In this blog, we provide a comprehensive breakdown of how your ATAR is calculated if you complete it under the BSSS system. We also explain how the elusive scaling system works, combined with how to interpret and maximise your scores! But let’s start with the basics…
🔍 What is the ATAR?
The ATAR stands for Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank and is a percentile system, ranging from 99.95 (highest) to 30 (lowest) in increments of 0.05. For example, if you get a 70 ATAR, you are in the top 30% of students in your cohort in the state. Also, only two students in Canberra receive a 99.95 ATAR each year (as that corresponds to being in the top 0.05% of the cohort).
What do you need to receive an ATAR?
In a Standard Package, you must:
- complete a minimum of 20 standard units during senior secondary studies
- form at least 4 majors and 1 minor, or three majors and three minors from A, T, M, H, C or E courses (this is the most popular option)
- complete at least 3 majors and 1 minor classified T or H
- sit all components of the ACT Scaling Test (AST)
Now, what does this all mean?
Across all schools, every term of studying a subject is worth 0.5 units for that subject. That is, 1 term = 0.5 units. For example, if I complete 1 term of Specialist Maths, I have completed 0.5 units for the subject. If I complete two school years (with 4 terms in each year) of Specialist Maths, I have completed 4 units for the subject.
The school year and terms for college are the same as what you may have experienced up until Year 10 i.e. each school year has two semesters (or four terms). However, this is a little different if you attend Narrabundah College: where instead of using “semesters”, they use “sessions”. Let’s refer to the diagram below:
As each term is worth 0.5 units, the “short” sessions at Narrabundah College (Session 1, 3, 4, and 6) being worth 0.5 units for each subject you study, as they consist of only one term. The “long” sessions at Narrabundah College (Session 2 and 5) consist of two terms each, meaning they are worth 1 unit for each subject you study. For other colleges, each semester is worth 1 unit, with there being four semesters in total. If you would like to know the specific college term dates for your college, you can search up “X College Calendar”, where X is your college (as your school will typically post their calendars on the school website, which will also indicate assessment dates).
The end goal is to complete at least 20 units by studying majors and minors in subjects of your choice. Usually, students attain the standard package by completing 4 major and 1 minor; for example, Specialist Maths (Options) – major, Specialist Methods (Core) – major, Chemistry – major, Physics – major, and English – minor.
However, in my personal case, I completed a Maths double major (which was a major in Options and Core), a Chemistry major, an English major, a Photography minor and an ANU Chemistry H-course minor – with Chemistry being my best subject.
Now, why couldn’t I just do all science subjects if that was my strength? There is actually a caveat in subject selection, where you have to complete courses from at least three different areas of study (Science, Maths, English, Art, History etc.). That’s why you can’t just do all science or all maths subjects! Also, English is a compulsory subject which you must study for at least 1 year; but if English isn’t your strong suit, you’re lucky Canberra is the only place in Australia where you don’t have to count English towards your ATAR!
If you have questions, you can always ask your student advisor about how this works and what to do. It is highly recommended to make visits at the end of each term to see if you’re on the right track. You don’t want to get to the end of year 12 and realise you’re not able to get an ATAR!
Also, check out our ANU Extensions Program info page here after reading this blog, to find out more about the ANU H-courses which you can count towards your ATAR!
How does the ATAR work in Canberra?
There are a lot of steps involved in calculating your ATAR, but this is a very high level overview:
- COMPLETE ASSESSMENT: It’s a bit nerve-wrecking but you get through it – good job 🙂
- RECEIVE RAW MARKS: Your teachers mark everyone’s exams/assignments and return with your individual exam result i.e. your raw marks, as well as the cohort’s results i.e. the average mark, the range of scores and standard deviation, which you can use to calculate your Z-score. Scroll down to the Scores section for more info about what these terms means. There is usually a whole day allocated to this process called “Feedback Day”.
- APPEAL OR ACCEPT MARKS: At this point, you accept your mark or appeal if you identify any errors or have questions about the marking of your exam (be confident about this: if you think you deserve the mark, then it is very important to discuss this with the teacher who marked it)
- RAW SCORES ENTERED INTO SYSTEM: Everyone’s marks for each subject are put into the system, and you can access your individual results usually two weeks after the exam or after the term is over by logging onto your BSSS profile. Search up “BSSS student profile” to view the log in page.
