This blog post provides a guide to the VCE system, explaining how the ATAR is calculated in Victoria, as well as how to maximise scores through subject selection and scaling considerations. Keep reading to know all the important aspects of the VCE and how to approach your ATAR studies!
The VCE and its requirements
The VCE or Victorian Certificate of Education is a high school diploma. It’s a qualification you receive at the end of year 12, saying you completed high school successfully – and to receive one, the requirements are fairly minimal: you must complete at least 16 units of study, of which 3 must be English units of which 2 must be a Unit 3/4 English sequence, and 6 must be unit 3/4 sequences.
What are units?
A unit is defined as a semester’s worth of work for a particular subject. For example, you’d traditionally complete chemistry unit 1 in your first semester of year 11, and French unit 4 in the second semester of year 12. There is a requirement that unit 3 and 4 must be completed as a sequence in one year – you cannot undertake unit 4 of a subject unless you do the unit 3 that year.
What is an ATAR?
So then what is an ATAR? At the end of year 12, if you wish to (almost all vce students do), you can elect to take external assessments for each of your subjects. Sitting these exams is not a requirement for a VCE, however it is for an ATAR. Upon completing these exams, the VCAA (Victorian Curriculum Assessment Authority) looks at your grades in your school assessments and external assessments for your unit 3/4 sequences, and assigns you a number out of 50 — which would be your study score for the course. Then they send these to VTAC (Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre), who make a list of every graduate’s set of study scores and rank them from best to worst.
How is the ATAR calculated in Victoria?
Units 1 and 2 do not contribute to your ATAR — they are strictly pass and fail. However, this doesn’t take away from the fact that Year 11 is still important. This is because for many subjects, such as maths methods, the syllabus for Year 12 is the same as Year 11 (with minor adjustments). Additionally, trying in year 11 can be helpful for scholarship applications and, increasingly, many universities are now offering early admission based on year 11 results – I walked into my Year 12 exams already offered admission to the Australian National University because of my year 11 scores.
You then receive a 4 digit number based on how many people you outscored, a 32.00 means you beat 32.00% of the graduating class, a 76.25 is 76.25%, etc all the way up in increments of 0.05 to the perfect ATAR: a 99.95. I’ll go into more detail on how study scores are calculated later, but for now, I want to bring up the aggregate. So VTAC don’t just add up your study scores and call it a day: instead they take English and your 3 remaining best subjects and add those together. Then if you did any more subjects, they sum 10% of your 5th and 6th subjects. If you did 7 subjects like me, the seventh doesn’t even count!
For example, if Josie has a:
- 26 in English
- 34 in Maths Methods
- 39 in Physics
- 40 in Latin
- 30 in Global Politics
her aggregate would be:
- 26 (as English is compulsory) + 40 + 39 + 34 + 10%*30 = 142.
That is the number VTAC would use to rank her. Ranking is a recurring theme in VCE assessment, as almost all of your grades are determined not by how many marks you got, but how many people you outranked.
Interestingly, the average ATAR however is not a 50.00 like you would expect, but a 70.00. This is because the VTAC actually ranks ATAR recipients along with people who at the start of the year based on their enrolment were eligible to get an ATAR, but due to failing e.g. their English subject, no longer can. To get an ATAR you must also successfully complete a VCE
Introduction to Assessments
The VCE has multiple channels of assessment which all come together in different ways, depending on the subject. The best place to check this information is the study design. The study design for a subject is its syllabus. They can be found on the VCAA website and contain everything you need to know for your exams and assessment weighting. Assessment weighting tends to be 50% from internal tests called SACs and 50% from external assessment; however, in science that tends to be a 40-60 internal external split, and in maths a 30-70 split. Conversely, in more applied courses like Systems Engineering, you’re looking at a 70-30 internal-external split.
How do Internal Assessment work?
