Your ATAR score in perspective: the good, the bad, and the ugly

ATAR score: Put it in perspective

If you’ve been worrying about your ATAR score, please stop. You’re wasting precious minutes and hours of your life that you’ll never get back.

Let me tell you what your ATAR score is …

It’s a number. A number that can gets you into university.

A high ATAR score doesn’t mean you’re a genius who is destined to do great things in this world. And a low ATAR score doesn’t mean you’re slow and you’re going to have a disastrous future.

As Alexander Smith (author of ‘If you want to blitz your year 12 exams read this book’) states:

“ATAR is not an IQ score. The ATAR – Australian Tertiary Admission Rank – is exactly that. A rank. It is not a measure of how well you will succeed in life, and it is not a ticket to a high-paying job. It won’t set you up for life, and it certainly won’t end your chances.”

ATAR is a score that reflects in part how effectively you’ve studied. But it’s also determined by a complex scaling system that is beyond your control.

An ATAR score of 60 doesn’t mean you got 60 per cent as a grade. It actually means you’re in the top 40 per cent of your year group. Similarly, an ATAR score of 90 means you’re placed in the top 10 per cent of your year. Get the idea?

What’s the point of an ATAR?

ATAR is designed to predict your academic performance at university. Based on this score, universities can decide whom to assign the limited number of places in their courses to.

But does a high ATAR mean high university grades?

Not always. Research from the Victoria Institute of Strategic Economic Studies found that ATAR scores are a weak predictor of academic performance at university.

The authors of the study, George Messinis and Peter Sheehan, state:

“While on average students with higher ATARs achieved higher marks in first-year courses, many also achieved low marks. And, many low-ATAR students achieved high marks. This suggests that with proper, considered support programs in place, students with low ATARs can be successful in university studies.”

You are not your ATAR score

Your identity runs wide and deep. You have a lot of wonderful traits and strengths that an ATAR score can never possibly capture. It’s important to remember this and not confuse your self worth with your ATAR score.

What do you do when you don’t get the ATAR score you had hoped for?

Don’t stress. There are other ways to get into university. In fact, 50 per cent of students who are admitted to university get in without relying solely on an ATAR score.

In short, if you want to study at university, you’ll find a way.

Here’s what they don’t tell you …

Getting into university is actually the easy part, whether it’s via an ATAR pathway or another entry pathway.

The real challenge is staying in university.

If you’re like most students straight out of high school, you’re going to encounter a steep learning curve once you get to university.

I certainly did. I achieved a 90+ ATAR score but I failed my first test at law school. High school helped me to master the art of rote (superficial) learning, but not deep learning. When I got to university, I had no idea how to study effectively. I felt like a complete amateur (you can read more about my story here).

The thing about university is rote-memorisation doesn’t cut it. You need to actually understand the content. No one is going to spoon-feed you. It’s a totally different ball game to high school. You need to take charge of your studies.

As you readjust to life at university, expect that you’ll feel completely incompetent for the first few weeks or months (just like I did). But this is totally normal and it’s not a bad thing. You’re going to grow and develop rapidly. You just need to hang in there. Things will get easier.

Later in life, does your ATAR score matter?

In my first year of university, a few new friends asked about my ATAR score. But after my first year, I was never asked again.

Most people understand that an ATAR score is just a stepping-stone into a university course. It gives you options.

Here’s the good news …

Once you’re in the system, you can move around and transfer into other courses.

One of my good friends always wanted to be a dentist. She didn’t get a high enough ATAR score to get into the course straight out of high school. So she did a year of general science at university and then she transferred over to the Dental School. She is now a top oral dental surgeon with her own private practice. Do you think her patients ask her what her ATAR score was? No. No one cares.

To sum up

Despite the fact there has been so much talk about ATAR scores from your teachers and in the media, in the big scheme of things they don’t really matter. Yes, if you have a good ATAR score, you can get straight into the university course you want to do. If you don’t have a high enough ATAR, it may just take you a bit longer to complete a degree. But that’s okay. It takes as long as it takes.

2 thoughts on “Your ATAR score in perspective: the good, the bad, and the ugly

  1. My grandson needs to read more about why a low ATAR does not matter, how to find bridging courses and is there access to a similar support system such as Learning Fundamentals in Sydney.

    1. Hi Judith,

      A great show to watch with your grandson is ‘My Year 12 Life’ produced by Princess Pictures (aired on ABC). The final episode when the students get their ATAR scores is really interesting. You can find more information here:

      In the big scheme of things, I question how important ATAR scores really are. Only about 30% of uni entrances are via an ATAR pathway! There are many other ways to get into uni (if that’s what you want to do). To find out more, call the universities and ask about their bridging courses.

      It just may take a bit longer to get there without an ATAR. But that’s not such a big deal if you have the right mindset and work ethic.

      All the best,

      Dr Jane Genovese

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