and told Mum and Dad and they burst into tears, and then I called my grandparents and texted all my friends. Pretty much the whole morning was spent on the phone. Then I had a hairdressing appointment."
The Caloundra Christian College graduate had scored an OP*1, putting her amongst the top one per cent of students in the state of Queensland (of 47,203 of them, just 708 achieved an OP1). This she achieved after acing her QCS (Queensland Core Skills test) and topping her subjects: Maths B, Chemistry, Biology, Business, English and Hospitality.
"You have to pick the subjects that you can do well," she says. "There are other subjects I would have liked to do, but I wasn't as strong at. It also takes huge self-discipline and self-motivation. You kind of have to put your social life away, which isn't easy when you're 16/17."
Kathryn is aware that she's blessed: her home life is stable, she didn't have to work to earn money like many of her peers, and her small school classes meant that teachers could devote extra time to students. But she also made wise choices along the way. Boys were off the agenda for the year, and, unlike many of her peers, she chose to stave off Facebook.
"I didn't have Facebook in Years 11 and 12, and I would recommend that to anyone – get rid of it. I mean, it's a fantastic thing to keep up with friends, but it's completely addictive. When I would take a break and study, I'd chill and talk to my parents or read, which isn't like starting a Facebook conversation with someone and before you know it two hours are gone."
The self-confessed perfectionist also worked doggedly hard for her scores with a singular vision: to achieve a result that would allow her to study optometry or business at university.
"Study was always my number one thing. I knew that out of my whole life, the two years you have to concentrate for isn't much of a sacrifice," she says. "As far as school work goes, you just have to focus on the light at the end. There were times when I wanted to give up, but it's worth it.
After getting home from school at around 4pm, she'd take a half-hour break, during which she'd watch TV and have a snack, before hitting the books until dinner and often again between dinner and bed.
"I would just put my head down and go," she says. "Some people do 15 minutes and then have a break, but I'd do three hours and then have a half-hour break. You can tell when your brain's starting to fizz. I'm one of those people who can read and memorise and spin it off, which was my approach."
While her teachers started preparing students for their final year in Grade 10, and her dentist mother was at hand to answer science questions, she also kept all her work to look back on, realising that it's not Year 12 alone that counts. Outside exams for her chosen subjects, the QCS, which has significant bearing on a student's overall OP, is designed to test students on the core knowledge they've accumulated over their high school careers.
"They give you a writing stimulus task, two multiple choice tests and a short response test. It doesn't help to have done Chemistry or Legal Studies; it comes back to things you learnt in Grade Nine. It's like a build up of all that knowledge. That's the huge stress test. Our school would cook us breakfast in the morning, so we'd all be together at the start trying to calm our nerves, and you were allowed to take lollies into the exam, but it's pretty stressful. People come out in tears every year. But it's okay. You can only do what you can do."
This is not to say she didn't have her fair share of freak-out moments. "When I'd break down in tears because I couldn't get something done I'd maybe have the whole night off or read a book or watch TV and not think about work, and then come back to it. But if your family is involved in supporting your work, then that's hugely helpful."
She would have a day or half a day off each week, but found being at school enough social stimulation, save for those days when she'd have to work through lunch. While she says she was overzealous about her studies, and should have taken breaks more often to avoid the burnout she felt in Term Four, her game plan worked for her.
Her faith also proved a grounding force, but wasn't without its challenges as her busy schedule threatened to steal her peace and time with God. She'd wake daily to her alarm and a Bible devotion on her mobile phone, but a weekly prayer group at school, praying with her parents and teachers before her exams and private time with God proved to be the best support.
"One of my favourite verses is in Matthew 6, 'Do not worry about tomorrow...'. Being a perfectionist and a worry wart, I'd get overwhelmed thinking weeks ahead of myself, but when I thought of that verse, I'd be like, 'Hey, right now, I'm okay.' But prayer was one of the hugest things I leant on, rather than specific verses. Just having someone to turn to all the time. God knows what you need, but it helps to vocalise it in prayer."
Kathryn's life experience has extended to working alongside her family on the Ugandan missionary field with an organisation called Favor of God, which saw her work with orphans as her builder father worked on a new shelter called 'The House of Hope'. But before she launches into five years of optometry study at Queensland University of Technology, she'll be taking a gap year to acclimatise to being 'out there' in the world beyond her desk.
"I think having your head stuck in the books for 12 years, and growing up in a Christian household, you can be a bit sheltered. Some of my friends laugh, 'You're so in a bubble.' So having a gap year, getting a job, will hopefully give me some of that life experience."
*Overall Position, aka UAI or ATAR.
Girl With a Satchel