Internal Assessment are all the acronyms you may have heard of: SA, SACs and SATs. It compromises tests that are written and then marked by your school. A SAC is generally a test you sit at school, or 2-3 week assignment. They’re quite short, and an important part of SACs is they are not the focus of the class. Your SACs are generally both a checkpoint and an opportunity to test your skills – they ensure you don’t wind up at the final exam having had to learn the entire subject the week before, and they let you see how you perform under exam-type marking. For subjects like history or literature, they also often serve as a great opportunity to make sure you’re knowledgeable on a sub-topic of your exam; for instance, I used a literary criticism I had to read for a literature SAC, for my exam.
However, every year if you happen to browse any of the VCE online forums you will see 50 iterations of “I got a [Insert Mark] on my most recent SAC, can I still get a 50?” Now the awkward thing about SACs is that your mark on them, by itself, doesn’t actually matter… See the situation that VCAA needs to handle is they have to somehow compare a test sat by students in Swift’s Creek to, for example, Melbourne Grammar — and then to the tests the ~5 distinct high schools in Berwick each set. The VCAA does not write SAC’s, the schools do.
The way the VCAA assigns your SACs a score is to say: if you received the 5th highest score on your SAC, then your school’s 5th highest exam score is now your score for that SAC.
For example, suppose a 4 person class and their respective marks on a recent SAC:
Thus, their teacher tells VCAA that on this SAC Grace ranked 1st, Lucy 2nd, Xiaoyu 3rd and Enda 4th. Now exams roll around and these are the scores that each student received on their VCE:
Then as Enda’s 98% was the highest VCE exam score, Grace’s rank 1 SAC score is now a 98%. Grace’s 94% is the second highest VCE exam score; which is now Lucy’s SAC score as she was rank 2 in the initial SAC and so on.
It is because of this replacement of SAC scores with exam scores that, for instance, one of my friends at another school who was averaging 40% in her specialist maths SACs outscored me, who averaged 90%. It’s also why predicting your final scores is hard.
Additionally, we then have SATs. These are semester to year-long school assessed projects. For example, in Systems Engineering you spend the year building a machine of your choice, while in visual communication and design, this is a semester long portfolio. SAT’s are typically worth 50-70% of a subjects weighting. They have a mark assigned exactly the same way as SACs, and please do not try to start these at the last minute: you will be very stressed as they are generally quite large undertakings.
How do External Assessments work?
External Assessment is, by contrast, rather simple. For almost all subjects, you simply walk into a room, sit down for 2-3 hours writing a paper, and the score you got on the paper is your final score. The ranking process with exams happens behind the scenes: the way your exam is marked isn’t decided until after the exam. Following the exam, the marking panel for the subject look through a pile of exams, and decide how each question should be marked.
Som for example, if nobody in the state got that really hard integral, they might not particularly care if you didn’t fully simplify it but go the right answer. On the other hand, if every single person except you noticed the change in tense in your Indonesian writing task, they’ll probably dock a point for that. The prime example to this is the chemistry question “What is an essential amino acid”, which has had 3 different answers awarded full marks across years, depending on how much detail the markers wanted.
When it comes to VCE exams your best shot is to answer every question in very explicit detail, as the VCE is marked with a strong propensity toward perfectionism. For instance, not doing a unit conversion in physics will get you a 0 for a question. So make sure you cover all your basics and build upwards, as most examiners also tend to award you a 0 if the first step in your working out is wrong (even if the rest follows the correct process). That is, follow-through errors are not considered. Additionally, for chemistry and psychology, health and human development, read past examiners reports and copy the wording. I lost a mark in chemistry for saying “attaches” instead of “binds”.
What is the GAT?
Now we briefly discuss the GAT and derived exam scores. So as shocking as this sounds, the GAT doesn’t just exist to create a slew of memes every year. Instead what VCAA does, is using your GAT score and your study scores, they can predict your exam score with incredible accuracy. And this matters as, in 2020 a ton of people couldn’t sit their exams because of COVID. When my sister was in year 12, she couldn’t sit her exams because she caught glandular fever. In these instances the VCAA looks at your SAC ranking, your peer’s final scores and your GAT scores and assigns you a “derived study score” for the subject.
