ATAR surprise? Here’s what to consider

What should you do if your child's ATAR is higher or lower than expected? Careers expert Helen Green offers tips and suggestions

Thousands of students now know their Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR).  Emotional responses will vary considerably after what has been a challenging few years for Year 12 students, with the COVID-19 pandemic interrupting their secondary school journey.

What if your ATAR is less or more than the range you expected? What happens to your plans then?

Year 12 students tire of hearing that their ATAR is just a number and not an indication of future success. Very true, though the message gets lost in the flurry of activity and study pressures associated with Year 12. For many students, the term ATAR has become synonymous with anxiety, expectation, judgement and increasingly – exhaustion.

Your ATAR is a rank relative to peers, not a score. Student A might be disappointed with their 92 ATAR if they missed out on their preferred course, whilst Student B might be thrilled with their 60 ATAR and the options this brings. Remember, an increasing number of tertiary courses do not require an ATAR and several universities are issuing early offers for some courses before results are released.

Before jumping online to change your tertiary preferences,  do your homework. Avoid common misconceptions that the higher the ATAR, the ‘better’ the course. This is not necessarily the case. ATAR entrance ranks are largely based on supply and demand which is driven by multiple factors, as opposed to degree of difficulty, with a few notable exceptions.

The ATAR for some courses, especially relatively new ones, can vary considerably over a few years. I know countless students who have regretted choosing a course for the wrong reasons. Typically, this includes pleasing others (often family), being reluctant to ‘waste’ high marks, choosing a prestigious course they are not genuinely interested in, choosing a course primarily based on fees and simply not researching course details adequately enough. Know what subjects you’d be studying and ascertain your interest.

Choose the right course for you

Don’t let your unexpected ATAR necessarily change your plans – unless it is for the right reasons. If your course preferences genuinely reflect your interests, it is likely you will not need to adjust the order. More on my thoughts in my article,  How to choose a course that’s right.

Remember, universities typically hold change of preference information sessions shortly before or after results are published. 

Listen to Helen Green talk ATARs on iSpodcast

ATAR lower than expected?

It is okay to be deflated. Take some time out. Surround yourself with supportive people you can trust and avoid making rash decisions. You have a multitude of options and in most cases, can pursue your chosen career path via pathway courses.

Do I change my course preferences?

In Victoria, the VTAC website is an important resource.  Make sure you are aware of the regulations and key dates governing changing your course preferences and accepting offers. 

Here are just some factors to keep in mind:

  • You may receive a second round or supplementary offer.
  • It is widely known that universities do make some offers below the minimum ATAR advertised. If your ATAR falls marginally below the advertised minimum ATAR, you might just receive a late offer depending on multiple factors.
  • Subject bonuses for some courses. Are you eligible? Seek clarity from the university (ideally in writing) before adjusting your preferences. Bonus points might make the difference between securing a spot in a course you aspire to – or not.
  • Special Consideration, Special Entry Access Scheme (SEAS) or other assistance. Students eligible for SEAS should have applied by the published VTAC dates; however, midyear SEAS applications are possible. See the VTAC website. Contact universities directly for equity and access schemes outside SEAS. Typical grounds include personal or financial hardship, a medical condition or disability, rural status, attending an under-represented school, carer responsibilities, and even being an elite athlete. Regardless of your ATAR, eligible students should apply.
  • Compare similar courses at other universities, even interstate. Is attending a regional campus an option? The same course at the same university often has a significantly lower ATAR at a regional campus. Obviously, there are multiple factors to consider, though you might enjoy a smaller regional campus where you can really get to know staff and fellow students. Some are a relatively short drive from the Melbourne CBD.
  • Consider related courses/professions. Be open to opportunity. I know many students who missed out on entry into chosen professional courses and ended up very happy in a related profession. Besides, if it doesn’t work out, you can re-apply the following year for your preferred course.
  • Vocational courses. University is not for everyone, regardless of your ATAR. There are many highly sought-after and well-paid trade and vocational options.
Pathways – and their advantages

Universities typically offer designated and well-published ‘pathways’ into most undergraduate degrees. This might include Foundation programs, Diplomas, Associate Degrees, Certificates and so on. Program aims differ, though most provide substantial subject credit towards one or more degrees, typically with guaranteed second year entry on completion.  Either an ATAR is not required or it is set lower and accessible to most. Keep in mind there are degrees in some disciplines that do not require an ATAR, focusing on other entrance criteria, including folios.

Taking a graduated, incremental approach through a designated ‘pathway’ could help make the transition from school to university less daunting, build your confidence after a demanding year 12 and importantly, provide opportunity to see if you really like a field before committing to a longer study program.

TAFE offers excellent training, integrated, practical learning and good employment outcomes. Many are affiliated with universities and some TAFE and Institutes now offer Bachelor degrees – with the option of various exit points. There are some free TAFE courses available in Victoria.

