How is the ATAR Calculated?

Before crossing over to university level, there is a pre-tertiary goal that every student must work towards in order to successfully cap their high school years. That’s right, we’re talking about the ATAR.

Getting Started: ATAR Explained The ATAR is short for Australian Tertiary Admission Rank. It is used by universities to determine whether incoming undergraduate students would qualify for a course or not. Sound a bit harsh? Keep reading. The ATAR is usually perceived as a point-based score. In reality, a student’s ATAR actually represents the percentage of students he or she was able to “beat”, where a score of 95 represents 95% of students with lower scores in their Year 12 cohort. Confused? Here’s an example: Jack gets an ATAR of 70 At first glance, it might seem like Jack did alright by ranking 70 on a scale of 100. But in reality, the 70 signifies the percentage of students Jack was able to rank higher against. Say another student, Julie, scored 98.5%. This means that Julie was able to rank higher than 98.5% of the student population and is within the top 3% of her population!

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ATAR Ranges: Why The Hundred Doesn’t Exist The ATAR is a value from 0 to 99.95 with intervals of 0.05. The highest rank is 99.95, the second highest is 99.90, and so on. By default, the lowest rank is 30.00, and those below it are grouped into the “less than 30” bracket. A mystery surrounding the rankings is the lack of the rank 100. Remember that the ATAR is a rank representing the percentage of students with lower averages. A 100 ATAR would mean scoring above the 100% student population, including the taker, which would be statistically inaccurate. After all, a student literally cannot score higher than himself (unless we’re talking about some parallel universe here).

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Who Uses The ATAR The ATAR is used for enrolment purposes by the following admissions bodies:

  •    Universities Admissions Centre (UAC) in New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory
  •    South Australian Tertiary Admissions Centre (SATAC) in South Australia and the Northern Territory
  •    Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre (VTAC) in Victoria
  •    Tertiary Institutions Service Centre (TISC) in Western Australia

Where’s Queensland, you ask? Starting in 2020, year 12 students under the Queensland Tertiary Admissions Centre (QTAC) in Queensland will also be adopting the ATAR system.   Why The ATAR Exists The ATAR is a relatively recent introduction to the Australian education system. It was a decision taken in 2008 by the Australasian Conference of Tertiary Admission Centres (ACTAC) to establish an all-encompassing index that would replace the different indices used by states and territories. In other words, the ATAR’s aim is to create an objective basis that would fairly reflect a student’s performance versus others. This system makes it easier for universities to determine which students to admit, how many slots to offer, and the cut-off ATAR necessary to qualify for a certain program. ATAR qualifications vary per university, where more popular urban universities have higher quotas than their rural counterparts. Check out these stats, for example. In 2017, the cutoffs for Engineering varied greatly:

  •    90 for University of Sydney
  •    85 for University of Melbourne
  •    89 for University of Queensland
  •    81 for University of Adelaide
  •    81 for Queensland University of Technology
  •    61 for La Trobe University

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How Universities Use The ATAR Instead of university-specific tests and interviews, Australian education boards use the ATAR as a way of “setting the bar” for different students. ATAR cutoffs are set by the universities, where the highest cutoffs are given by the prestigious universities and the lower cutoffs applied by regional universities. The ATAR isn’t as arbitrary as it seems and is largely affected by student demand. The more students that want to enrol under a specific degree in a specific university, the higher the ATAR would likely be. The selection for the brightest students becomes easier on the part of the universities, and much more competitive on the part of the applicants.

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  What The ATAR Is Not Over the years, the ATAR has had a confusing reputation—is it a score? Is it a test? Is it a ranking? Is it university-specific? Is it mandatory? Well, it’s in-between the descriptions above. The ATAR isn’t a test that students take but it is a rank that indicates one’s overall position in relation to the student body across all states. The ATAR is a system used by various universities in determining worthy undergraduate candidates. It’s a national system that calculates a student’s standing against similar students within the same age range.   While some states don’t use the ATAR system, the ATAR score can be converted to a similar system before admission, which means as a student, you’re going to have to deal with it anyway. In a way, it is university-specific, depending on a student’s chosen field of study and university. For those who want to consider non-ATAR educational pathways, other qualifications may be set by universities.

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ATAR Eligibility In order to qualify for an ATAR, A student must have satisfactorily completed at least 10 units of ATAR courses, which typically include the following:

  •    8 units of Category A courses
  •    2 mandatory units of English
  •    2+ units of 3 board-approved courses
  •    4 subjects

The courses that students can take are divided into two categories—A and B—and are distinguished according to “academic rigour”. The categorization is more intuitive than you’d think as typical subjects like Mathematics, Science, English are considered category A courses, while the more vocational subjects such as hospitality and construction are considered category B. As a student, you are allowed to enrol in a maximum of 2 units for a category B course as part of the ATAR calculation. Some students would enrol in a vocational course, thinking it’s an easy way to bump up their ATAR. Jokes on them because more and more vocational courses have corresponding exams that could gravely affect the results. In short, there’s no way to hack the system. Pro tip: when choosing which courses to take, some of the factors to consider include a student’s ability to do well in the subject (as choosing difficult subjects just because they scale well can backfire if you don’t perform well), how frequently it is taken (more competition means harder chances to score the above average bracket) and relevance to prospect degree.  