Trying on the GAT is also helpful since the other thing the GAT is used for is if your exam score is horribly different from what was predicted by your GAT score, the chief assessor is likely to review your exam. It’s also technically used to check if you meet basic numeracy and literacy standards, but this doesn’t currently have any bearing on your final results.
Subjects, scaling, scores and ways to take them:
What is a study score?
A study score is a numerical measure of how you did on a subject. They range from 0 to 50 with study scores below a 20 being reported as less than 20. The way study scores are assigned is VCAA take your assessment marks as above, weight them depending on what the study design says and then add them together. They then rank all of the students in that subject, and put them on a bell curve.
This bell curve has an average of 30 and a standard deviation of 7. Crucially this means that while 50% of students get over a 30, only approximately 9% get over a 40. A 50 is achieved by less than 0.5% of students, to the point where in some exceptionally small subjects, nobody gets a 50 as VCAA can’t fill the bell curve.
The two key takeaways from this are your study score doesn’t depend on your actual grade: just your rank. Getting an okay study score is relatively simple, but getting an exceptional one is, statistically, incredibly hard. The first one is important since it means if every specialist maths student does poorly on the exam, the top few will still get a 50. If every English Language student gets a high grade on the exam, there will still be people below 20.
The much anticipated… Subject Selection & Scaling
Subject selection is one of the most important decisions you’ll make as it sets the basis for your year 12. From personal experience, you should base your subject selection on two things: your personal interest and your university prerequisites.
University pre requisites for a course are listed on the university’s website. For instance, most science degrees require maths methods and one of biology, chemistry or physics. Medicine requires chemistry, and different courses will require different things. None of them require however specialist maths — it just might let you skip a unit in University. However, you could have a 99.95, all raw 50’s etc and you would not be admitted to a course if you didn’t meet prerequisites. So make sure you consider this.
Now when listing the subject selection motivation above, notice how I said personal interest and not scaling? So what is scaling? Suppose Johnny got a 40 in all his subjects except physics, in which he scored a 30. The VTAC looks at that and goes “Hang on, clearly getting a 30 in physics is just as hard as getting a 40 in his other subjects.” Thus, perhaps the VTAC adjusts or scales his study score in physics to be a 37 and bumps the others down to a 37. However they do this over a lot more than 1 person using fancy statistics that I do not have a degree in to talk about. This causes that subject to have a different average study score post-scaling to a 30.
However the important part is, study scores are determined not based on absolute grades but ranking. Thus, scaling doesn’t measure how objectively “hard” a subject is, but rather how successful the people that took that subject were in other subjects. Of course, the average specialist maths student is probably more academically focused than the average student; so their average study score will be higher. However, to get the scaled study score points, you need to beat all the dedicated students taking specialist maths. Scaling aims to ease out how competitive a subject is. Chemistry scales a lot because it’s a medicine prerequisite, so the future doctors taking it work really hard on it as they can’t be a doctor unless they do well. The effects of scaling diminish the further away from 30 your score is. Hence, you have to beat the future doctors to get a high scaled chemistry study score. So scaling isn’t a good reason to take a course, as if you can beat the people taking something like specialist maths, you can beat the people taking a subject you actually like a lot more easily.
However, that isn’t to say there isn’t technically such a thing as a free lunch. In order to encourage students to take language subjects as well as methods and specialist maths, the government gives the subjects some extra scaling points. So if you really want free ATAR points these are your best bet; however, remember that the magnitude of scaling decreases the further you get from 30: A 20 in specialist maths is approximately a 25 – which is below average in a non scaled subject.
Furthermore, some universities offer additional scaling to encourage students to take subjects. Medicine gives priority to students who did biology. The ANU — where I’m studying — will give you an adjustment factor of up to 5 directly on your ATAR if you take subjects they want. So be informed about the course you want to enter.
Subject Variety & Aggregates
As a brief aside on subject selection, there is another factor to bear in mind. The VCAA recognises that a varied education is highly beneficial. As such if you go on the VCAA website you will see subjects are split into categories, like maths, sciences, languages etc. There is an important rule here: If you take more than 2 subjects from a particular category only 2 of them can be in your top 4. So if I did specialist maths, maths methods and general maths, I can’t have all 3 in my top 4. This is a good thing, as high school is one of the best times to explore a range of interests.
