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ATAR is the start of the journey, not the end: opinion

More than 55 per cent of senior high school students questioned in a recent survey claimed to be aiming for an ATAR of 90 or more. This is despite the fact that more than half the students participating in the survey considered an ATAR over 90 to be “impossible”. The Australia-wide survey, reported in The Conversation, also revealed that 57 per cent of participants rated the attainment of a certain ATAR as “extremely important”.

When students place unrealistic pressure on themselves, the whole of Year 12 and the period before their ATARs are released can be a very anxious time. At UTS Insearch, not only do we talk to students daily who are transitioning from high school to tertiary education, many of my teaching colleagues here have also helped their own children negotiate the challenges of the HSC and the transition to university. We see first-hand how often stressed students can take an ‘all or nothing’ view, imagining that if their ATAR is lower than expected, they will be permanently locked out of their preferred course and career.

If, as an educator, I could share one piece of advice with HSC students, it would be that even if their ATAR doesn’t meet expectations, not to lose sight of their goal in terms of study and career. In this context, the ATAR is the start of the journey, not the end. The system is more flexible than many students and parents think.

Indeed, it often surprises people to learn that just one in four undergraduates is currently admitted to an Australian university purely based on their ATAR. If university is the goal, a determined student can still get there, even if they take detours along the way. There are always other ways into their chosen university course. Certainly, pathway options like UTS Insearch have enabled many thousands of students to enter their preferred university courses and pursue the careers they want.

Students should also bear in mind that their ATAR is not meant to be a measure of their potential. It is simply a number based on select data. It cannot measure anyone’s entire school experience, or their individual wealth of skills and overall abilities. Many times I have seen talented students who missed a place in their chosen course by only a few marks. The good news is I have seen many such students go on to achieve great success in their university careers and beyond.

We recognise leading alumni each semester with an Outstanding Alumni Award – presented at our graduation and prize giving ceremony. It inspires students completing their diplomas and moving on to UTS to hear from real role models who have been in the same situation and know that they can succeed.

It's also often the case that students whose ATAR wasn't as high as they'd hoped still have strong results – and genuine aptitude – in certain subjects. That’s one reason we admit students on an average, calculated on their results for English and their three best non-VET subjects. It means that when a student’s results have been affected by scaling, or when their HSC performance has perhaps been compromised for any number of reasons, they may still be able to enrol in a diploma in science, engineering, communication, business, IT, architecture or design. This way, such students will still have an opportunity to go on to study their preferred course.

We work hard to help students develop the skills, knowledge and experience they need to succeed at university and beyond. When they complete their diploma, and achieve the required Grade Point Average, students who missed out on an offer for their desired course first time around can fast-track into the second year of their UTS undergraduate degree (depending on the course chosen and results achieved). It’s a transition that works, and the motivation and lifelong learning skills developed during their diploma studies help students to perform throughout their degree and well into their careers.

Tim Laurence is the dean of studies at UTS Insearch.

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