How important is an ATAR score?

How important is an ATAR score?

It’s that time of the year again. Over the last few weeks, Year 12s across the country have filled halls and classrooms and sat their end of year exams. The pressure on students during this time is immense—from parents, teachers, peers, and most of all themselves—to perform at their absolute best on exam day.

After all the blood, sweat and (mostly) tears, their final papers were whisked away to be marked and entered into an algorithm that will rank every Year 12 student’s performance against each other. This means that at the end of a student’s 13 years of formal education their entire academic performance is crunched into a single solitary number: The Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) score. 

Honestly, for the amount of pressure and stress placed on Year 12s to maximise their ATAR, it can seem like it is used to determine the rest of their lives!

However, we know that an ATAR score is not the be all and end all. Now, It wouldn’t be correct for me to say that it doesn’t matter at all. It is important for students to do their best to achieve the highest score they can. But, a high ATAR isn’t the only way to get into university. It’s not even the most common way!

A recent report by Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute that looked at admissions into universities across Australia found that the majority of students were admitted to university on a basis other than their ATAR. In total, only 26% of those enrolling into university were using their ATAR as the basis, meaning 74% of admissions were on a basis other than their ATAR. Have a look at the graph below for the full breakdown of admissions in 2016.

Source: Mitchell Institute, 2018,

So, if the ATAR isn’t being as widely used as we thought to get into university, how are people navigating their way? Here are three key pathways to university that don’t require a high ATAR.

  1. Bridging or enabling courses
    Many universities offer “bridging” or “enabling” courses. These are courses that have low prerequisites to enrol, such as a low (or even no) ATAR, or even previous work experience. They contain very generalised units that prepare students for future university study, such as a diploma or undergraduate course. Macquarie University in NSW has the Next Step Program. A one year course with a variety of units to select from and on completion secures students a spot in one of 17 degrees at the university. However, it’s important to note that these types of courses are different at every university, so it’s best to do your research into what each institution offers before applying.
  2. Prior tertiary education qualifications
    Many universities now consider prior VET or TAFE qualifications as a basis for admission. According to the Mitchell Institute report, 12% of admissions in 2016 used people’s existing VET and TAFE qualifications as the basis for application. Here’s an example of how this actually works: Deakin University in Victoria have an online tool called the Pathways Finder, which maps pathways through VET and TAFE courses into Deakin’s undergraduate degrees.
  3. Enrol now, transfer later
    If students miss out on their preferred course because their ATAR is too low, they can always enrol in a similar course at a different university with lower ATAR prerequisites, and then transfer to their preferred course later. Most of the time, you can also bring along all the credits you receive from your initial study or degree. Just over a quarter of university admissions in 2016 were on the basis of former higher education, meaning a student’s scores and credits from their previous tertiary studies were considered for their admission.

When students do receive their ATAR score they shouldalong with their parents, teachers and career counsellors—consider all the options and pathways available to them. Choosing your next step out of high school won’t be the moment that defines the rest of your professional career. No matter what ATAR score a student receives, secondary education, supported by extra curricular activities and work, provides practical skills for a student’s future. In fact, our research shows that the development of such skills, or enterprise skills (like digital literacy, critical thinking, creativity and bilingual language skills) are in high demand by employers, often even more than the technical skills you learn in tertiary education. Building the skills necessary for a successful career in a changing world of work will be an ongoing process. An ATAR score is just one small part of that journey.