Beyond the ATAR: Let’s Aim For Success Beyond School

If you have a year 12 student at home, then you most likely know that ATAR is being released very soon (December 17th 2021). You probably also have a very anxious teen awaiting the results.

Find out more about ATARs here. 

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.

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.

ATAR anxiety 

In the 15 years since I started teaching in secondary schools, I’ve seen the landscape change and the pressure kids are putting on themselves to get a good ATAR has increased dramatically. 

Stress about ATAR score
Source: Bigstock

Students put in more and more hours of study, often at the expense of sleep, the activities they love to do, and sometimes their health. There’s an accepted belief that the last year or two of school just has to be like this, and studies are showing that student stress is rising in devastating numbers.

All this begs the question; Why are they doing this to themselves? What are they actually working so hard to achieve?

Most students have never been asked this question and simply feel like it’s expected of them, while others are so used to working like this that they don’t know any other way.

The logical answer is that students feel that they need good results to get into the tertiary course they want to study.

While there has started to be a shift towards other forms of selection, such as submitting folios of work, attending an interview or writing a personal statement explaining why they’re a good fit for the course, the majority of tertiary institutions still use the ATAR as at least one method of selection into their courses, and in a lot of cases, it’s still the main criteria used to decide who will get an offer.

The system isn’t great, but it’s efficient.

I would argue that how well students can recall facts under exam conditions doesn’t in any way make them more suited to particular careers. A system that allowed students to demonstrate the entire breadth of their skills, talents, experiences, and interests would be much better for students and tertiary institutions, with students more suited to a course being selected, and therefore more likely to finish the course they start.

But the unfortunate reality is that a system like this would take longer and be more expensive to implement, and so, in the meantime, we still have students working through the stressful system that we have.

So, what’s the answer? How can we show our kids that achieving amazing results isn’t the be-all and end-all?

Taking the pressure off

One way to do this is to focus less on academic excellence and more on the next step in students’ lives beyond school.

So, how can you help your child shift their focus and get some healthy perspective?

  • Talk to them about different careers. Talk about your work. Ask them what they think it would be like to be a physio/mechanic/baker/teacher/dentist/etc when you come into contact with these services in your day-to-day life.
  • Talk to them about their interests and skills. Ask them what their favourite subject is and what it is exactly about that subject that they enjoy. Ask them what they like about the extra-curricular activities they do to help them see what transferable skills they already have. 
  • Encourage them to find out more about jobs they’re interested in. Do some research online with them, or better yet, if you know someone who does that job, find out if they would have a chat with your child about what they do.
  • Take them to Open Days before Year 12 so that they start to get an idea of what’s available and where they might like to study.
  • Look at uni and TAFE websites to research courses and find out how to apply and the selection criteria applicants need to satisfy.

As a teacher, I’m all for students doing their best at school, but not at the expense of their wellbeing, particularly when they don’t even have a goal they’re working towards (beyond a great ATAR).

Let’s break the habit of encouraging our kids to strive for academic excellence “just because”, and instead help them get more perspective and, in the process, more excited about their future.

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

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