What happens when you don't get the ATAR you want?

By Helen Green

It has been challenging few years for Year 12 students. And naturally, emotional responses can run high upon receiving your Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR).

You may ask, ‘What happens now that my ATAR is too low?’ Or even too high?

What are you going to do with your plans? What's next?


  • Your ATAR is a ranking relative to peers, not a score.
You might be disappointed with your 92 ATAR if you missed your preferred course, while your friend might be thrilled with your 60 ATAR and the options it brings.
  • A higher ATAR ≠ 'better' course.
ATAR entry rankings are largely based on supply and demand (which are driven by various factors) as opposed to degree of difficulty, with a few notable exceptions.

Don't choose a course for the wrong reasons, such as to:

  • please others (often family)
  • not 'waste' high scores
  • choose a prestigious course you don’t have a genuine interest in
  • choose a course based primarily on fees and simply not researching the course details properly.
Know what subjects you would be studying and check your interest.


Choose the right course for you

Don't let your unexpected ATAR necessarily change your plans — unless it's for the right reasons.

If your course preferences genuinely reflect your interests, chances are you won't need to adjust the order. Learn to choose the right course for you.

ATAR lower than expected?

It's okay to be upset. Take some time out.


  • Surround yourself with supportive, trustworthy people.
  • Avoid making hasty decisions.
  • You have a multitude of options and, in most cases, you can pursue your chosen career through pathway courses.

Do I change my course preferences?

In Victoria, the VTAC website is an important resource. Be aware of its policies and key dates around changing course preferences and accepting offers.

You might want to keep in mind:

  • You may receive a second round or supplementary offer.
  • Universities do make offers below the minimum ATAR advertised. If your ATAR falls slightly below that, you may be offered a late bid.
  • Subject bonuses for some courses. Find out your eligibility from the university (preferably in writing) before adjusting your preferences. Bonus points can make the difference between securing a place in a course you want  or not.
  • Special Consideration, Special Entry Access Scheme (SEAS) or other assistance. SEAS eligible students should have applied by the published VTAC dates. However, mid-year SEAS applications are possible. Visit the VTAC website. Outside of SEAS, contact universities directly for equity and access schemes. Regardless of your ATAR, eligible students should apply.
  • Compare similar courses at other universities, even interstate ones, or at different campuses. Is attending a regional campus an option? The same course at the same university’s regional campus often has a significantly lower ATAR.
  • Consider related courses/professions. Be open to opportunities. I know many students who missed out on chosen vocational courses and ended up very happy in a related profession. And if it doesn't work out, you can enrol again the following year for the course of your choice.
  • Vocational courses. University is not for everyone, regardless of your ATAR. There are many highly sought after and highly paid commercial and vocational options.

Paths and their advantages

Universities typically offer well-published, designated 'pathways' for most undergraduate courses.

This can include:

  • foundation programs
  • diplomas
  • associate degrees
  • certificates.
Program objectives differ, although most provide substantial credit toward one or more degrees, usually with guaranteed entry into the second year upon completion.

An ATAR is either not necessary or is set lower and is affordable for most.
Keep in mind that there are degrees in some subjects that do not require an ATAR, focusing on other entry criteria including folios.

Taking a graded, incremental approach through a designated ‘pathway' can:

  • help make the transition from school to university less daunting
  • boost your confidence after a demanding year 12
  • provide a chance for you to see if you really like a field before committing to a longer course of study.

TAFE offers excellent training, integrated hands-on learning and good employment outcomes. Many are affiliated with universities and some now offer a bachelor's degree — with the option of multiple exit points.

Likewise, there are many private courses where an ATAR is not required. Before committing, carefully check:

  • course credentials
  • costs
  • withdrawal policies
  • postgraduate outcomes
  • possible pathways before committing.

Consider a broad-based/general undergraduate degree

Regardless of whether your ATAR is lower or higher than expected, they are an excellent choice for many students.

It can be advantageous if:
  • your profession of interest can be studied intensively at a graduate level
  • you don’t know what specific career path you want to pursue.
After completing a general undergraduate course, for example, science, you can apply for a specialised course of your choice, provided you meet the criteria.

It is effectively your second chance if you didn't get a high enough ATAR for the initial entry. It gives you time to:
  • adjust to college life
  • mature
  • keep your options open.

ATAR higher than expected

While most students will be happy, confusion can quickly dawn, especially with well-meaning advice from family, friends and others.

You may reorder your course preferences or investigate courses you haven't previously considered.

Avoid making a hasty decision. For many students, suddenly having more options can be both exciting and stressful, so do your research and seek advice from reputable sources.

Do you know someone currently studying for or recently graduating from the course you are considering?

Universities can help, even faculty-based student associations or groups.

If you're considering a specific occupation, it's best to talk to a few people who work in the profession at different stages of their careers.

Scholarships and prestigious offers

If you receive an exceptionally high ATAR, you may be offered a scholarship. Receiving an early offer of a course or scholarship is, without a doubt, a fantastic opportunity.

My advice: take it very seriously, but only accept an offer if you are genuinely interested and committed to the course.

It's not easy to turn down a subsidised place in medicine, for example, when you know so many other students, including friends, who would do anything to have the opportunity.

At the same time, I know many who have pursued prestigious occupations for the wrong reasons, including feeling pressured not to 'waste' their ATAR and pleasing others (such as parents). But studying a demanding course will not work if you are not engaged.

If you choose a course that interests you, you'll be happier and perform better, which is likely to produce stronger results from a personal and professional perspective.

If you earn a very high ATAR, have varied interests and aren't sure which direction to go in, consider studying a broad-based undergraduate degree (refer to the section above).


How about a gap year?

Regardless of whether your ATAR meets your expectations, there are some compelling reasons to consider taking a gap year or semester and postponing your university place (if permitted).

This includes:

  • a break after VCE and some 'headspace'
  • opportunity to gain valuable paid or volunteer work experience
  • a chance to travel, learn a language or improve skills
  • try some short courses.

For students who don't know what they want to study, a gap year gives you:

  • time to really research
  • dabble in some short courses
  • talk to people working in the professions you're considering.

Perspective is important

What if I choose the wrong course? Approximately one in four first-year students do so. That's fine and part of the learning experience.

There is a good deal of flexibility across the tertiary sector. No experience is wasted, although it is best to opt out before the census cut-off dates to avoid additional fees.

Finally, ATAR becomes irrelevant very quickly. Your employer will not be interested in your ATAR. They will be interested in your attitude, skills and willingness to learn. Chances are you have at least five careers in your working life.

Your skills will need to be transferable and adaptable, rather than necessarily profession-specific. The work will be multidisciplinary.

Important future skills include:

  • creativity
  • critical thinking
  • problem solving
  • adaptability
  • digital literacy
  • self-management
  • collaborative communication and teamwork
  • emotional intelligence.

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