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Calculating the ATAR: The Two Components At this point, the concept of the ATAR might still sound very abstract, so let’s break it down even further. Aside from a percentile representation, the ATAR is essentially the rank given to a student by the tertiary education admissions board operant in that area. If you’re from NSW, then the UAC will be in charge of computing the local ATAR; SATAC for South Australia, and so on. Where do the numbers come from? Think of the ATAR as an accumulation of a student’s year 12 performance. It’s a combination of both qualitative and quantitative assessments. Better yet, think of the ATAR as a result of one of two components of the HSC (for students in New South Wales):

  •    Internal Assessments

This is done by the high school and includes a student’s performance in various subjects. This includes all exams and assessments done during year 12 and are specific to the school. It is written by the teachers and other academic superiors. This makes up 50% of the ATAR.

  •    External Assessments

This is comprised of all the exams taken by students at the end of their year 12 period. This makes up the other 50% of the ATAR.  

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Quick Reminder: HSC Explained The ATAR isn’t separate from the HSC. It’s actually what comes out of a student’s external results + the assessment provided by your own school. The HSC has many closely related equivalents depending on the state. In NSW, this is the name for the high school certificate of education. In other states and territories, you’ll know it by the names:

  •    VCE in Victoria
  •    TCE in Tasmania
  •    QCE in Queensland
  •    NTCE in The Northern Territory
  •    WACE in Western Australia
  •    SACE in South Australia

As a student or parent, it may seem like there are too many things to think about before getting into university but really, the only thing you should be thinking about is the HSC (or equivalent depending on your state).

Photo by Rob Bye on Unsplash

Note that although there may be 80+ HSC courses, not all of them will contribute to the final ATAR score. Courses that will be considered as part of the ATAR computation are those developed by local educational boards, and are simply called ATAR courses. Here are some of the Board Developed courses that contribute to the ATAR score:

  •       Earth and Environmental Science
  •       Senior Science
  •       Aboriginal Studies
  •       Ancient History
  •       Economics
  •       Geography
  •       Legal Studies
  •       Community and Family Studies
  •       Dance
  •       Drama
  •       Music
  •       Visual Arts
  •       Design and Technology
  •       Information Processes and Technology
  •       Heritage Language courses

For the entire list of Board Developed courses and Board Endorsed courses, check out NSW’s official list. Here’s a downloadable PDF of the full list of all HSC courses.

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Quick Reminder: VCE Explained Think of the VCE as a cousin of the HSC. It’s the Victoria equivalent of the HSC and is also used to determine a student’s ATAR. To qualify for the ATAR, students in Victoria have to accomplish the following:

  • 16 units of ATAR courses
  • At least 3 units of which coming from English courses, with one coming from Unit 3 or 4 level
  • At least 3 other units coming from non-English courses
  • 13 units can come from VET

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  Why Not Use HSC or VCE Marks Instead of ATAR It might seem like the ATAR is an unnecessary, kind of a bureaucratic system in Australian education. But really, it’s a system developed to standardise rankings. For example, Juliet’s result of 92 in Mathematics General and James’ result of 92 in Mathematics might seem equal… but are they really? The ATAR provides a way to compute the student’s overall performance equitably by translating HSC scores into UAC scores, and then the ATAR. The process of computing for the ATAR includes scaling in order to standardise the marks for fairer comparison.   Calculating the ATAR: Scaling Scaling is used to compare marks from different courses. Think of the HSC marks as foreign currencies and the Australian dollar as the ATAR score. Even the same field has a different computation system. For example, Mathematics Extension 1 or 2 is different from 2 Unit Mathematics, and both are more difficult than Mathematics General. So, does a 90 in all four courses require the same level of skill and aptitude? It doesn’t. Some courses scale higher than others because they are more difficult and are designed for advanced takers. While the scaling system recognizes their varying difficulties, it also follows the principle that no student should be disadvantaged or advantaged by choosing one course over another.   It’s a common myth that students should only choose well-scaling courses over low scaling ones. But in reality, this doesn’t always guarantee a high ATAR.  

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In A Nutshell That’s about everything that you need to know about the ATAR! The next time someone asks you to explain what an ATAR is, try to think of the system in these terms for easier comprehension:

  •    It’s not a point-based system
  •    The ATAR is not a score, it’s a percentile
  •    The ATAR is the aggregate sum of a student’s raw HSC marks + internal school assessment
  •    Not all courses qualify for the ATAR computation
  •    The ATAR is the standard used by universities in accepting undergraduate students

Quick tips for getting a high ATAR Now that you understand what an ATAR is and how it is calculated, here are some tips to help you gain a high ATAR:

  •    Choose the subjects that you will perform well in and like
  •    Think about your studying momentum
  •    Risk taking one or two basic courses in fields you’re not very good at – and study them well
  •    Don’t overload on high scaling subjects you’re not confident in
  •    Design your ATAR courses specifically to your degree choice
  •    Focus on achieving your personal best in all subjects
  •    Cover all bases – getting an average in all is much better than scoring high in one course and neglecting everything else

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As a student, whenever you’re feeling unmotivated, just remember that the difference among an average, a good, and an exceptional ATAR will mean the difference between your dream university… and something else entirely. The road is long and tedious, but all hard work pays off at the end.

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