For most students, the ATAR is seen as the be-all and end-all when it comes to their studies – one shot to ‘get it right’, or they’ve missed their chance at university.

It’s a pressure that’s piled onto them from every angle: their teachers, their co-workers, their parents, and themselves – but the high school system and the ATAR that follows isn’t always the ideal pathway for students hoping to find their way into a university degree.

So, if the ATAR isn’t right for every student, what other options are there?

The strengths – and limitations – of the ATAR

Introduced in 2010 as a replacement for earlier state-centric rankings, the ATAR (or Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) allows students Australia-wide to be compared based on their academic performance, no matter the subjects they’ve studied. For instance, a science-focused student can be compared to another student specialising in humanities and languages, with the ATAR system evaluating who performed better than the other, despite their completely different coursework.

It’s a useful tool for universities when it comes time to sort through the students’ applications at the end of the year and decide which will be offered places, but of course it’s not a perfect system, judging them on a relatively short period of their academic lives, and placing extreme pressure on them as a result.

Why some students struggle with the ATAR

There are many reasons that students might come away from their final year of secondary study disappointed – or dismayed- with their ATAR scores. For some, unexpected family or health issues can derail their study, while others will study so intensely in the lead-up that they find that they ‘burn out’ towards the very end, and are unable to perform at their best.

Meanwhile, the pressures of final exams worth a large percentage of marks can be overwhelming for students who may perform better with assignments carried out over the space of weeks or months, rather than a couple of hours. Other students may simply not yet know what they want to do as a career, and feel unmotivated and directionless as a result, with no clear goal to strive for.

Some may feel as if they did everything right, only to be hit with a gut-punch when they receive their final score, unable to understand why their ATAR doesn’t reflect the effort they put in throughout the year.

It can simply be that the intense pressure to achieve the ATAR score they ‘need’ to be guaranteed entry to their ideal university degree is a weight that can be impossible to bear at a young age, and when students place so much focus on reaching that number at all costs, it can be a horrible feeling when things don’t go to plan.

No matter why students underperform in the ATAR system, it’s clear that there’s a need for alternatives – but what are they?

The traditional alternatives

There have always been alternate pathways to uni, but the ABC reports that a recent study by Victoria University found that only 26% of undergraduate students were accepted to uni based on their ATAR, with 131,555 students taking alternative pathways to university.

Other pathways to uni are nothing new, of course, with ‘foundation courses’ having been offered by many universities for years, giving students who didn’t get the ATAR they were hoping for a second chance to impress. Depending on the course, however, these can only set students up for further disappointment.

Traditional foundation courses see students study for a year, and once again grade them at the end, assessing their suitability to then transition into the first year of a degree. Either way, it’s an extra year of study required of them while their friends are off settling into campus life or enjoying a gap year, and if they are then chosen for a course, they’re starting their first year while their year 12 classmates are already onto their second.

On the other side of the coin, it goes without saying that completing a foundation course only to once again not receive an offer is hardly an ideal situation, but clearly students are finding other options. So what’s the solution for students who just want to secure their place?

A guaranteed pathway to a university degree

More recently, some universities like Western Sydney University have begun offering a more reliable pathway to uni in the form of The College, which begins by offering students with a low ATAR (or none at all) a chance to study a diploma in the field of their choosing, and use this as their ticket into a university degree instead.

Over a 12 or 16-month period, students study one of eight areas, from Business and IT to Health Sciences and Nursing, with The College providing extensive support to ensure that students aren’t dropped in the deep end, and can perform at their best.

They’re studying the same units they would be in the first year of their degree, too, but the class sizes are smaller, and they’re also able to learn important academic skills like researching and referencing that will carry them through their entire time at university.

“It was daunting for the fact that I didn’t feel smart enough.”

Once they successfully complete their diploma, each student not only has a relevant qualification already, but guaranteed entry into the corresponding bachelor degree. Better yet, they move straight into second year, making for no lost time at all – and they’re eligible for the same fee support as any other student, so students won’t need to juggle an impossible load of study and work just to pay tuition fees.

Watch: Students speak about their future beyond the confines of the HSC

“It was daunting for the fact that I didn’t feel smart enough,” admits Kiara Osborne, a student who just one year ago was in the workforce with no ATAR, but is now eyeing off her dream degree.

“That’s a common thing with a lot of people, but I think that’s why The College is so good: they just understand that the ATAR doesn’t define you, and they cater their support to that.”

Students like Kiara can flourish under a different system like this, and Western Sydney University currently has 94 students undertaking either a Masters or PhD, having started at The College.

“They just understand that the ATAR doesn’t define you, and they cater their support to that.”

“I originally wanted to do just an Arts degree and then major in Psychology,” she tells us, “but at the moment I’ve managed to keep a pretty high grade point average, so I thought ‘why not go down a different path?’

“I’ve had discussion with my first year coordinator, and now once I get into my second year next year, I’m hoping to transfer into Law,” Kiara adds.

“I understand my ability now.”

Supporting our kids in their own journey

It’s often a combination of that self-belief, support, and the right method of study that students need to find to unlock their potential, so it’s important to be understanding of the personal journey each student needs to take on their way to reaching their goals, and let them set those goals for themselves.

Helping kids to do their best in year 12 is definitely important and, for many students who prove to be a great fit for the ATAR system, their score will get them where they want to go.

“I understand my ability now.”

For others, though, it’s far more important that we trust that they’ll flourish under the right conditions, and at the right time, rather than placing extreme pressure on them to hit a certain score in one of the most stressful times of their lives.

A student’s potential is limitless – the ATAR is just one number.