The 2 Secrets to Maximising Your ATAR - Career HQ
In June I went to a conference put on by the Universities Admissions Centre (UAC) to learn about how the ATAR system works. I wanted to better understand how subjects are scaled and whether you should consider this when picking your subjects for Year 11 and 12. I have great news. We were all told the secrets and I am excited to share them with you now.
Maximising Your ATAR, HSC, Exams, university access, UAC
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The 2 Secrets to Maximising Your ATAR

In June I went to a conference put on by the Universities Admissions Centre (UAC) to learn about how the ATAR system works. I wanted to better understand how subjects are scaled and whether you should consider this when picking your subjects for Year 11 and 12. I have great news. We were all told the secrets and I am excited to share them with you now.

runnning race

So let’s start. What is the ATAR and how is it different from your overall mark (for example your HSC in NSW)?

Think about it like a running race.

Your HSC or raw mark is like the time you get in a race. It represents your performance against the clock and does not factor in other people.

Your ATAR on the other hand, is a measure of your position. It factors in everyone else and uses some pretty wild statistical modelling to put everyone in a ranked order. Think of it like who crosses the line from first to last. So in short, your ATAR is your position again all of the other runners, or students, while your HSC mark is just your time against the clock.

Now the ATAR running race is a pretty fast race and everyone’s quite prepared. What this often means is that it is like getting stuck in the fast heat at your yearly athletics or swimming carnival. Even if you run a great time, you can often feel like you didn’t get the overall position in the race you deserved.

So, how do I get to the front of the pack?

You want the secrets don’t you!

Students and some teachers spend hours scaling different subjects and weighing up the benefits of doing Chemistry over Music 2 over Aboriginal Studies thinking they’re getting ahead. The community engagement team at UAC however put the story straight.

The secret is….

There is no magic subject combination that will get you a great ATAR. The secret is – know what’s in your control. Your performance. This means a couple of things.

1. Don’t get sucked into the scaling trap

Let’ start with what is scaling and why does it matter?

Scaling is the first step that is used to calculate ATAR rankings. This is where UAC mathematicians calculate what your mark and your position would be if all courses were studied by all students. The aim of this step is to compare fairly all of the different courses and combinations of courses against one another. It’s important to remember that different courses have different students studying them and the scaling of a subject reflects the average academic abilities of students in different courses.

For example, courses with a higher scaled average indicate that the academic ability of students studying that course is high. What’s important to note in this is we’re talking about the average. What determines your ATAR position/mark is how well you do in a course. If you are right at the top of a course with a lower average mark you will do really well. Remember, it’s about position!

Let’s explore this further. At the conference UAC Staff showed us a graph of the tops marks achieved by students who had studied certain subjects. For example the top ATAR mark of students who incorporated the following subjects into their final result were:

  • Ancient History – 99.95
  • Entertainment Industry Exam – 95.65
  • Italian Beginners – 99.7
  • Legal Studies – 99.95
  • Mathematics General – 99.85
  • PDH&PE – 99.85

The differences in the top marks were tiny. The key lesson from this is that every subject gives you the opportunity to scale well, all you have to do is to perform well. So, focus your energy on picking courses that you will enjoy and that you will do well in. It is that simple. Don’t get trapped into following myths like ‘I should only do courses that scale well’ or ‘I am better off studying Mathematics General than Mathematics because It will scale better’.

The simple answer is do subjects that you enjoy, that will make you want to work hard. You can get a great scaled result from any subject, you just need to focus on what’s in your control – your performance!

ATAR result

2. Focus on what will set you up for life after school (that doesn’t just equal a grade)

It’s easy when trying to navigate the ATAR system to lose track of what’s really important. The only thing that your ATAR result is for is to set you up for a successful post school transition. It is just a way to open the door to university, TAFE, other tertiary education or the world of work and with so many alternative access routes it is often given an unfair amount of attention.

An important part of maximising your ATAR is to put it in context and to put that number towards something meaningful after school. What do you want to learn about that will set you up for a successful post school transition? What skills will help you to open up opportunities into a broad range of industries and career options. This is in part why English, mathematics and STEM subjects are given such a high priority. They are subjects that give school leavers incredible flexibility into different career and study pathways.

If you’re not sure about what you want to do after school this is really important. Pick subjects that excite you and that help you to develop a diverse range of strong foundational skills. This is in part why to be eligible for an ATAR there is the four subject rule (including two mandatory units of English). Your final two years of high school can be a great way to explore what really excites you, where your academic or practical strengths are and to think about what might be a great personal study or career fit for you.

So let’s recap the major takeaways.  

  1. Pick subjects that interest you and focus your attention on doing your best. Maximise your performance. If you do this your ATAR will take care of itself. Don’t try to trick the system, you’ll just end up wasting the time and energy that you could have spent studying and relaxing.
  2. Think about your ATAR in context as it is only a number designed to give you university admission. Focus on what subjects will help you to maximise your post school options. School is the last chance you will get to gain a broad education, so try to enjoy it and pick subjects that will set you up for diverse range of career and study options. Would moving up to a more challenging maths level or picking a science open the door to a broader range of tertiary courses? Think about how developing your computer skills or your understanding of economics will help to prepare you for a whole range of different career options. Your ATAR is only as important as the post school transition it sets you up for.


Overall – keep it simple and focus on what’s in your control. Your performance. Try and enjoy the broad range of topics you will get to explore and don’t get caught up trying to game the system.