- RECEIVE SUBJECT RANKS AND UNIT SCORES: At the end of each semester or session, your marks are used to determine your unit score for that semester or session. You can check all your results again on the BSSS website, which will give you access to not only your unit score for each subject, but your rank, overall Z-score, and raw marks for each assessment. This can all be accessed in the AI results and Unit Results section of your BSSS profile. It will give you other information such as your grade, average unit score for the cohort etc. but these aren’t really important.
- RECEIVE ATAR ESTIMATE AT END OF YEAR 11: The above process is repeated for each semester/session until the end of college. At the end of year 11, your school will let you know your ATAR estimate, typically as a range. For example, my predicted ATAR was 93.00 – 99.95. At the beginning of year 12 i.e. once you have enough results, you can also use this ATAR calculator, which will give you a much more specific estimate of your ATAR.
- RECEIVE SCALED SCORES AFTER AST: Once you have completed your subjects, you will receive a course score for each subject. This course score will then undergo scaling according to AST results to produce a scaled score for each subject. You can access course scores, scaled scores and your overall ranking for subjects at the end of Year 12 in the Course Results section of your BSSS profile.
- RECEIVE YOUR ATAR AT END OF YEAR 12: At the end of year 12, your best scaled scores will be summed to produce your aggregate, which will then be ranked against every other student in your grade in the state to calculate your ATAR. To access your ATAR and scaled scores, you log in to your BSSS profile and click on the T E S section. Your college will also provide you with your official T E S certificate (contains your ATAR and aggregate) and Academic Record (with all your grades, scores, unit results, and units completed).
- CELEBRATE: You can now sigh in relief as you’ve FINALLY completed all your formal education!
So, here is a quick diagram to indicate stages of the process relevant to you:
Complete assessment → teachers mark assessment → teachers provides individual marks (appeal if necessary) → marks are submitted into the BSSS system → access your individual results via your BSSS profile → you sit the AST around September in year 12 → your course scores are scaled at the end of year 12 according to AST results to produce your scaled scores → scaled scores are summed to produce aggregate → all aggregates are ranked to produce ATARs → woohoo, you’re done!
To find more information about AST, please read our AST info page here.
How do you discount bad scores?
To explain, we need to clarify step 8 of the process previously outlined.
To form your aggregate, 0.8 of your AST score and 3.6 of your scaled scores (which will be from the subjects you performed best in) will be used. An example is shown below:
As you can see, the weighting adds up to 3.6 and then the sum of the weighted scaled scores add up to my aggregate: 60% of my scaled score for ANU Chemistry counted whilst 100% of my scaled scores for Specialist Maths and Chemistry counted. In my case, I could discount my English scores as it wasn’t part of my top subjects.
But what happens if you get a bad unit score? Just as a quick overview, this is how much a minor and major are worth in terms of units:
- Minors = 2 units (i.e. 1 year)
For example, to get a minor in English, I would need to do the subject for 1 year
- Majors = 3.5 units (i.e. 1 year + 3 terms)
For example, to get a major in Chemistry, I would need to do the subject for 1 year + 3 terms. However, I would ideally, do the subject for the full 2 years (i.e. 4 terms) as it provides me with more chances to achieve the highest possible scores for the subject (and, thus, to recover from potential lower scores in the past)
- Major-minors= 5.5 units
- Double Majors= 7.0 units
At Narrabundah College, for example, if you completed a Double Major in Specialist Maths (which is 8 units – combine the 4 units from Options and 4 units from Core), you can discount 20% of the units i.e. 1.6 units. This can be done through e.g. discounting the results of 1 long session and 1 short session OR 3 short sessions. One bad score is NOT the end of the world, don’t worry!
How is the ATAR used?
According to the official BSSS website, your ATAR is “used by universities to assist in the selection of school leavers for entry into undergraduate courses.” In other words, the course you want to get into may have a minimum ATAR required for admission OR your course is very competitive and ranks students based on their ATAR (usually combined with other criteria), selecting e.g. only the top 100 students for the next stage. That’s why it’s always best to aim for a good ATAR as it keeps your options open!
🔧 How does the BSSS system work?
