This is the first article in a series providing school students with evidence-based advice for choosing subjects in their senior years.
From about August each year, young people in year 10 go through a round of interviews to close in on their subject selections for years 11 and 12.
They’re given a portfolio full of reading materials. They may also attend vibrant careers markets to get helpful information. The principal and heads of the year give presentations, and occasionally a VIP guest speaker will arrive.
Somewhere at this point, my sobbing daughter had cried: “I’m growing up too quickly!” She’d been told a complex story about ATARs, prerequisites and options for her career path, all with the solemn authority about the importance of making wise decisions.
Studies have shown students experience anxiety around choosing subjects that relate to their desired career path. Nothing as serious as this will have happened in most children’s lives before now.
What if they don’t know what they want to do? Or worse, what if they make a mistake in their subject choices?
The good news is, there is not much need to worry. Choices you make now about your subjects don’t need to have a severe impact on your future.
There are some myths about senior schooling all kids and parents need to know. Here are six of them.
Myth 1: you need an ATAR to go to university
There are several pathways to university — an ATAR is only one of them.
The federal education department reports there are significant intakes for courses that don’t require an ATAR. A 2020 report says the share of university offers for applicants with no ATAR or who were non-year 12 applicants was 60.5% in 2020. This was up from 60.1% in 2019.
Some courses, like engineering, normally require an ATAR of somewhere around the mid 80s. But you could also get in through having done a VET certificate or diploma. RMIT, for instance, offers up to two years of credit to transfer from TAFE into an undergraduate degree.
There are many alternative pathways described by most institutions on their websites. Curtin University has a helpful journey finder for students without a competitive ATAR.
A year 12 student, expecting not to gain an ATAR, who is not studying English or doesn’t expect to gain a 50 scaled rank for English, has at least three pathways into Curtin — sitting the Special Tertiary Admissions Test, doing a course at Curtin College, and using a portfolio for assessment.
Curtin also has a UniReady Enabling Program. This is a short course of 17 weeks. Completing the course means you will fulfil Curtin’s minimum admission criteria of a 70 ATAR. Many universities have similar types of preparatory pathways.
Myth 2: your senior subjects majorly influence your career
With all the disruption we’re experiencing, technical and social, we actually don’t have any idea what types of careers will be available in the future. Industry advice bodies, like the National Skills Commission, recommend students choose subjects that suit their interest and skill set, rather than to prepare for a specific future career.
Reports show today’s 15-year-olds will likely change employers 17 times and have five different careers through their working life. Many of their career may have very little, if any, connection to the senior subjects they took at school.
A 2018 report by industry body Deloitte Access Economics showed 72% of employers “demanded” communication skills when hiring and that transferable skills, such as as teamwork, communication, problem-solving, innovation and emotional judgement, “have become widely acknowledged as important in driving business success”.
This can include subjects like music, dance, debating and theatre will teach the exact skills employers value the most.
Myth 3: you should do ‘hard’ subjects to get a high ATAR
All subjects are hard if you lack interest or ability. Students are unlikely to do well if they are unhappy and unmotivated.
Research shows being motivated will improve how well you do in something. But academic performance is better associated with internal motivation (such as liking something) than external (like the drive for an ATAR).
So, if a student only values a subject for what it might get them, like a high ATAR, they’ll do better than if there was no purpose at all. But they won’t do as well as if they are internally motivated by it.
Myth 4: your ATAR will stand as the measure of your ability into the future
The ATAR is simply a profile of achievement on a limited number of tasks over a defined period. A person at the end of school, aged 17 or 18, hasn’t reached the end of their development.
Studies show there is an interaction between gains in knowledge and expertise, and losses in the speed of cognitive processing as we age (meaning we learn less as we get older, to some extent).
But these losses are offset by an older person’s access to a rich base of experience which can inform their understanding of things and their actions. Also the older a person is, the better developed their self-regulation and motivation.
Our abilities are shaped and reshaped by experience across our lifespan.
Myth 5: year 12 will be demanding and stressful
Year 12 can be demanding and stressful, but it doesn’t have to be. The most common source of distress in the senior years comes from anxiety, specifically test anxiety, and the pressures that come from selecting subjects for reasons not driven by interest and ability.
These years should not be devoted to self-flagellation for a high ATAR.
Students with a range of subjects types will have variety in their day and week. They are likely to have the best experience in their senior years.
Research suggests a balanced life underscores success and general achievement, and setting the tone is vital during these formative years.
Myth 6: taking a VET subject in year 11 or 12 will affect your ATAR
Taking a VET subject reduces the opportunity to take another ATAR subject. It could be argued this puts greater pressure on achievement in the remaining ATAR subjects. But taking a VET subject also reduces the ATAR subjects on your dance card, so they may well be easier to manage.
Including a VET subject is also likely to provide a balanced education in senior years, which may actually improve a student’s chances for a high ATAR.
So here’s what you should think about when making your subject choices:
what do you like?
what comes easily to you?
will the selection give you variety in your day?
in which subjects will you have the most fun?
Other articles in this series on senior-subject selection will explore individual subjects.