Additionally, often people see the English requirement and assume immediately it means doing English. However, there are actually 3 English options available – English, English Language and Literature. English Language is the study of sociolinguistics and tends to be preferred by STEM students as it has no books to read and is arguably more objective. Literature is your subject if text analysis essays have been your great joy, you’ll do more advanced analysis of texts, of more types of texts. This is a good decision to be careful about since your english subject must be in your top 4, and many universities require a raw 25 in an english subject as a prerequisite.
What if I want to take a subject my school doesn’t offer
Unfortunately, life sometimes can get in the way of our ambitions. You really want to do specialist maths? That’s cool but you’re the only student at your school who does, so they can’t run a class. In my case, I had a timetable clash with Literature and Extended Investigation, and I had to take both of them. In this case, your best bet is to consider taking a subject via distance education. You’ll be given work to do online that you submit every week, which you’ll do in school-given study periods. Additionally, you’ll do your SACs with a teacher from your school supervising them and sending them to the distance education centre. This is a great way to increase your independence as a learner to prepare for uni. However it certainly isn’t for everyone, as class discussion can be the best part of a subject; and if you don’t have that, it can make a subject downright miserable.
Additionally, if completing a language, you can look into the programs ran by the Language School Victoria, which for metropolitan Melbourne has Saturday language schools all over the city, and for regional Victoria, has their own distance education system with weekly oral lessons. I did the distance education option myself in year 11 and also found it to be still quite a good educational experience. So don’t let your school not offering a subject stop you from taking it.
In year 12 most schools traditionally dictate that you will undertake 5 subjects, not 6. This is to allow you a block of study periods i.e. free periods where you don’t have a formal class and hence can study for your classes. However, a common practice is to undertake 1 or 2, very occasionally 3 Year 11 VCE subjects in Year 10, and then the units 3 and 4 of those subjects in Year 12. This has the benefit of allowing you to focus on a particular subject in more depth as it won’t be competing with other Year 12 exams for your study time. As such it’s a good way to secure 1 or 2 very high study scores.
However, it is a lot of work, and for some subjects like maths methods that really strongly build on earlier studies can be harmful for your final grades. Additionally, you run the risk of over-focusing on your accelerated subject, which can harm your other Year 11 studies. This is bad since for some subjects as mentioned earlier, failing to understand and learn the Year 11 content can really hurt your Year 12 studies. Additionally, I’d be hesitant to recommended more than 2 accelerated subjects, since at that point, you lose the ability to focus on a particular subject to guarantee a high study score for yourself. This is a decision to be carefully made with your teachers with respect to your current grades, and not rushed into.
University extension subjects are courses you can undertake in Year 12, generally after accelerating a subject, which aim to give you a taster of university study. These courses are directly run by the university, so you’ll need to apply to the university and will typically be completing the content of 1 or 2 first year uni courses. These are a great way to earn credit towards your future degree, or extend your interest in a particular field. Additionally, for very particular extension courses, for instance the University of Melbourne’s UMEP courses, you can actually count a result in the extension course as a 5th or 6th subject, so they can boost your ATAR. However, these subjects are a significant amount of work and can be quite challenging without a solid understanding of the Year 12 course. Fortunately, they tend to be free and easy to withdraw from if you find yourself overwhelmed. Overall they’re good to think about.
The VCE can seem like an intimidating pair of years at the end of schooling. All of a sudden you have a lot of acronyms thrown at you, and it’s under a lot of pressure considering your ATAR and hence university admissions are quite often highly dependent on how you perform in the VCE. However, under the fancy acronyms, the VCE is really just what you’ve been doing already in high school: sitting tests, writing up assignments and taking exams. As long as you continue to study, you’ll find transitioning to VCE simple and often one of the most enjoyable parts of high school.
This blog was written by our Maths and Physics tutor, Liam Murray. You can find his profile here.