All About ATARS: Here’s What you Need to Know

Schools celebrate stats around it in their newsletters. The top scorers are written up in the newspaper. Tutors list it when they’re advertising for new students. 

Now that your child is getting towards the end of school, they’re probably starting to stress out about it. But as a parent, do you actually know what an ATAR is, how it’s calculated and what it’s used for?

Let’s break it down so you have the information you need to support your child as they finish high school and transition into tertiary education.

How is their ATAR calculated?

To start with, ATAR stands for Australian Tertiary Entrance Rank. The name actually gives you a lot of information about what it is and how it’s used. When you break it down, it’s a rank used for tertiary entrance (or selection into university and TAFE courses) in Australia.

School classroom

A common misconception is that if a student usually gets an average of 80% in their assessment at school, that they should expect an ATAR of 80. However, from the name, we know an ATAR is a rank, not a score. Your child’s ATAR tells you where they rank amongst all the other students in their state.

If, for example, they get an ATAR of 87.00, that means their results put them in the top 13% of students for that year in your state. An ATAR of 99.95 is the highest a student can achieve, and that means they’re in the top 0.05% of the cohort for that year.

The education system in each state and territory varies. This means your child’s ATAR will be calculated differently depending on where they’re studying.

However, these general rules apply across Australia:

  • There’s at least one compulsory subject (usually English or an equivalent subject).
  • The teachers at your child’s school will write their assessment tasks throughout the year. Then at the end of the year everyone in the same state or territory completing the subject will sit the same external exam.
  • They will get a score or ranking for each of their subjects. These results may be scaled up or down depending on how well the students doing the subject do in their other subjects. Then these scores will be put into a complex algorithm to give them an aggregate score.
  • Their ATAR will be allocated based on where their aggregate score ranks compared with everyone else’s aggregate score.

What is their ATAR used for?

The ATAR is the most efficient way for tertiary institutions to work out who will get an offer for their courses. Notice that I said the most efficient way, not the best way.

Tertiary institutions also recognise that they are likely to get students who are truly suited to their courses when they use more diverse methods of selection such as submitting a folio of work, attending an interview, or including a personal statement explaining why they are interested in the course.

Unfortunately, while these methods give tertiary institutions a better understanding of who is applying for their courses and a greater ability to choose students that would be a good fit for the course, they do make the process more time-consuming and therefore more costly. If schools make students an offer based purely on their ATAR, it’s a much quicker and easier process to go through (at least in the initial stages of making offers).

How ATAR impacts tertiary education

Here’s a simplified version of how the process can work.

Let’s say a university or TAFE has 100 places to offer in a particular course. Students apply for the course, and they are ranked in order from the highest ATAR to the lowest.

The tertiary institution will then offer places to the top 100 students on the list.

If not all of the offers are accepted, then the school will offer remaining places to students lower on the list in subsequent offer rounds.

You might have heard your son or daughter mention the ATAR they need to get into the course they’re looking at? That’s the lowest ATAR that a student needed last year to be offered a place in the course. It often stays relatively consistent from year to year.

How important is their ATAR?

It can feel like your child’s ATAR is the most important number they’ll ever come across. As a teacher, I can understand why students find it difficult to look past it.

However, the reality of the ATAR is that they can’t control what they get. There are a few things they can control that will have a much bigger impact on how well they do and whether or not they get into their dream course.

Here are some tips for students: 

  • Listen to the advice of their teachers.
  • Keep up with their homework.
  • Prepare well for their assessment tasks and exams. In doing this, they will be giving themselves the best chance of getting a good ATAR.
  • Focus on English as English is always used in ATAR calculation. 
  • Research about tertiary courses and pathways so that they can get where they want to go no matter what ATAR they get. They don’t need a better ATAR, they need a better plan.

Don’t let all the focus on ATARs distract your child from what they actually want to achieve. Encourage your child to do their best, do their research, and continue their journey into a career that they’ll love.

About the author

Kim Whitty is a qualified and experienced careers practitioner and VCE teacher. She loves connecting with students and empowering them to make great decisions.

In her business, Roadmap Education, she helps students stop stressing about their ATAR by creating a plan for the future. She is the host of the podcast Course and Career Chat, where she interviews tertiary students about their course to provide high school students with more information about the opportunities available to them. For more information about VTAC applications, change of preference, tertiary courses and more, visit www.roadmapeducation.com.

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