Does my ATAR really matter?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, you’ll have noticed that students across the country have received their ATAR and OP (if you’re in Queensland) results. As 13 years of schooling is reduced to a single number, many high school graduates will be considering how that final score is going to impact the rest of their lives. 

Those who achieved a lofty score will be secretly relishing the post-ATAR buzz, while those who didn’t get the mark they hoped for will see it as a constant reminder of their unfulfilled expectations. We make a lot of noise about Year 12 results as a society, but is the ATAR really the be-all and end-all of our lives as we know it?   

First, let’s take a look at what the ATAR is. It’s a percentile rank that compares your position relative to other students, which is used by tertiary institutions to assist with selection into higher education courses. It basically shows where you stand in a queue, rather than indicating your actual ability. 

Your ATAR can be a predictor of academic success at the tertiary level, but it doesn’t account for other factors that can take you far in life. It cannot illustrate the journeys many students have taken during their schooling lives, and the illness, trauma, learning difficulties, disabilities and socioeconomic barriers that they have come up against to complete Year 12 in the first place. 

We tend to celebrate those at the top of the bell curve, and so we should – many high-achieving students have put in huge amounts of work to attain their scores. A high ATAR is likely to open a few more doors and make the admission into further study that bit smoother. While academic experts encourage the celebration of impressive results, they also warn students not to rest on a great mark when it comes to tertiary education. 

If you’re moving onto university, be prepared for no one to ask you about your ATAR – ever. Your lecturers and tutors do not care, and it is very likely that your peers won’t either. It’s fine to bring it up in a debate with your siblings to prove you are the superior child, but remember that everyone starts on the same ATAR when they get to university. Tertiary study requires skills that don’t always go hand-in-hand with academic ability, like organisation, initiative, discipline and conscientiousness, to realise success. 

While there is a general perception that student with high marks should enrol in prestigious courses so not to ‘waste’ their brilliant score, you shouldn’t let your ATAR dictate your study direction. Choose a course that you are genuinely interested in, irrespective of cut-off requirements, and you’ll find that your tertiary experience will be far more enjoyable. On a side note, switching to a different course halfway through your degree does not constitute failure because really, who is the same person at 20 as they were at 17, when you first start thinking about university? 

For students who didn’t perform as well as they expected – you are not doomed for life. It doesn’t mean that you are incapable of studying at university, or having a successful career in your field of interest. Higher education is painted as the pinnacle of post-school life, but it is just one of many options you have when you walk through your school gates and into the real world. 

If attending university is the ultimate goal but you didn’t achieve the marks needed, consider enrolling in a bridging course at a vocational institute. You could even look into completing a year of study in a degree with lower admission requirements before transferring into your course of choice. Completing a TAFE course or apprenticeship provides you with a qualification, specific skills for a particular job and in some cases, credit towards further study, so it’s worth looking beyond university when exploring your options. The main point here is that there is always an alternative pathway to get you to where you need to be. 

After the dust of Year 12 has settled, it’s important to remember that your ATAR is just a number that represents two years of your life. A high score suggests future academic success, but it definitely doesn’t guarantee it. A lower mark isn’t a barrier to achievement, but rather an opportunity to explore alternative paths to your dream career. 

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