Karen Lomas
February 21, 2023

The Debate about the ATAR – By a migrant mum and career coach

There is a huge debate going on, in the media, regarding the ATAR the student ranking process for entry into higher education courses. Indeed, quite a number of school Principals are calling for the ATAR to be scrapped. Indeed, in Victoria, Carey Grammar Principal, Jonathan Walter, in The Age newspaper, states that; “The ATAR is such a narrow representation of a student at the end of a 13-year journey. They come out diminished to a single number which doesn’t reflect who they are, the sort of things they can contribute to society or indeed what they value and believe in.”

I tend to agree, although I’m not an expert on the Education Department/sector. I’m a Career Development Coach, who works with students as young as 14, and with their parents. I also happen to be a migrant from the UK, who has raised two daughters in Australia. I was acutely aware, as my daughters went through high school, at two different schools, of the emphasis placed on the ATAR. The ATAR for me was a mystery and I can bet that my daughters still don’t entirely get why it was and still is used as a way of determining whether a tertiary institution will grant students a place in their Bachelor’s degrees and Associate Degrees.


What is being debated is whether or not students should receive an ATAR for entry into a higher education course. You might call the ATAR a percentile. So if a student has gained an ATAR of 74.05, that means they have achieved an ATAR higher than 74.05% of their peers. The percentiles are based on the student’s Aggregate Score. This is what a student gets when their Study Scores for each of their subjects are added together. There are some specific rules around this, where a minimum of 4 study scores, a maximum of 6, are added together, with the best 4 scores forming their Top Four. Only 10% of their 5th and 6th are added.

Another note is the role of English. An English subject, broadly Literature, Language, or English as an Additional Language, has to be included in the Top 4.

Parents and Students ask, why have ATARs?

So why not leave it at the Study Scores and do away with the ATAR? Why do students have to be ‘ranked’ against all of the other Year-12 student cohorts, those, that is, who could have received an ATAR that year? All I heard from my daughters was that Year-12 was awful because they were “up against” everyone else and I had to try to reason with them around this message. It was like fighting a losing battle though because the media was full of the narrative about their results being the most significant factor in their entire lives. The front pages of the newspapers, on Results Day, bore photos of those beaming students who had gained an ATAR of 99.95 and were therefore destined for a marvellous life.

Parents and Migrant Parents

Parents contact me because they are concerned. Often their concerns relate to how their child might gain an offer at a “good” university. Sometimes they have no idea what the ATAR is, particularly if they have migrated to Australia from somewhere else in the world, where this stuff is frankly so much more straightforward. They hear that their child has been advised to study a particular subject because it gets “scaled up”. Or they’ll say that their child is dropping their favourite subject because it is one of the subjects that is “scaled down”.

Students, in an effort to understand the concept of Scaling, go into websites to calculate their ATAR based on the subjects they want to take. Parents tell me that their child is opting for scaled subjects, so as to chase a good ATAR. The reasoning behind Scaling is with reference to how competitive a subject is. It acts as “…compensation in a way. Because if there were no scaling, why would anyone take a subject with a high level of competitiveness?” (ATAR NOTES: VCE Survival Guide” McIndoe, N; White, L & Horn, B; InStudent Media, 2017, P17.

My response to that is a combination of Interest, Skill and Self-Determination. And frankly, chasing a high ATAR, by choosing scaled-up subjects, often backfires on them!

A Migrant Perspective

Coming from another country to Australia, where the ATAR is what matters for your entry into a Higher Education course, from Associate Degree upwards, the system is confusing. I work with a lot of migrant families from the UK, France, Italy, South Africa, India, Indonesia, and the USA. I need to be really careful when working with adolescents, as their well-being is the foremost priority. I listen carefully to their broad concerns and am careful when answering questions about the Australian student ranking system. It’s the system that is extant and so I coach them such that they understand how it works, rather than leaving them feeling frustrated, anxious or even angry. I relieve their anxiety by helping them to understand the study pathway process. This means they know what they can do should their favourite courses have very high ATARs and they are pipped at the post in the offers rounds.

