ATAR surprise? Tips and advice on what to do

What happens if an ATAR is lower or higher than expected? Careers expert Helen Green offers some great advice on what to consider.

When I received my VCE results, the postman who I thought held my ‘fate’ at the time, decided to ride past our house for a bit of fun. I can still recall the split-second panic.

As thousands of students receive their Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR), emotional responses will vary considerably after what has been an extraordinary and challenging year for year 12 students.

What if your ATAR is less or more than the range you expected? What happens to your plans then? Keep in mind the impact of COVID-19 will be taken into consideration when all students are assessed and an increasing number of tertiary courses will be looking at a range of criteria for entry, especially for this year’s cohort.

VCE 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, and societal measurement of their worth. 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 new options this brings.

Before jumping online to change your tertiary preferences, do your homework. It is a common misconception that the higher the ATAR, the ‘better’ the course. This is not necessarily the case. ATAR entrance scores are largely based on supply and demand, as opposed to difficulty, with a few notable exceptions.

The ATAR for some courses, especially 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 detail.

Related posts

Should I take a gap year? Things to consider

How to choose a course that’s right for you


Choosing the right course for you

Don’t let your unexpected ATAR necessarily change your plans – unless it is for the right reasons. More on my thoughts here in How to choose the course that’s right for you.

Remember, universities typically hold change of preference information sessions shortly before or after results are published. Industry associations governing professions a terrific source of information and don’t forget that, as a student, you can join most professional associations for a nominal fee and there are multiple career benefits.

ATAR lower than expected?

It is okay to be deflated or frustrated. This is not helped by the yearly ‘success’ stories we hear. 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.

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, particularly with results released later this year.  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. Read the fine print. 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 campusan 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 canre-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 trades and vocational options on offer.

A Word about Pathways

As most students are aware, tertiary institutions 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 a related degree, sometimes guaranteed second year entry on completion.  Either an ATAR is not required or it is usually set lower and accessible to most.

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.

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, and provide the opportunity to see if you really like a field.

I hesitate to refer to vocational study at TAFE or other reputable providers as simply ‘pathways. They provide excellent training in their own right, often with work integrated, practical learning. Some TAFEs now offer Bachelor degrees – with the option of various exit points.

One of my former clients did not receive an offer for Architecture, so he enrolled in a couple of single subjects in graphic design part time while he worked. He planned to re-apply for architecture. Instead, he kept studying graphic design at TAFE and loved it.

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, it is possible 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.

Indeed, studying a single subject for interest can be a smart move if you are still undecided on the general area you want to study in and thinking about deferring your place. If you complete the assessment, the subject may be credited towards an undergraduate degree.

Consider a Graduate Degree

In my experience, there are many advantages to this model if the career you are interested can be studied intensively at graduate level.  After studying an undergraduate degree, you apply for entry into the graduate professional degree. Whilst entry is competitive, 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.

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. Double degrees are very popular as they can provide broader career options.

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. 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 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 going down the graduate degree path. 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 degree without taking an entrance exam (conditions apply).

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 the stresses of Year 12 and some ‘headspace’, 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 has thrown many plans into disarray for students, there are opportunities closer to home. See more of my thoughts of the topic here Should I take a gap year?

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

Perspective matters

What if I choose the wrong course? Approximately 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. Among the important future skills are creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, adaptability, digital literacy, lateral thinking, collaborative communication and teamwork, and emotional intelligence.

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

About Helen Green

Helen Green is a qualified careers consultant, with more than two decades working in senior education and career program management roles. She most recently worked at Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne, as the School’s Career Programs Consultant. She now runs her own careers consulting practice and has children at secondary school and university.

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