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ATAR and Choosing a University Course

It’s the time of year for celebration and holidays – well deserved for the class of 2011. With the ATARs released about a week ago, most are in the stages of finalising their UAC choices for University courses. We get a heap of questions from ex-students this time of year concerning what course they should choose, whether to choose a course similar to their high school subjects, whether they should choose a course based on the ATAR they achieved, etc. On these issues, I want to offer some timely advice. I’ve tutored year 11 & 12 students at Dux College for 3 years now and I’ve seen these same issues and questions raised each year. Lets visit each of the main ones:

Should I choose a course similar on what I did in high school?

It always helps to choose a course that’s similar to what you’re already familiar with, but it isn’t necessary. Generally, if you choose a uni course that’s in the same field as many of the subjects you completed in your HSC, you will find first year rather breezy. However, it isn’t necessary at all because the vast majority of uni courses do not assume any knowledge on your part – everything is taught from scratch at the beginning of first year, albeit at a much faster pace than what you’re probably used to.

For example, if you did English Advanced, Maths Extension 1, Maths Extension 2, Physics, Chemistry, it’s perfectly fine for you to choose Combined Law if that’s what you want to do. Many typical HSC subject combinations that result in sufficiently high ATARs that allow you to get into courses like Combined Law have nothing to do with law (sadly Legal Studies doesn’t scale particularly well, so we have a peculiar situation where many first year law students have done well in Maths Extension 2).

Short answer: do what you want to do, there’s no need to limit your options based on what you did for your HSC.

I scored a high ATAR, should I only look at high ATAR courses?

This is related to, but rather the opposite situation of the first point. Many students who get a relatively high ATAR, say 95+, suddenly have an urge to ‘not waste ATAR’ and thereby limit their choices only to the uni courses with similarly high ATAR entry requirements. This is a dangerous thing to do because the choice you make here could define the career of your long term future!

We see a disproportionately large fraction of students with very high ATARs (99+) that end up doing Combined Law or Medicine. I’m sure many of them are genuinely passionate and interested in these courses, and will make great lawyers and medical practitioners, but surely just as many are there because they haven’t got much of a clue as to what they want in life, but were blessed with the ability to achieve such a high ATAR. For some of these students, things will work out – they will adapt and find that they enjoy and/or are good at what they do. But for the others, they may live to regret their choice years later, when they realise they have no aptitude or passion for the path they’re on. This can lead to long term resentment against their career choice, or the student having to cut their losses and transfer to an unrelated uni course a few years later, having wasted time and HECS (uni isn’t free, remember that!).

It’s never a good idea to base your uni course choice solely on what you can ‘buy’ with your ATAR. The ATAR entry requirements for uni courses reflect only the relative supply and demand for each course, but people should realise that most people in a crowd are just following the crowd – they have no idea what they want individually. It’s perfectly fine to choose the highest ATAR requirement course within the field you want to get into – for example, if you’re into Maths / Physics and are keen on doing Engineering, then by all means choose the highest ATAR cut-off Engineering course (usually ‘Aeronautical Space’ at USyd). But don’t choose Combined Law just because you can!

On this point, I should also mention that there’s no correlation between the ATAR cut off of a uni course, and the inherent difficulty of the course. ATAR cut off only reflects how popular a course is. Some courses with humble ATAR cut offs (e.g. Engineering, Science) are notoriously difficult, both in terms of the amount of contact hours required per week (this means how many total hours of lectures and tutorials you need to
attend) as well as the failure rate each semester. Generally speaking, an Engineering or Science student can expect to attend Uni 4-5 days per week, and a Commerce student can get away with 3 days per week (some semesters you can get a timetable that only requires 2 days per week!).

Short answer: if you have the luxury of a high ATAR, choose something you’ll enjoy and be good at. There’s no point doing a course like Medicine if you have no interest or passion for it.

Combined degree vs single degree

Another question I get quite often is whether to do a combined or single degree. In my opinion, both are fine choices – it depends on what sort of career you’re after. The advantage of a single degree is that it’s over faster, and you’re on your way to the next stage of life (working somewhere as a graduate for most) quicker, younger and with less of a HECS debt. The advantage of a double degree is you’re more well-rounded as an individual. It’s preferable to combine degrees that span a wider breadth of fields, rather than combine two very similar degrees. E.g. Engineering / Commerce would be a good choice. The goal here is to open as many doors as possible.

When you’re entering your penultimate and final years of uni, you’ll begin the arduous and often frustrating process of submitting applications for graduate roles at various companies. Doing courses that are practical in a wider range of fields opens more doors up. At the same time, it could be argued that being more specialised helps with being considered more favourably by employers, but from personal experience, employers care more about your work experience, your uni marks and how you conduct yourself in the interview.

Even if you change your mind later, it’s not too much hassle to switch from one to the other. Of course, dropping a course is easier than taking one up (you can always drop from Combined to Single degree). Note that as long as your marks are decent, (Credit Average should be sufficient for most streams, Distinction Average is definitely adequate) you’ll find that a transfer to a different degree structure will be possible.

Short answer: it doesn’t matter, both are fine choices, and switching from one to the other in the middle of uni wastes little or no time, and is pretty easy with decent marks.

