All About ATARs: What Do You Need To Know?

If you’re in your final year of school, it’s difficult for you to get through a day without someone mentioning ATARs. But how much do you actually know about them?

To start with, ATAR stands for Australian Tertiary Entrance Rank, and 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. Let’s take a closer look so that you can understand how it’s calculated, what it’s used for and why it shouldn’t matter nearly as much as we think it does.


How is your ATAR calculated?


The first thing to notice is that an ATAR is a rank, not a score. Your ATAR tells you where you rank amongst all the other students in your state. 

The education system in each state and territory varies, meaning that your ATAR will be calculated differently depending on where you’re studying. However, the states and territories all follow very similar rules:

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

So, if you get an ATAR of 87.00, that means your results put you in the top 13% of students for that year. 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. It’s important to note that because it’s a rank, you can’t simply equate it to the types of marks you usually get at school in assessment tasks. Just because you get an average of 90% on your tests at school doesn’t mean that you should expect to get an ATAR of 90.00. 


What is your 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. We’re moving towards more diverse ways of applying for courses, where students might need to complete different tasks like submitting a folio of work, attending an interview, or including a personal statement explaining why they are interested in the course. 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 students are made 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).

To explain how it works, let me give you a simplified example. Imagine that a course has 50 places for the year. 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 50 students on the list. If not all of the offers are accepted, then the remaining places will be offered to students lower on the list in subsequent offer rounds. The selection rank (that is, the ATAR once it’s adjusted for any special consideration) of the student lowest on the list that is made an offer and accepts is the lowest selection rank listed for the course the following year on the relevant TAC (tertiary admission centre) website.  This gives students an idea of what ATAR they might need the following year to be offered a place in the course.


How much do you need to worry about your ATAR?


It can feel like your ATAR is the most important number you’ll ever come across. However, there are so many things clambering for your attention as you finish high school, and my theory is that you should focus on the things you can affect or control, and forget about the rest.

The reality of the ATAR is that you can’t control what you get. You could waste time thinking about it, putting numbers into ATAR calculators, and trying to guess what ATAR you might get, but the reality is that it’s a ranking, and there’s nothing you can do to make sure you achieve a certain number.

There are two things you can control that will have a much bigger impact on how well you do and whether or not you get into your dream course.

Firstly, you can maximise your ATAR by keeping up in class and preparing as effectively as possible for your assessment tasks and exams. In focusing on your work and making sure you understand the content, you’re giving yourself the best chance of getting a good ATAR. Also, because English (or an English equivalent) will definitely be used in your ATAR calculation, make English a priority, particularly if it’s not usually one of your best subjects.

Secondly, you can take the power away from your ATAR by making sure you spend time career planning and looking at the options available for tertiary study (if that’s what you want to do). This way, you have a clear idea of the course you’d like to do, and even more importantly, an understanding of the pathways that can get you into your dream course or into a course that will allow you to work in the same (or a similar) field. If you do some research and know all the ways that you can end up in a career that you’re going to love no matter what results you get, then your ATAR might determine which course you get into, but it won’t determine whether or not you end up in a career that feels good to you. And isn’t that the point anyway?

Don’t let all the focus on ATARs distract you from what you’re actually trying to achieve. By all means, do as well as you can and aim for an ATAR that will keep your options open. However, keep in mind that what you really want is to eventually be working in a career that truly interests you and makes you feel fulfilled, and the reality is that there is always another way to get where you want to go. So do your best, do your research, and continue your journey into a career that you’ll love.


A little bit 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 about their future. In her business, Roadmap Education, she helps Year 12 students work out what they want to do when they finish school and find the pathways they need to get there so they can feel less stressed about exams and results and more excited about next year. 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

All About ATARs: What Do You Need To Know?

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