Choosing the right HSC subjects

There’s much debate about the perfect combination of HSC subjects that will maximise your ATAR - we are here to break it all down and offer some guidance when figuring out how to choose the right HSC subjects.

2 years ago   •   4 min read

By Dylan Kay
Photo by Kimberly Farmer / Unsplash

There’s much debate about the perfect combination of HSC subjects that will maximise your ATAR - we are here to break it all down and offer some guidance when figuring out how to choose the right HSC subjects.

First off, there is no perfect combination or formula of subjects. So, I’ll start by saying - don’t base your subject selection on what your friends are taking or what seems to have worked for friends or siblings in the past… There are so many variables that play into subject selection (and I’m going to touch on these in a sec) so it’s important that you consider everything before you make your decision. If you're still looking to brush up on exactly how the HSC works, check out our comprehensive guide to the HSC system!

A quick breakdown of units

Before we get into it, you should understand the subject requirements and how these interact with your final ATAR.

Firstly, English is a compulsory course and will definitely count towards your ATAR so the decision that follows is whether you go with Standard or Advanced English - check out another recent blog for some advice on that topic.

Basically, 10 units will count towards your ATAR - your two English units and your best 8 other units. In Year 11, you will have to start with at least 12 units which give you the option of ‘dropping’ down to 10 units for Year 12. If you’re taking one unit subject, you also have the option of dropping to 11 units.

The number of units that you take in year 12 is very much a personal choice - some people work better knowing they have a buffer, while others might only want to study for subjects that they know will count… either way, you’ll get a feel for what is right as you suss out the workload in Year 11 so don’t worry too much about that yet.

Choose subjects that interest you

As you’ve probably heard before - you’ll get the best results in the subjects that interest you… and it makes sense, you’ll be more willing to put in the hours which, in turn, will produce good marks. The HSC is a grind - the burnout is definitely possible but if you have subjects that you enjoy studying, you’ll be a lot less inclined to reach that point (or if you do, it will be easier to get back on the horse!).

So don’t pay attention to what ‘scales well’ or what’s ‘easy’ to do well in - your number one question should be: what I am actually interested in and what will I enjoy studying?

What about prerequisites for university?

There’s a chance that you might also have to consider prerequisites for university. Some universities require Advanced Mathematics as a general prerequisite for most of their courses (Sydney University… I’m looking at you) while other universities require you to have studied certain subjects that relate to that course - for example Chemistry for a Science degree (makes sense, right?). Here is a quick guide to the differences between HSC Maths subjects.

However, often universities will class subjects such as chemistry as ‘assumed knowledge’, in which case, your lecturers will assume you have learnt and understood the content but it won’t be a compulsory ‘pre-requisite’ to register in and complete the course.

You also have the option to complete bridging courses at the end of school which, in summary, cram two years of content into two weeks (so I’d avoid it if you can!!) Basically, I’m just trying to reiterate my earlier point - there is no point studying a subject for two years just because you might need it for university - there are so many other pathways if you do decide that you want to take that specific course or degree (and universities do seem to be shifting from the pre-req to assumed knowledge threshold). And… if you are only doing a subject like chem because it’s a prereq and you want to ‘keep your options open’ then that might be a sign (i.e. you probably won’t be any more interested in chem in two years' time!)

Play to your strengths

Choose subjects that you are good at - it seems like a no-brainer but this one can be easily overlooked. Go off your marks in earlier years - if you have a history of strong performance in science then it makes sense to choose biology, chem or physics (obviously on the basis that those are subjects you are interested in and will enjoy studying). If you know you’re good at essays right consider humanities such as History or Extension English.


It's important that you choose a range of subjects - give yourself some respite from just writing essays or just solving equations. It’s going to be a lot harder to put in that extra hour of work if it's more of the same thing so mix it up! Instead of doing all humanities or all sciences, consider how you can make the most dynamic selection that will work for you.

Maybe a more creative subject will help break it up? Although a major work subject might seem like a slog that takes away time from your other subjects, if you manage your time properly, it can actually have the opposite effect - you’ll be motivated by the creative outlet or when you get sick of all those brush strokes you can pick up the pen to complete that Maths past paper.

Don't try and cheat the system

You probably know what I’m getting at here… yep, scaling! There are many mixed messages regarding scaling. While scaling does have some role to play, it only really affects you if you don’t perform as well. So, if you are choosing subjects that you enjoy and that suit your skills, this shouldn’t be a problem anyway.

Scaling changes every year and if you choose a subject just because it ‘scales well’, chances are you might not perform that well, particularly given the subject’s level of difficulty.

Your choice might end up backfiring… it's not worth it, trust me. That being said, if you are unsure about whether to choose Advanced or Standard (Maths or English) it's a good idea to start with the Advanced subject - you can always drop back to Standard if you find Advanced subjects are too difficult (but make this switch as early as possible as content does vary between the two courses).

Be conscious of your workload

Finally, consider what is achievable - this goes back to my point about diversity. Often diverse subjects will facilitate a more manageable workload. Also, consider the fact that extension subjects might only be one unit but they are not necessarily half the work of a traditional two-unit subject (they often still require a 2hr exam).

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