A common misconception is that the ATAR is an average of your HSC marks or that it’s a mark in general. It’s not! It’s a rank and here’s why it’s important.
Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) is a rank calculated by the University Admission Centre (UAC) – not a score. It ranks you against all the other students who complete the HSC in your year. To put that into perspective, 67,915 students completed the HSC program in 2019! You are being ranked against that competition. The ATAR ranges from 0 to 99.95 and increases in 0.5 increments.
But what does the rank really mean? Let’s say you got 95% on a test in a class of 10 students – that’s pretty good, right? But with the ATAR you are going to be ranked against the rest of the competition. So, if everyone else got a mark higher than 95%, your rank would be last and your ATAR 0. Alternatively, if you got something like 55% and ranked first, your ATAR would 99+. What you need to take away from this is that, it’s not just how well you do – it’s how well you compared to others sitting the HSC. That is, the other 60 odd thousand students!
So, to recap an ATAR of 80 means that you have performed better than 80% of the students sitting the HSC, or are in the top 20% of students attempting the HSC – whichever way you want to look at it.
The average ATAR is usually around 70.00. This is because many school students leave school early and therefore don’t receive an ATAR. If every student stayed at school the average ATAR would be around 50.00.
Now calculating the ATAR is a really complex process, considering that many students choose different subjects of varying difficulties. In fact, there are roughly 27,000 different combinations of subjects selected by HSC students! How can you get them all on the same ranking system? This is where Math comes in handy. So, to be able to rank students with different subjects, your HSC marks are scaled to reflect what the marks would have been had all courses been studied by all students and all courses had the same mark distribution using a scaling algorithm. Your ATAR is calculated using these scaled marks, which are not released to students. Your scaled marks of your best 2 units of English, and the scaled marks of 8 units from your remaining units (only 2 units from Category B courses) are used to calculate your ATAR.
Most students get marks in the 70 to 80 range, and therefore students who get marks in this bracket vary in ATAR considerably, sometimes even from 50 to 80. So, if you are getting marks in the low 70s, it is important to try and push that mark towards 80, as every mark you earn may bump you up several ranks in the ATAR. Now, this is obviously dependent on the subject you are studying and how it scales and how the competition is like in your HSC year (so these numbers aren’t set in stone and can change from year to year, and should be used as an estimate). Anyhow, it’s probably best you push yourself as much as possible!
The ATAR is important as a tool used by universities in selecting students for courses. Your admission to a tertiary education course is based on your selection rank (ATAR + any adjustments), though some universities use other criteria such as personal essays, interviews, portfolios and extra-curricular activities, to help select students for a course. So, while getting a good ATAR is helpful, it is not the only thing that counts.
It’s important to remember that your ATAR is a key for you to get into your desired course. But all is not lost if you don’t get the ATAR you strived for. You can start another undergraduate degree and reapply the next year with your university marks (you will have to keep them up!).