How does the ATAR work?

It is very likely that you have heard of the ‘ATAR.’ You might have already received yours or perhaps you are keenly waiting for its release. Regardless, it is important to know what exactly the ATAR is and how it works so you can understand how you performed in your final year of high school.

2 years ago   •   4 min read

By Dylan Kay
Photo by Elisa Ventur / Unsplash

You have likely heard of the ‘ATAR.’ You might have already received yours or perhaps you are keenly waiting for its release. Regardless, it is important to know what exactly the ATAR is and how it works so you can understand how you performed in your final year of high school compared to your state-wide cohort.

What is the ATAR?

The ATAR is the ‘Australian Tertiary Admission Rank.’ The way ATARs are calculated across states does vary slightly but traditionally your ATAR will be a number between 0.00 and 99.95, measured in increments of 0.05. So, with the highest ATAR being 99.95, the next highest being 99.90 and so on. The number is a rank (not a mark out of 100) and is indicative of your position relative to all other students in your state’s year. For example, if you receive an ATAR of 75.00 that would place you in the top 25% of your cohort.

What is the ATAR used for?

The ATAR is used by universities across Australia, providing a measure to accept a certain number of students into courses with the appropriate ‘cut-off’ or ‘minimum’ ATAR. The minimum ATAR is often transferred to a ‘Selection Rank’ by universities - this includes the ATAR plus any relevant adjustment factors (previously referred to as ‘bonus points’). These adjustment factors will not change your ATAR but will change the selection rank which can help you get into a certain degree. The selection rank adjustments are based on a range of factors including high performance in Year 12 subjects relevant to your degree, living or attending a school in a certain area, financial hardship or athletic achievements. Most states have their Education Access Scheme (EAS) that considers these factors.

You can find more information about EAS with your state's relevant Tertiary Admissions Centre:

How is the ATAR calculated?

As mentioned earlier, the ins and outs of the ATAR calculation are slightly different across states. To find a detailed breakdown of how the ATAR is calculated in your state be sure to visit the above links.

For you to get the general gist of how subjects' marks are aggregated we will break down the NSW ATAR. In NSW, your ATAR is calculated by aggregating scaled marks in 10 units of ATAR courses. These courses must consist of:

  • your best 2 units of English and
  • your best remaining 8 units.

Although you are required to complete at least four subjects to be eligible for an ATAR,  the aggregate that counts to the ATAR may be fewer than four. This is likely to be the case when you are completing extension subjects. For example, your ATAR might include English Advanced, English Extension 1 and 2, Mathematics Extension 1 and Extension 2 and another 2-unit course.

The VCE ATAR works similarly, calculating the aggregate of up to six VCE-scaled study scores. This ATAR includes:

  • your best-scaled study score of English studies (English, English Language, English as an Additional Language (EAL), Literature)
  • your best-scaled study scores for three other studies and
  • 10% of the scaled study scores for the fifth and sixth studies.

How these scores scale is a whole other topic in itself, but if you're from Victoria and studying the VCE, it's worth understanding how VCAA scales your subject scores.

Subject marks

For the HSC, each unit is worth 50 marks. So, depending on whether a  course is worth one or two units you either will receive a final mark out of 50 or 100. This final mark is the average of two other marks: the examination mark and the assessment mark. The examination mark is the scaled mark you receive for the final HSC paper. The assessment mark is the scaled mark given for all your internal assessments completed through the course of year 12 (determined by your school rank).

What about scaling?

Scaling is used to ensure that you are neither advantaged nor disadvantaged in studying particular subjects. A good rank is harder to achieve when you are competing against others of high academic ability, whilst it is easier to achieve a higher rank in less competitive subjects. As explained by UAC, the ATAR calculation uses your raw scores and scaling to estimate your marks in each course if all courses were studied by all students and all courses had the same mark distribution. Your scaled marks - not your final HSC marks - are used to calculate your ATAR and in some instances, the two can vary. In many cases, your scaled mark is lower than your HSC or VCE mark. This is why it makes it so difficult to predict ATARs based on expected subject marks using an ATAR calculator. As we discussed in a previous blog, these calculators can be useful in offering some guidance since they are based on the scaling of previous years. However, the inherent ambiguity of scaling that varies each year means that an ATAR calculator is not a crystal ball that can perfectly predict your ATAR based on your HSC or VCE mark.

If you are interested in using an ATAR for a rough guide, you can check out our KIS calc here. And here's a quick guide on the different maths subjects in HSC if you're interested!

Taking it to step by step, here is a summary of how it all works for the HSC ATAR:

  1. HSC marks are calculated as an average of examination and assessment marks.
  2. HSC marks are scaled, converting them to scaled marks.
  3. The sum of scaled marks provides an aggregate.
  4. Aggregate marks are used to determine percentiles.
  5. You receive your ATAR - a percentile score that is rounded to the nearest 0.05.

We know all of this ATAR business can seem confusing and daunting but you must trust the process! If you are waiting for your ATAR, trust the hard work that you have already put in. If you have already received your ATAR, remember there are so many post-high-school pathways available, including special entry access schemes! You might be inspired by some in our last blog here!

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