How to get Excellence in NCEA? (Possibly, maybe)

This discussion is not about the advantages or disadvantages of the NCEA qualification, nor about any potential changes. It’s simply about improving the chances of hardworking students to earn the Excellence grade.

It’s okay not to get Excellence. To quote form the official website: “Merit and excellence grades are ways to recognise students who have achieved outstanding results.” Some students are too busy achieving at their chosen sport, or playing in a jazz band, or doing teenage things. School grades are not a measure of a happy life.

But let’s assume that Excellence is what your teen wants. It goes without saying that they should study the material and understand it. If it’s an exam, not an assignment, they should also remember the facts, as well as do heaps of practice to be able to answer questions in the allotted time.

So what else is there? What’s the problem?

The problem – why students struggle to get Excellence

The problem is that under NCEA it’s not enough to know the syllabus. The exam doesn’t consist of a multiple choice sheet where you circle the correct answer. Under NCEA, you must show that you understand the material (to get an Achieved grade), show it convincingly (to get a Merit), and show it persuasively / effectively (for an Excellence).

The terms convincingly and persuasively / effectively are not explained (beyond their Oxford Dictionary definition), and they tend to mean slightly different things in different subjects.


Let me give you an example. For one of my daughter’s Year 9 maths tests (Year 9 is not under NCEA, but in our college they mark tests and assignments the NCEA way for everyone), the excellence question was: “Joe is very hungry. He can either have 6 pieces from a pizza cut into 8 pieces, or 4 pieces from an identical pizza cut into 6 pieces. Which choice should he make?” My daughter knew her fractions well, so she didn’t have to calculate anything, she just wrote: “6/8 because it’s bigger than 4/6. Right? Not really. That answer only got her an “Achieved” for that specific question, so even though the other 19 questions she answered perfectly, her final grade was 100% with Merit, not 100% with Excellence. To gain an Excellence, she had to show that 6/8 = 18/24, while 4/6 = 16/24, and then compare 18/24 with 16/24, possibly using a diagram with shaded squares to persuade the teacher that 18 is more than 16.

Of course, she thought it ridiculous: her answer was right, so why was she being penalised for doing all that maths in her head? The thing is, though, the teacher couldn’t see inside her head, so she had to demonstrate her knowledge on paper.

Most maths questions, however, don’t use this unique NCEA approach. They simply require you to show all calculations, and the only difference between Achieved, Merit and Excellence questions is the level of difficulty.

Foreign Languages

A bit like maths, your Excellence grade will usually depend on how well you know the language and its complexities. Vocabulary questions and grammar questions will either be right or wrong. For writing and speeches, you’ll need to present your ideas and opinions effectively and persuasively. In other words: use difficult words and complex sentence structures, choose topics that you’re passionate about, choose logical arguments.

The Sciences

Whether it’s Biology, Chemistry or Physics, the sciences all take the same NCEA approach. As a student, you need to:

  1. Understand what the question is asking.
  2. State only the facts related to the question – irrelevant facts may cost you your Excellence grade.
  3. Link the facts in your answer to the question.
  4. Make sure your sentences can be read together as a complete and coherent argument.
  5. Include all the relevant details but don’t waffle.

We are friends with an exceptional science student whose knowledge stretched way beyond the syllabus, but who kept getting Achieved grades for Year 11 science. Why? He failed to explain stuff he considered obvious.

For example, one question was: “Leopards in the wild commonly have scars, especially around the faces. Some leopards are black. Explain why leopard cubs may be born with black coats but not with scars.” He answered: “because black coats are genetic, while scars are environmentally acquired.” That’s an Achieved sort of answer. An Excellence answer requires an explanation what a mutation is and how the alteration to the base sequence causes black coats, what an allele is in context and what a gene is in context, and that a gene codes for a coat colour; while scars are non-genetic and therefore are not able to be passed on to the offspring.

See that last bit? If someone knows a lot of science, they might fail to put it in, simply because it’s obvious to them that “non-genetic” means “can’t be passed on”. Lesson? Always explain everything, like to a very intelligent Martian who doesn’t know anything about earth’s sciences.

Here’s an example of why you need to state only the relevant facts: “Explain the evolutionary significance of adaptive features”. If you start your answer with natural selection or overpopulation, you won’t get an excellent, because it’s not what the question is about. If you say that variation means the individuals of the population all carry different phenotypes coded by different genotypes. Different phenotypes are better suited for different environments, you’re on the right track, but link it to adaptations, reproduction and evolution.

“If a student doesn’t get Excellence,” says a science teacher, “it may be that they didn’t answer all parts of the question, they wrote an explanation but didn’t elaborate on it, or used wrong terminology.”


Many assignments and exam questions in English take the form of an essay. There are various essay structures, usually with acronyms like TEXAS and SEX (yep!). Here is a good one called SEET:

  • Statement – your idea in a short sentence
  • Explanation – explain what you mean referring to your statement
  • Example – quotes or specific examples
  • Tell – tell us how your idea links to the society or human behaviour.

The essays should carry the meaning clearly, form logical arguments, be backed up by examples and explain how ideas from the text relate to the real world.

For the texts you study in class, a good approach is to pre-write essays characters, themes, written/visual techniques and settings. Get the teacher’s feedback on your work and ask what you could do to turn it into an Excellence essay.

For unfamiliar texts, consider all the language techniques (metaphor, simile, personification, alliteration, assonance, rhetorical questions, point of view, imagery, etc.) and see how the author utilised them to convey the message that the question is asking about. Whichever essay form you choose, remember to use examples from the text, analyse them, and link them to the question as well as to the world around you.

Even for creative writing credits, the finished work must demonstrate understanding or carry a message in a persuasive and effective way.

Social Sciences

Geography, History and Economics are like a mixture of the hard sciences and English: your essay should be on topic, free of factual errors, backed up by relevant facts, and show understanding persuasively by means of detailed analysis and logic.


At the end of the day, the work is marked by humans, not computers, so what one teacher may consider a low Excellence, another might mark a high merit.

On a more positive note, the official website assures that: “Marking is “top down”, which requires the marker to initially look for evidence for Excellence, as described by the Excellence criterion in the standard. Only if this evidence is missing or deficient, do markers look for Merit evidence, and then down to Achievement.” This is good news, because it means that markers approach each answer believing it deserves an Excellence, and they’ll be looking for proof of that.

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