University preferences: Three mistakes to avoid

Finally! ATAR scores have been published. Some students have received better ATAR scores than they expected. Some will be disappointed. One thing is for certain: the media and the general public will fawn over the minuscule number of people who scored 99.95. But when all that rubbish is over, students have to decide what to do next. For those who want to attend university, this means deciding whether to change their university preferences. Here are a few tips to bear in mind.


Don’t be afraid of ‘wasting’ your ATAR score

I vividly remember the day I received my ATAR. The anxiety pulsating through my coronary arteries was palpable – it seemed like my entire self worth would be defined by those four digits separated by a decimal point. Today, I can’t even remember the last time someone asked me about it.

Trust me. In a year or two’s time, no one is going to give a flying f*** about your ATAR score. This might seem hard to believe after slogging through the hardest year of schooling in your life, but the ATAR score doesn’t really mean anything in the real world. Soon you will have done much more interesting things that people will want to talk to you about: university subjects, apprenticeships, travel adventures, relationships, that animated gif you made that makes Kanye West look twice as smart as he really is.

The ATAR is a means to an end. It’s just a number that helps you get into a university or college. It has very little value other than that. Of course, you probably worked your guts out to get that number. But if your intent is to go to university, what you were ACTUALLY working your guts out for was to get into a good course. This should remain your focus. When you’re re-ordering your university preferences, banish all thoughts of ‘wasting’ ATAR points. It’s not the main game. Choosing the right university course is the main game. Bear this in mind when deciding or changing your university preferences.


Don’t simply choose the most prestigious university

Well… you can if you want. But only if it offers the course that best suits your needs! Don’t assume the most prestigious university has the best courses or the best teaching standards.

University of Melbourne student Jessica Incoul wanted to be a journalist. She had the very high ATAR score needed to get into the University of Melbourne and chose a Bachelor of Arts, intending to major in media and communications. She believed this would set her up for a career in the media, but it turned out the course wasn’t really designed to do that.

What Jessica didn’t do, is properly research the course she was purchasing (because that’s what you’re doing – you’re buying a university degree at considerable cost). She found out that there were only two practical journalism subjects offered over the entire three year degree – not sufficient, in her mind, to provide her with the skills required to be a practicing journalist.

Who did she blame? Certainly not the university. This is what she said in an opinion piece published in The Age newspaper:

I’m a casualty of this culture of prestige, where bright-minded high school students are advised by parents, teachers and career advisers to not “waste their ATAR” by choosing a course with low ATAR requirements. Many of my university friends have similar stories of career counsellors advising them to list schools with the highest status as their top preferences, to avoid “wasting” their hard-earned score.


Don’t enter your university preferences until you’ve done your research

Whether or not a course is right for you is a tricky thing to figure out. Here are a few things to think about before re-ordering your university preferences:

  • What is the teaching quality like? Often prestigious universities have worse ratings for teaching quality – bear this in mind. For more info, read this post about teaching quality and this one about university prestige.
  • Don’ t judge the course by it’s title. Get your hands dirty and find out about the nuts and bolts. Will there be a good mix of theory and practical subjects? Will it provide the skills and knowledge you need for your chosen career? Here’s a post that goes into a bit more depth about finding the right university for you.
  • Are you ready? Do you know what you want to study? Are ready for a specialist degree? Or would a generalist degree be better? Or perhaps you want to take a year off? Consider reading this post about not knowing what to study. Here’s another post explaining how generalist degrees work.


But also… don’t panic!

It may not seem like it right now, but not getting into your dream course isn’t the end of the world. If you don’t get the marks you needed to get into your dream course… it could be a blessing in disguise. Some people find out that their second third or fourth preferences was actually much more suited to them.

What’s more, what you do in first year isn’t what you will do for the rest of your life. You can try and change courses at the end of first year. Or second year, for that matter. Or go on and do a postgraduate degree in something completely different.

Nothing’s set in stone.


If you have any questions…

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