Similarly, there are plenty of private courses where an ATAR is not required, though as with any course, check course credentials, costs, withdrawal policies, graduate outcomes and possible pathways carefully before committing.

A word about prerequisite subjects

They matter. Don’t assume like courses have the same prerequisites. If you need to adjust your course preferences and are missing a key subject, you might be able to take an intensive ‘bridging’ subject, over summer, usually in time for second round offers. Be realistic, though, especially if you have previously found the subject very difficult.

Consider a broad-based undergraduate degree

Regardless of whether your ATAR is lower or higher than expected, they are an excellent option for many students. There are many advantages to this model if the profession you are aspiring to can be studied intensively at graduate level.  After studying a general undergraduate degree for instance science, you apply for entry into the graduate professional degree of your choice, provided criteria are met.

It is effectively a second chance if you did not get an ATAR high enough for initial entry. This way, you have time to adjust to university life, mature and keep your options open.

Many students I see do not know what specific career they want to pursue. That’s fine and has its advantages. I encourage these students to consider studying an undergraduate degree in their general area(s) of interest as it will allow them to explore multiple specializations within the discipline before choosing majors or studying a professional degree at graduate level. I have met many students whose interests change once they start university.

Higher than expected ATAR

Whilst most students will be elated, confusion can reign quickly, especially with well-meaning advice from family, friends, and others.

You might reorder your course preferences or investigate courses you’d not previously contemplated.

Avoid making a rash decision. For many students, suddenly having more options can be both exciting and stressful, so do your research and seek advice from trusted sources. Do you know anyone currently studying the course you are considering or recent graduates? Universities can assist, even faculty-based student associations/groups. If contemplating a specific occupation, ideally speak to some people working in the profession at different stages of their career.

Scholarships and prestigious offers – Be true to you 

If you receive an exceptionally high ATAR, you might receive a scholarship offer or seek out one. Receiving an early course offer or scholarship is undoubtedly a fantastic opportunity. My advice: take it very seriously but only accept an offer if  you are genuinely interested in and committed to the course.

I know many who have pursued prestigious occupations for the wrong reasons, including pleasing others (often parents), and feeling pressure to not ‘waste’ their ATAR. Studying a demanding course won’t work if you are not engaged. If you choose a course that you are interested in, you will be happier and perform better, which is likely to produce stronger outcomes from a personal and professional perspective.

Sadly, I have witnessed several very high achieving students in tears when presented with multiple course offers and incentives, when they thought they had settled on a degree/career path.

It is not easy to decline a subsidized place in medicine for instance, when you know so many other students, including friends, who would do anything to have the opportunity.

If you receive a very high ATAR, have varied interests and are unsure what direction to take, consider studying a broad-based undergraduate degree. Read my article Don’t know what you want to be? Relax – and take a broad approach to study.

You give yourself time to explore what career path is right for you. This decision is made even easier if your ATAR provides you with ‘guaranteed’ entry into a graduate professional degree.

What about a gap year?

The gap year

Regardless of whether your ATAR met your expectations, there are some compelling reasons to consider taking a gap year, or semester, and deferring your university place (if permitted). These include a break after VCE and some ‘headspace’, the opportunity to gain valuable paid or voluntary work experience, which is also great for career exploration, the chance to travel, upskill, learn a language, try a few short courses and more. Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic threw many gap year plans into disarray for recent students, 2024 is looking promising though, as always, be guided by Australian government travel advice if you are heading abroad.  See more of my thoughts on the topic in my article,  Should I take a gap year? Things to consider.

For students who don’t know what they want to study, a gap year gives you time to really research, dabble in a few ‘short courses’ and speak to people working in the professions you are contemplating.

Perspective matters

What if I choose the wrong course? At least one in four first year students do. That is okay and part of the learning experience. There is a good deal of flexibility across the tertiary sector. No experience is wasted, though ideally, withdraw before semester census cut off dates to avoid additional fees.

A final word on the ATAR. It becomes irrelevant very fast. Your employer will not be interested in your ATAR. They will be interested in your attitude, skills, and willingness to learn. You are likely to have at least five careers in your working life.

Your skills will need to be transferable and adaptable, rather than necessarily specific to a profession. Work will be multidisciplinary. Among the important future skills are creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, adaptability, digital literacy, self-management, collaborative communication and teamwork, and emotional intelligence. Find work that is meaningful to you.

Congratulations on completing your last year of school. Be open to opportunity as your journey begins.

Stay up to date with our newsletter here

About the author

Helen Green is a qualified careers consultant, with more than two decades working in senior education and career program management roles. She worked at Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne, as the School’s Career Programs Consultant. She now runs her own careers consulting practice Career Confident, and is a regular contributor to The Parents Website.

This is an updated version of Helen’s original post for The Parents Website.

Like this post? Please share using the buttons on this page.