Don’t let your ATAR define you


Working in a private girl’s school for four years as a careers advisor has given me a frightening insight into the predominant thinking that students and in many cases, their parents, have about what success means. The school year starts with an assembly where the girls who achieved an ATAR of 94 or above receive the highly coveted Principal’s Award in recognition of their achievements.

Having had the privilege of spending time with many of these girls, helping with scholarship applications, university applications, and discussing career pathways, I know that for many of them this short walk across the stage comes at great cost. The incidence of mental health issues ranging from anxiety which can be managed, to far more complicated mental health concerns often resulting in time spent at Perth Clinic, or leaving school, has risen at a disturbing rate in my twenty years in education.

Students come to me as early as Year 9 and tell me they want to receive the Principal’s Award, they choose subjects which they think will be scaled favourably. They set unrealistic academic goals for themselves and are devastated when things start to unravel. I tell these girls that no-one is going to care what their ATAR was when they are older, that it won’t get them a job. I know they don’t believe me, but its true, and its heartbreaking to see how much pressure many students put themselves under to achieve a rank which for many is beyond them.

I know that there are many highly competitive courses that do require a very high ATAR, generally students who get direct entry into these courses would do so regardless of any perceived stigma attached to such a rank. There are also many students who achieve highly and choose courses with an entry of 70 or 80 as their first preference.

What many parents and some students don’t understand is that there are students who are successfully studying Medicine, Law, Physiotherapy, etc. who never got an ATAR. There are so many flexible entry pathways into universities these days and sometimes for some students, due to mental health issues or intellectual maturity, or a number of other factors, taking the ATAR pathway at school is just not the best route for them.

The Australian newspaper reported that last in 2016 the university offer rate to applicants with sub-50 ATARs hit 46 per cent in NSW. Figures for 2017 haven’t been released yet. 

The small number of students who bravely chose the VET pathway as opposed to the ATAR pathway at the school I worked at, in many cases, graduated as more resilient, mature lifelong learners. Many had completed a Certificate III or IV course at the end of Year 12, which, should they go to university, will allow them to obtain better paid part-time jobs to see them through their studies.

An article from News Corp last week reported that the median income for trades graduates last year was $4,000 higher than the median income for university graduates. I’m not saying don’t aspire to go to university, but I am saying be realistic and be proud of whatever pathway you choose, they are both great options.

Ahwan, L. & Burgess, M.(1st January 2017). Trade versus university: a breakdown of employability, costs, and earning potential. Retrieved from

Hare, J. & Ross, J. (30th November 2016). Low ATAR students four times as likely to get uni admission. The Australian. Retrieved from



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