Unlike the HSC and VCE, the BSSS system doesn’t have a standardised set of exams that you sit at the end of year 12; instead it counts both your year 11 and year 12 scores from school assessments towards your ATAR. This is good because you have a lot more opportunities to redeem bad scores! In the ACT, each school runs their own assessments, with the final results being scaled according to the school’s AST results compared to the rest of the schools in the ACT. This is to eliminate the varied difficulty of exams set by different schools; for example, if School A set easier exams, Student A would get higher scores, and if School B set harder exams, Student B would get lower scores. The AST ideally evens out such differences.
Another good thing about the BSSS system is that you don’t need to count English towards your ATAR – to those who aren’t the best at English, yes, you can rejoice. But this is set to change in the coming years to have a more streamlined system across Australia.
⚖️ What is scaling and how does it work?
The actual mathematical process is irrelevant, but this is what you need to know: scaling is what is used to even out the playing field as different courses have very different groups of students studying them AND different schools have cohorts that perform differently and are given different assessments. That was a lot to take in, but in simple terms, it is to make up for any differences in assessment difficulty and cohort performance/ability. It calculates what your mark and your position would be if all courses were studied by all students.
This is why good performance does not guarantee high ranks (and in turn, a high ATAR). Reason 1 could be your subject setting easier exams: for example, if Photography set easier assessments than Chemistry, you would get a higher raw score in Photography. But the scaling would adjust itself to compensate for the harder Chemistry exams and, thus, lower score in Chemistry. In the end, your Chemistry scaled score might actually be higher than your scaled score in Photography. Reason 2 could be how your subject’s cohort performs in the AST. If you achieve good scores in both the Photography and Chemistry exam but the students in your school doing Chemistry did much better in the AST, your Chemistry scaled score would be higher. This is because it would suggest that you being rank 1 in Chemistry was much harder to achieve than you being rank 1 in Photography (due to the discrepancy in competition).
To find more information about AST and scaling, please read our AST guide here.
Which subjects should choose?
This is a bit of a controversial topic. Most people would suggest students to take subjects that scale very well to get a higher ATAR. To clarify, scaling “well” means that your course score would be scaled to a higher scaled score (which is then summed to produce your aggregate; and in turn, your ATAR). To some extent, this is correct: doing high scaling subjects means you will get high scores if you do well and thus, a high ATAR. However – and this is a BIG however – if you perform poorly in these high scaling subject, your score would be much lower than if you did really well in a ‘lower’ scaling subject (one that you would have been really good at, but didn’t take thinking it wouldn’t scale well). Thus, it is suggested to do subjects that you’re really good in and subjects you are interested in. You must also consider what you need to do to satisfy any prerequisite subjects and scores your university course requires for admission.
From historical data, Specialist Maths, Specialist Methods, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, and certain languages (e.g. Latin) have scaled very well. But what you must ensure is that you play to your strengths and interests.
🔬 What is the IB?
“IB students must study one subject from the arts, sciences, humanities, mathematics, as well as English and a foreign language. Three or four of these subjects are taken at a “higher level”, where students must show greater knowledge, understanding and skill. Those courses tend to emphasise the use of open-ended questions and problem-solving skills and are taught across 240 hours, while the rest are taken at a “standard level” involving 150 hours of teaching. Students also complete a 100-hour subject on the theory of knowledge and write a 4000-word extended essay on a topic they choose. Finally, they must participate in creative, sporting and service activities, similar to the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.
All students around the world sit their final exams on the same date – papers are double-marked externally and results sent back to the school – before students receive a final score out of 45. This includes a mark out of seven for each of the six core subjects, added together for a possible 42 marks. The final three marks come from the additional components.
In theory, every student could receive the highest mark of 45. The IB is marked against pre-determined criteria and every subject carries the same worth; there are no high or low scaling subjects. The final IB score is still converted into an ATAR for the purpose of university admissions. The Universities Admissions Centre has given each IB score an ATAR equivalent: 45 becomes 99.95, 44 becomes 99.75, and so on. Any score above 33 translates to an ATAR above 90, while the bottom IB score of 24 becomes a rank of 68.45.”
Should you choose the ATAR or the IB?
If you are interested in applying to schools internationally (where extracurriculars and breadth of subject study are assessed alongside academic scores), the IB may help you stand out! If you are considering to apply domestically and want a more manageable workload, you should pick the ATAR. In the ACT, most students pick the ATAR (I did as well).
