In a recent nation-wide survey by online tutoring company Cluey Learning, 75% of Australian senior students said their ATAR score would impact on the rest of their life. And more than 80% said a score under 60 would be detrimental to their life.
But here’s something Australians anxious about their senior exams might be surprised to know. More students are accepted into university without an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) – a number that indicates a student’s position relative to all students in their age group – than with one.
In 2018, around 279,000 people were made an offer to study at a higher education institution. Of those, more than half (around 163,000 or 58%) were accepted on criteria other than an ATAR.
This has been an ongoing trend for many years and it’s not limited to a few courses or universities. In 2018, more offers were made to no-ATAR students in all but three fields of study: medicine, engineering, and the natural and physical sciences. Even then, around two out of every five offers in those courses were made to no-ATAR applicants.
So, if you don’t have an ATAR or you don’t score as highly as you’d hoped, here are some ways you can still get into a university course.
1. Special consideration
If factors such a physical or mental-health issues have significantly affected your Year 11-12 studies for an extended time, you may still be eligible for university.
Special consideration programs – such as the Educational Access Schemes in NSW or the Special Entry Access Scheme in Victoria – allow students with a low ATAR or even no ATAR to apply for a course that may have an ATAR requirement they don’t meet.
These programs consider many things including financial hardship, excessive family responsibilities, refugee status or a school environment where you may not have thrived as well as you could have.
Assessments are made on a case-by-case basis. Depending on the course or university, individual student circumstances might be sufficient to grant them entry to one course but not another.
Read more: Don't calm down! Exam stress may not be fun but it can help you get better marks
2. Alternative admissions tests
If you never did Year 12, didn’t get the required ATAR (or any ATAR) or completed studies outside Australia, you can sit alternative exams that can generate an ATAR.
The most well-known is the Special Tertiary Admissions Test (STAT), developed by the Australian Council of Educational Research. As a general rule, you must be 18 years or over by a certain date in the year of admissions to use STAT results in your university application.
Some alternative admission tests are designed specifically for degrees that require a very high ATAR, such as medicine. Many universities offer graduate medicine and dentistry courses with varying requirements for entry. The basic criteria comprise an undergraduate degree and a certain mark in the Graduate Medical School Admissions Test (GAMSAT).
3. Enabling programs
Also known as bridging or foundation programs, enabling programs are seen as alternatives to Year 12. They prepare you for an undergraduate course by providing academic and other skills necessary for university study. Programs range in length from four to 28 weeks and some are delivered online.
Enabling programs are generally free for Australian citizens and delivered by the university itself. Successfully completing an enabling program gains the student entry into a number of courses – though which ones differ between universities.
Read more: If you have a low ATAR, you could earn more doing a VET course than a uni degree – if you're a man
Most universities offer enabling programs. In 2017, almost 29,000 students were enrolled in enabling programs across more than 30 higher education institutions. Some give priority to people who have experienced financial or other disadvantage. Others are designed for specific groups, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
There are also fee-paying foundation studies programs for students who are not eligible for a free place, such as international students.
4. VET/TAFE studies
Most students enrol in a vocational education and training (VET) course for its own value. But a VET program can be used similarly to an enabling program. A VET qualification can help meet university entry requirements and, in some cases, can get you credit towards the university degree.
Unlike enabling programs, VET is not free. But many VET courses and providers have access to VET Student Loans, similar to the HELP loans for university courses.
A 2015 study I participated in found disadvantaged students used the VET pathway more than the enabling pathway. However, a greater proportion of students in enabling pathways were satisfied with their pathway than VET students.
This was mostly the case when participants were asked to consider how well the pathway had prepared them for university.
5. Portfolio entry
A portfolio is a collection of evidence, examples or demonstrations of how prepared a student is for university study. Traditionally, portfolios were a requirement for entry to courses that needed specific skills, such as art or design.
Now, many universities are increasingly using portfolios to give students without an ATAR the opportunity to show they have the skills, motivations and commitment required for academic success.
Each university has its own way of determining what can be used in a portfolio and how the elements relate to each other.
Read more: Your ATAR isn't the only thing universities are looking at
Which pathway is best for you?
Ultimately, what pathway is best depends on you and your circumstances. The various pathways can make it confusing, a fact the government has recognised by implementing an Admissions Transparency Implementation Working Group. Some of the changes planned include requiring universities to provide information in a similar format and combining the five admission centre websites we have now into one national website.
In the meantime, these steps can help you make the right choice:
- decide which course you want to do
- find out which universities offer the course – the best way to do this is through the relevant state’s admission centre (WA, SA and the NT, VIC, NSW and the ACT, QLD, or for Tasmania the University of Tasmania)
- identify your preferred universities – it may help to use the national Quality Indicators in Learning and Teaching resource, which provides information on things such as student experience and graduate employment
- visit each university’s website and call them to find more specific information about: pathways you’re eligible for; what you need to provide or exams you need to sit; what support is available to help you prepare; and whether there are costs involved.
This article previously said more than half of applications offered a course in a higher education institution in 2018 had no ATAR. This has now been updated to say they were accepted using criteria other than an ATAR.