By comparison, when I was a lass, in England, I studied A Levels in the equivalent years, Years 11 and 12. I gained grades, which were marked from A through B, C, D, etc. I studied Geography, English Literature, French, Maths and General Studies in the Lower 6th (Year 11) and Geography, English Literature and General Studies in the Upper 6th (Year 12). I can’t remember what I had to gain for the university places I applied to. I knew what I was aiming for and had zero care, or interest, in what my peers needed. This was very freeing, not least because there were some who were applying for some competitive courses at well-known universities. Indeed, several were applying to sit the Oxbridge exams, for entry into Oxford University, or Cambridge University, still two of the most prestigious universities in the UK and the world. What I did know about those applications was that there were interviews, as well as grades, to get through. At least I was spared that!

But who cared anyway, what hoops the others had to jump through? I knew where I want to go and what I wanted to do. What did it matter how many hours per evening they were swatting up on their subjects? So long as I was making the best effort I felt that I could in my own subjects, that was all that mattered.

Nobody talked about what grades we needed to access a course, because our offers had no relevance to the others. If I’d been given a ranking, so that my results were generalised against my peers, I most likely would have been just as stressed as the year -12 students I see, year after year, in my private practice as a Student Career Coach.

Beyond Year 12

Then what of the stigma that young adults carry with them for years after graduating from high school. I see non-year-12 clients, aged 19 and upwards. They are either applying for a course for the first time, maybe after a Gap Year, returning to study, or looking for meaningful employment. Too often they say things like, “My ATAR was terrible“, or, “Year 12 was awful”. But then when they talk about individual subjects it’ll turn out that their raw scores for some were fantastic and that they loved one or more of those subjects. Their perspective of their time in the final assessed years at school has indeed been reduced to a “narrow representation” of their overall experience – the ATAR defined it.

Personal Statements

The argument against scrapping the ATAR appears to be about what students are able to, or are seen as most likely less able to write in a Personal Statement. These days, the UK system, for example, does ask students that they provide more information about themselves. This, Personal Statement (PS) sits alongside the test scores as part of the overall application criteria.

But why is it assumed that more focus will be placed on the Personal Statement than on the Study Scores? And why is there a negative generalisation being made about students from less privileged backgrounds? How do we know that their location or socio-economic status will serve against them?

What is being argued is that students at privileged schools will have a better Personal Statement. I’m not so sure that’s the case. I meet students from both private and State schools and those in the State system are often really driven and have highly aspirational parents who support them as they grow up, do extracurricular activities, etc. Many have jobs too, which is amazing for their appreciation of doing something they enjoy and what the world of work is like. Some independent school students, meanwhile, may do little in the way of meaningful and ongoing community service, as they seem to believe that they can lean on the fact that they worked on a stall at the school fete when they were 15, or went to Vietnam on a Year-9 tour. Some that I see have actually never had a job, as they might be getting pocket money. Some are more invested in getting their hours up, so they can start driving themselves to school. Others are excelling at sports or dance, and so are really busy. It’s not true to presuppose that they are all the Sports Captain, or have Environmental credentials. For sure, there are badges for leadership roles, but that exists in the state system as well.

As you can tell from my experiences as a mum who came from another country with a different education system and my time over the past 12 years, working in student career counselling, I find this topic a tough one. Many career development coaches that I have met over the years, in our professional development networking, have been working within the system for decades. They are au fait with the language, definitions and complexities of the process. However, it does take some explaining. I’ve seen the body language and effect of year 10 to year 12 students change in front of my eyes as the topic of Ranking is raised. If their parent asks about their subjects in relation to the aggregate scores and conversion to ATAR, some students suddenly look at me like rabbits in headlights. I personally do not think it’s ideal. But please don’t ask me what system is preferable, as I’m a Career Coach and not an expert in Education.

For support in all areas of Student, Career coaching contact us at Karen Your Career Coach website. https://www.karenyourcareercoach.com.au/contact/

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