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Weren't the best in high school? Here's how you can make up for it

By Ana Isabel Alonsagay | 11 March 2019

As a high school student, your ATAR can seem like the be-all, end-all of your educational future. In fact, past studies have shown that those who achieve high ATARs are more likely to apply for (and thus, pursue further education at) a university. 

However, those of us who weren’t ‘star students’ needn’t despair. If you didn’t receive the grades you were hoping for, there are fortunately a myriad of alternative pathways to further study that can help you rack up the qualifications you’re after. 

If you’re still set on attending your dream university, we’ve also got a few tips on other possible methods of entry that don’t necessarily zero in on impressive ATAR scores. As a 2018 article by the ABC states, “Universities are more open than ever before, so the idea of an orderly, if highly competitive, single-file queue as the only means of entry is outdated.”

Alternative pathways into university

  1. Consider other education providers.
  2. Use prior learning or experience.
  3. Take up a tertiary preparation program.
  4. Special Entry Access Scheme.

1. Consider other education providers.

young woman thinking

Large, big-name universities aren’t your only hope at getting the qualifications you’re after. Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutes or Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) are popular further study options that often have more accessible entry requirements, yet still provide you with nationally-recognised qualifications. 

Here, you can take up Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses that provide you with a more hands-on learning experience – training you in practical skills for your chosen industry, and effectively improving your employment prospects in the job market. 

For those who prefer a more skills-based approach to learning (rather than the typical grading methods of higher education), these options may better suit your study needs. Additionally, VET qualifications can act as a pathway to tertiary education via credit transfers, should you still choose to pursue a degree in higher education.  
Upskilled is an example of an RTO with hundreds of online VET courses available. They also have articulation agreements in place with multiple Australian universities, guaranteeing students entry via credit transfer after completing a selection of diploma courses. 

2. Use prior learning or experience.

group of asian students planting a tree

Another popular method of getting into your chosen university is to apply with any work experience, previous training, or portfolios you may have to showcase. Like credit transfers from other education providers, this involves asking the university for Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) – a process that considers one’s previous formal, informal, and experience-based qualifications. 

While ‘formal’ education refers to study completed at other tertiary education institutes, ‘informal’ education refers to qualifications that may not be recognised in Australia, while experience-based learning refers to skills acquired via industry-related work or activities. 

Leveraging your experience is a great way to demonstrate your existing knowledge, skills, and talents despite what your high school grades may display. At the same time, those who don’t necessarily want to pursue a degree can find prior experience (such as internships or apprenticeships) useful when seeking potential jobs in their industry.

According to SEEK, “Prospective employers value life experience. Think about how you can demonstrate that you possess the kind of qualities that a workplace may seek.” 

3. Take up a tertiary preparation program. 

student preparing for an assignment

Tertiary preparation programs (also called enabling, transition, bridging, foundational, or access programs) are free or low-cost courses designed to prepare potential students for entry into a higher education degree. These are provided by the universities themselves and are typically targeted towards disadvantaged groups or individuals with low ATAR scores.

Tertiary preparation programs test a potential student’s literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking levels to determine whether they are capable of studying at a university level or if such an educational pathway is suited to them. 

A 2018 study by Australian Universities’ Review indicates that those who entered a university via these programs displayed similar levels of educational achievement to those who entered via traditional pathways. They performed just as well, and were no more likely than ‘traditional’ students to discontinue their studies. (Additional findings have also shown that VET students were less likely than ‘traditional’ students to discontinue their studies.) 

Furthermore, you may even be eligible for other courses in your chosen university that have lower ATAR entry requirements, and can use this as a pathway into your chosen course. 

4. Special Entry Access Scheme.

helping hand concept

Lastly, look into whether you’re eligible for special entry access schemes (SEAS). These are designed to give potential students special consideration by looking into whether they’ve experienced difficult circumstances, low socio-economic backgrounds, medical conditions, or come from an Indigenous heritage. If you’re qualified, you may be able to enter the course of your choice with a lower ATAR or even gain access to scholarships.
Of course, while the selection process grants special course entry for those eligible, this does not exempt them from fulfilling any other requirements by the course or university. There may also be institutions that don’t recognise such schemes, so it’s best to check with your educational provider before applying. 

While not a part of a SEAS, universities also consider any high school subjects you’ve completed that relate to your chosen course, awarding you with ‘bonus points’ despite not reaching the ‘cut-off’ score. 

Despite the popular outlook on ATAR scores, leaving high school with lacklustre grades doesn’t mark the end of your student or career journey. 

A 2016 survey by the Department of Education and Training has shown that only 26% of Australian students have been admitted to a university on the basis of secondary education with an ATAR. This number is only set to diminish in time, with universities gradually moving away from traditional, ATAR-based entry methods. 

So, if you didn’t exactly pass high school with flying colours, don’t sweat it. There are a handful of other ways to gain the qualifications you’re after, and with the right amount of work, persistence, and passion – your high school grades will cease to matter.

Looking to get into further study?

Upskilled offers a variety of flexible, online courses tailored to your needs, whether you’re looking to get into university or acquire skills for the workforce. You can find courses in business, information technology, marketing and event management, offering either a diploma or certificate-level qualification to suit your needs. Start your course search and discover your career possibilities today. 

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