They say the ATAR can make or break your life’s path. But there’s way more to the story than that.
They say the ATAR can make or break your life’s path. But there’s way more to the story than that.

Huge myth about these two little numbers

It's the same story every year.

You've spent your whole adolescence slogging away for a decent end-of-year ATAR score. Finally, you let that little result wash over you, and mentally prepare to spend the rest of your young adult life subtly but earnestly dropping your meaningless score into casual conversation.

All over the nation, thousands of Aussie high school graduates will be receiving their ATAR results this week.

But if you're biting your nails in anticipation, researchers want you to understand something crucial: It's not the be-all-and-end-all.

Andrew Martin, Scientia professor and professor of educational psychology at the University of New South Wales, said his research has found the ATAR is only a temporary indicator of success at best.

"What we've found is that over the course of university studies as an undergrad, the ATAR link increasingly plays less of a role the further you get into your course," he told

"What tends to take over is how well you perform in that university course itself and the extent to which you apply yourself."

The ATAR does have a degree of importance, he noted, but it's only a starting point.

He noted several other factors that influence how well you travel through post-school life - conscientiousness, your motivation and your ability to adapt to independent learning patterns.

Physiology plays a part too.

"You make this big decision at the age of 17 or 18, but you've got another 10 years of brain development, and so your choices, decisions and abilities are not set in stone," Dr Martin said.

At the same time, natural intelligence plays less of a role in your trajectory the older you get. "As you get into university, there is quite complex material, content and demands, and you can't just rely on natural intelligence to absorb all that. Intelligence is helpful, make no mistake, but you do have to sit at that desk for many hours to wrap your head around it.

"In school, the demands are a little more aligned, so you don't need excessive hours to figure it out. University is the opposite of that.

"When you do postgraduate studies, there's far less face-to-face time and far more desk work. That takes incredible conscientiousness, and soft skills such as prioritising, time management, knowing what's a distraction and what's not. These skills play into it, and all of that is required writ large."


Life after high school is very different to what you’re used to.
Life after high school is very different to what you’re used to.

According to Dr Martin, there are two major myths surrounding the ATAR.

One is called the "linear myth".

"This is the idea that we go straight as an arrow through life, and you're not allowed to go sideways or you'll derail," he said. "That's one of the main concerns people have about taking a gap year."

The second is the "lock-step myth".

"This is the idea that to have any success in later life, you have to get everything right at the right moment.

"But the reality is, life doesn't work that way."

All things considered, why even bother having HSC or VCE exams? Wouldn't it save us all time and energy to just buck the system and ride off into the sunset on our Sweet Sixteenth?

Dr Martin noted the exams do measure a certain skill set - it's just not a very broad one. "The ATAR still relies on high-level literacy, high-level numeracy, a capacity to work in a structured and fairly linear curriculum, and a capacity to respond in a fairly narrow set of ways.

"It also relies on a capacity to be compliant - to listen, absorb material and produce it. People who can do that tend to do well in these exams."

Where these exams fall short is in teaching soft skills that will serve students better in later life.

This is where your half-formulated gap year plans may really prove worthwhile.

"The gap year can be very helpful for many students," Dr Martin said. "It's not for everyone, sure, but for those that take a 'constructive' gap year, where you might do a bit of part-time work and volunteering, you become very self-directed. You develop a bit of confidence and resilience along the way, and meet lots of different types of people that you're likely to encounter later on in the workforce."


You don’t need a 99.95 perfect score to go to university.
You don’t need a 99.95 perfect score to go to university.

None of this means you shouldn't celebrate your marks. For many, the ATAR score represents 13 years of schooling, studying and sacrifice. That's a cause worthy of cracking open a bottle of your finest Passion Pop.

"Do work hard, and do celebrate a great ATAR result," Dr Martin said. "If you got what you wanted, be proud of that.

"But if you didn't get what you wanted, don't despair. All (the ATAR) does is identify your starting point. Failing that, you haven't missed the boat.

"Understand it's the attributes that underlay an ATAR that are critical beyond school, and those attributes - conscientiousness, motivation and engagement - are learnable and changeable, and you can activate them now in your next move."

In other words, your result isn't the end of the world. See it as a new beginning. In another year or so, you probably won't even remember those two little digits.