Dion Wharerau, who completed his secondary education at Okaihau College, has begun his pursuit of a conjoint Bachelor of engineering and advanced sciences, specialising in mathematics, at the University of Auckland, with a scholarship worth $2000 a year for three years after passing NZQA scholarship exams in calculus, physics and chemistry last year.

No one who knows the 18-year-old, who grew up in Kaikohe, would be surprised by the path he has chosen, given his lifelong interest in science and maths.

"I had a natural curiosity in everything really. I used to have an obsession with counting things, so mathematics came naturally with that, forming equations out of everything I see. I see maths everywhere."

He had spent his last year at Okaihau College preparing for his NZQA scholarship exams, which he sat in addition to five Level 3 NCEA exams.

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"It was a lot of extra time after school, staying late almost every day, a lot of weekends given up to study at school, with very caring teachers who I owe most of it to," he added.

"To do scholarship subjects you have to first entirely learn the Level 3 course, because the scholarship is built on top of that. That meant to properly prepare for a scholarship subject I had to finish, or know, at least all of the Level 3 by term 2."

Nationally about 3 per cent of Year 13 students are awarded scholarships.

Dion said he has always done well at school, but the scholarship exams were a challenge, and when he finally sat them he was nervous.

"I was sort of in an empty room by myself, just sitting there with the examiner. I was kind of scared. When you study just before an exam the only thing you ever really pick up is what you don't think you know. So I was very nervous," he said.

And when he learned that he had passed all three exams he was shocked.

"When I walk into a Level 3 exam I can almost tell what I'm going to get before I leave, but with the scholarship exam — I had no clue," he said.

Last year's Okaihau College dux, he had also won the $6000 P and SM Bullen and Sons Family Trust scholarship. And it felt "really good" to be seeking a degree centred around the subjects he has always been interested in, he said.

"It makes me feel proud of all my achievements so far, and it is a huge confidence boost going into university to know I can work at high levels and I will be fine," he said.

His advice to other students from small towns was "Give everything a shot. I'd just say go for it and try their hardest. Even if they don't pass, it will be one of the most rewarding experiences. Scholarship exams are something else."