What course should I choose?

I’ve left the most important till last. While I’m not going to tell anyone what degree to do, I can give some guidelines that will help you reach the right choice.

  • Always do something you are personally passionate about and have an interest in. You won’t be good at something unless you enjoy it.
  • Don’t worry about the money. In ANY field, if you’re good at it, money takes care of itself. One thing about the world is it’s full of average people. In whatever field, whatever career path, most people you encounter are average, and those that rise to the very top are invariably people with a genuine passion for their field. If you don’t do something you enjoy, you won’t be good at it, and in a free market society like ours, your earnings will always reflect the value you contribute to others. If you’re average like everyone else, you will make average earnings and be stuck in a career you resent. Do what you’d be good at, and money will take care of itself. “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”
  • Don’t assume this will be your career path set in stone. Life is serendipitous and full of unexpected twists and turns. Many highly successful gained their success from following their true passion rather than strictly applying their tertiary education (and I’m not talking about the Bill Gates and the Steve Jobs in the world, these are normal people like you!).
  • Find out as much as possible about the degrees you’re considering, what sort of career possibilities they open up, and whether you’d enjoy the sort of work that entails. Research is key! Don’t just assume lawyers do the things you see on TV, or bankers all wear suits looking at the markets all day.

Short answer: do what you will enjoy. If you don’t enjoy your field, you won’t be good at it, and you’ll lead a very average and unexciting career path.

Changes to HSC Maths in 2012

Maths teachers and students at schools all over the state are talking about a new style of HSC exams that will be implemented next year at the end of 2012 – affecting this term’s new year 12. Here are some facts, and why I think the new maths exams are ‘dumbed down’ versions of the old.

Since 2009 the Board of Studies has been in consultation with teachers around NSW to set changes to the way HSC mathematics courses are assessed and examined. The proposed changes have been announced and are ready for full implementation from 2012 onwards. This means class of 2012 (new year 12 students of this year’s term 4) will be the first year to be affected by these new exam structures.

The main changes are set out as below:

Mathematics (2 unit)

  1. There will be 10 “objective response” questions worth one mark each. Sample question:


    Source: Board of Studies

  2. Objective response questions are questions with a correct answer – usually in the form of multiple choice, but also can involve asking you to write a specific number in boxes.

  3. There will now be six questions, each worth 15 marks. The paper will now be out of a total of 100 marks, to be done over 3 hours.
  4. Each question will also contain short-answer parts.

Mathematics Extension 1

  1. There will be 10 “objective response” questions each worth 1 mark, just like Mathematics 2 unit.
  2. There will now only be four questions, each worth 15 marks. The paper is now a total of 70 marks.
  3. Each question will also contain short-answer parts.

Mathematics Extension 2

  1. There will be 10 “objective response” questions each worth 1 mark, just like Mathematics 2 unit.
  2. There will now only be six questions, each worth 15 marks. The paper is now a total of 100 marks.
  3. Each question will also contain short-answer parts

What could this mean for students?

The following is inferences I’ve made as to the practical implications of these changes, they are my opinions and not based on studies or facts. I invite you to consider my arguments and form your own opinions.

Intuition will be rewarded

The introduction of 10 marks worth of objective-response (mostly multiple choice) questions can be of benefit to some students. Many maths questions give a clue as to the correct form of the answer – students with a good intuition can often ‘sense’ what the correct answer looks like, and introducing multiple choice questions will benefit such students.

Silly mistakes are less severely punished

Students who are less careful with their work and often make ‘silly mistakes’ will also benefit from multiple choice questions. Errors that are carried forward are less likely to lose you marks if you’re dealing with multiple choice. However these benefits are limited to the first 10 marks of section 1.

More time for less marks

According to background information published by the Board of Studies, they seem to be aiming to do away with the current ‘speed test’ style of the calculus-based exams, hence why they are reducing the total number of marks while allowing the same amount of time for all three exams (Mathematics 2 unit from 120 marks to 100 marks, Extension 1 from 84 marks to 70 marks, and Extension 2 from 120 marks to 100 marks).

This is unfortunate because relaxing the time limit on these exams will make it harder to differentiate the top students from the rest. A student who is familiar with all the topics and has studied hard before their exam will have no problem with the old time requirements, so relaxing the time limit makes the exams unnecessarily easier.

Reasons behind the change

There are a couple of reasons behind these changes, namely:

  1. A varied format makes things fairer: the Board has been trying to change the format of maths exams to appeal more fairly to a wider variety of students. By having a more varied format, it can be argued that the exam is now fairer to a wider variety of students.
  2. Cost reduction: before 2012, the marking centre needed 8 teams of markers to mark a maths exam, now they only need 6 teams (1 for each question) and multiple choice can be marked by computers.
  3. Exams marked out of 100: the Board argues that since other subjects (Biology, Chemistry, Physics) can be marked out of 100, there should be no reason why maths exams cannot. Making the exams marked out of 100 adds minor conveniences to the marking process.

About the author

Matthew Lim is a mathematics tutor at Dux College. Apart from taking several classes at our Parramatta location, he is also involved in course materials design.

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