What is an ATAR Score and Does it Really Matter?

By life@scape
Sep 09, 2022
Get a better understanding of how ATAR scores are calculated and the importance of the scores in Australia's tertiary education system.

From the moment students enter high school they’re told one thing: Their ATAR score is important!

But here’s the big question: What exactly is an ATAR score? And following up on that question, does it really even matter at the end of the day?

So to all those high school students in year 12 who are sitting down for their final year of exams and will be bestowed an ATAR at the end of the year, we’re going to answer all the big questions you have about ATAR scores.

What is an ATAR Score?

An ATAR score is a number between 0 and 99.95 that’s used to rank a student’s position relative to all the students in their age group. This score is used by universities to select students for their courses and admission to most tertiary courses is based around this number.,

Now it’s important to know that an ATAR score is NOT a mark, it’s a rank. For example, if you got an ATAR of 70, it means you’re in the top 30% of your age group. It doesn’t mean that you got a mark of 70%.

How is it calculated?

This is actually quite a complex answer as the ATAR calculation process involves several steps and processes, not to mention how each state and territory does their own calculations slightly differently, but we’ll do our best to explain it!

A student has to study a minimum number of subjects that can be used in the final ATAR calculation. For each subject taken there are 4 marks:

  • Examination mark
  • Assessment mark
  • HSC mark – which is the average of the examination and assessment mark
  • Performance band

These marks are just the first step in the whole process. Each mark needs to be scaled – or readjusted – so that it can be more fairly compared with marks from for other students and subjects. It’s important to note that scaling takes into account how competitive rather than how difficult a subject is.


Does School Scaling Affect My ATAR Score?

There are 2 types of scaling that’ll be implemented:

  • School scaling – One of the biggest influences on your ATAR, school scaling refers to your ranking position in your class and school. Your school rank position will have a bigger impact on your assessment mark than the actual mark itself!
    • EXAMPLE: Bob’s results in Math class have ranked him 5th out of 10 students in his class. If the 10 students in his class receive a total of 800 marks where the highest mark was 95 and the lowest was 65, the average at Bob’s school was 80/100. Because Bob was ranked average (5/10) then his Moderated School Assessment Mark for Math is actually 80. The student ranked 1st gets an MSA mark of 95 and the lowest ranked students receives the mark of 65.

  • Subject Scaling – With over 80 different subjects, you’re going to get subjects that are not only incomparable (like drama and physics) but also different numbers of students studying one subject compared to another.

What ATAR Do I Need to Study Law?

Law is a popular course of study so it’s not surprising that it is a fiercely competitive field. Generally speaking you’ll need a high ATAR of between 95 to 99 to guarantee a spot in a law degree, depending on certain factors, acceptance criteria, and the university. Hey, we didn’t say this would be easy!

What ATAR Do I Need to Study Medicine?

Like law, medicine is also a popular and fiercely competitive course of study for prospective uni students. Those thinking about studying medicine will need an ATAR of anywhere between 90 to 99, depending on certain factors, criteria, and the university you’re looking at.

What ATAR Do I Need to Study Psychology?

Psychology is a popular and versatile uni course that spans across several potential pathways and majors as students can chose to specialise in certain areas of psychology or study it as part of a double major.

Since it’s such a versatile study path, ATAR requirements range anywhere between 55 to 97 depending on the type of degree you’re studying and the uni you want to study at.

Does My ATAR Score Really Matter For Universities?

The honest truth is that aside from getting into a course you want to study, your ATAR score ultimately doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of what you do in your life!

An ATAR score is just a number that doesn’t accurately reflect who you are, what you’re capable of, or your potential as a student and person. And even if your ATAR isn’t enough to get you into the uni course you want, there are other pathways to get you there anyway (which we’ll talk about below).

Just remember one thing: no one will care or ask about your ATAR once you’re in uni, ever.


How Can I Get Into My Desired Course If I Don’t Meet the ATAR Requirements?

Don’t despair if you don’t meet the ATAR requirements of a course you want to study, there are other options and ways to consider!

  • The cut-off ATAR scores vary between courses and institutions, which means you may be eligible for a very similar course to the one you want at a different uni.
  • Apply for a similar course with a lower ATAR requirement and study what you want.
  • Complete the first year of a related course to the one you want but has a lower ATAR requirement and then transfer to the course you want.
  • Look at Pathway Providers. These are basically foundation courses that will let you do your first year of study with extra support and guidance, and then you can transfer into the degree you want in your second year.

The important thing to remember that you ATAR is just a number that becomes irrelevant once your start studying or working.

What Are ATAR Bonus Points?

Bonus points – technically called adjustment factor points – are basically exactly what you think they are: they’re extra points that tertiary institutions give to a student’s ATAR to boost their selection ranking when applying to a course.

So how can you get bonus points? Well there several ways and criteria in which bonus points are handed out, including:

  • Performing well in certain year 12 HSC subjects
  • Living in a rural or regional area
  • Athlete programs

Most major universities also offer bonus points, each according to their own criteria, so do some research on the uni you want to study at and see how many bonus ATAR points you’ll get!