So you didn’t get your desired ATAR score. What now from here?

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Year 12 students around the country from today are waking up and logging online to check their ATAR results, reflecting their performance for their final secondary schooling year.

In some cases, the 2023 Year 12 students receiving their ATAR scores in the coming weeks will be happy and content with their scores. However, for a large portion of Australian students, ATAR ranks can evoke negative emotions, particularly if the number doesn’t represent a score the student had hoped for.

But, as Scientia Professor of Educational Psychology Andrew Martin from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney says, ATAR scores don’t have to be the sole determining factor enabling students a guaranteed entry in their desired courses. Rather, he says, it simply shapes the path towards one’s goals and how they reach them.

The pros and cons of competitive goals

“Research shows that competitive goals are okay while students are ‘winning’, but de-motivating if they don’t win,” says Professor Martin.

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“Now that ATARs are out, it may be time for a shift in goals. In some ways, the toughest part of the ATAR for Year 12 students is the ‘R’ – rank. It is this letter ‘R’ that makes Year 12 something of a zero-sum game: for one student to rank higher, another student must rank lower.”

Assessments that rank students fuel comparisons with others and competitive goals, he says, with research showing that competitive goals are okay while students are ‘winning’, but de-motivating if they don’t win.

“With the ATAR done and dusted (especially the ‘R’ part), students might find it helpful to shift their goals a bit. Research shows that personal best (PB) goals are linked to positive academic and social-emotional outcomes,” Professor Martin says.

“PB goals motivate us to compete with ourselves, more than compete with others. This focus on self-competition and self-improvement is energising — including at times we don’t succeed at first. Whether students are going to college, university, work or having a gap year, PB goals are definitely worth a try.”

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Exploring other pathways

Most of the focus and stress about ATARs revolve around what university course it gets you into. But Professor Martin says students need to know there are other pathways.

“Sure, some students will have unconditional early entry offers—but if they change courses or universities, the ATAR may suddenly become very relevant. The ATAR does not determine where you end up as much as it shapes the way you get there. Your task now is to courageously and energetically embrace the ride,” Professor Martin says.

“The reason the ATAR matters is because it shapes your post-school journey. It determines whether you get in the front door of what you want to study now—or if you need to take a couple of side routes to eventually get into what you want. Indeed, it is not uncommon for these side routes to be the very pathway that suits you best!”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]