If you are applying to Narrabundah College, be aware if you put down that you want to do IB in your college application, you have to do it for some time in Year 11 until you can drop it later on. It is also important to consider that if you choose to complete the IB at Narrabundah College, you would be completing it alongside the ATAR. From the experience of previous students, many have noted the workload as being extremely intense when completing both courses simultaneously.
💯 What do your scores mean?
Below are a couple terms you’ll hear getting used a lot in college. Note, trying to categorise if scores are good or bad, or trying to predict your ATAR with them is not very productive as you can only make guesses. However, I have also included interpretations from historical data and advice if you are curious.
Mark: your mark is your ‘raw’ mark e.g. if you get 50/60 on an exam, 50 is your raw mark. This is used to calculate your relative position in your cohort. You get this after your teacher returns the assessment.
Your mark doesn’t actually mean anything by itself as it doesn’t indicate your performance relative to everyone else – which is what the ATAR is all about.
Z-score: your Z-score is your individual mark minus the mean mark, all divided by the standard deviation for the assessment. You get this after your teacher returns the assessment.
Your Z-score is very important as it indicates how well you did compared to your cohort. Historically, consistently getting above a 1.5 Z-score (at Narrabundah College) in well scaling subjects has been sufficient in getting a 99.5+ ATAR, but this may vary. If you get a 2+ Z-score, that’s amazing! Below is a table breaking down the meaning of Z-scores.
Standard deviation: in very simple terms, the standard deviation indicates the spread of the results. You get this after your teacher returns the assessment.
This, by itself, isn’t really important for you.
Ranks: your rank is an indication of your position in your cohort for your subject. You get this after you complete a session/semester.
Your rank may be indicative of what ATAR you will receive, but as the cohorts from school-to-school vary greatly, it is hard to say by seeing how you rank against students from only your school. That is, if you are rank 1 at your school, it doesn’t mean you will get a 99.95 ATAR (as you may not be rank 1 in the ACT).
Unit score: your unit score is an indication of your PERFORMANCE against the STANDARD for the subject that session/semester. It generally ranges from 30 to 105, with higher being better. You get this after you complete a session/semester.
Historically, a 90 – 100 unit score (at Narrabundah College) in well scaling subjects has been sufficient in getting a 98.00+ ATAR, while getting above a 100 unit score has been sufficient in getting a 99.60+ ATAR – but again, every year is different and this may vary! Generally, the top students get above 100.
Course score: it is a representation of your PERFORMANCE against the STANDARD for the subject over the entirety of college. You get this after you complete a subject and is determined by your unit scores.
This score doesn’t really say much until it’s scaled. Once your course scores are scaled, you won’t have to guess anymore because you’ll have your ATAR!
Scaled score: it is a representation of your PERFORMANCE against other STUDENTS. It generally ranges from 100 to 200, with higher being better. You get this at the end of year 12 and is determined by your course score and cohort AST results.
Aggregate: it is the sum of your 3.6 of your best scaled scores post-AST. You get this at the end of year 12 and is determined by your scaled score.
ATAR: it is a representation of your POSITION (rank) against other STUDENTS. You get this at the end of year 12 and is determined by your aggregate.
There is no good or bad ATAR – it all depends on what is required for admission into your university course and if your ATAR is sufficient according to this. Remember, there are so many ways to end up in the career you want and in a couple years, the ATAR won’t even matter!
How do you access your subject scores?
You can search up “BSSS student profiles” and use your login details to enter your academic record. The results relevant to you are in AI Results and Unit Results, with the final results being accessed by Course Results and T E S.
What should you focus on?
As the ATAR is based on a percentile system, you should focus on marks that indicate your relative position in your cohort. The higher your position, the higher your ATAR.
We’ve talked a lot about exams and scores but let’s talk about actually GOING to school. Different colleges have different college attendance policies, which you should definitely check out. You can do this by talking to your school advisor or going on the school website. It’s important to not have too many unexplained absences as you can V-grade (fail) a subject for not attending enough classes!
This blog was written by our tutor, Sreeya. You can find her profile here.
DISCLAIMER: Excel Academics is not affiliated with the BSSS, and the information provided here may not apply in its entirety from school to school.