Every year, tens of thousands of students sit the Higher School Certificate (HSC) In New South Wales alone (over 77,000 in 2016). I remember doing my HSC and the associated stress that it involved.

It was over thirty years ago now, but I still remember the stress involved in doing my HSC. The issue was that it seemed that EVERYTHING in my life depended on it: what I could study; what job I could get; and, how I would understand my intelligence.

At that time, there was one way into uni and that was your HSC!

Thankfully much has changed and there are many different pathways into university: from college pathways to a university sector that is better designed to deal with ‘non-school leavers’.

As an educator at university, some of my students are ‘non-traditional’ students: those who have come the long way round.

It was for this reason I wrote the below article for the Sydney Morning Herald. The aim is to argue we should never be defined by a single test, result or number. My advice is that if you have a goal, there are many ways to get there…

I hope you find it relevant to you or someone you know…

ATAR results: don’t let a number define you

I am lucky enough to be a guardian of an amazing 17-year old who, along with thousands of other students, received her Higher School Certificate results this week.

I have heard parents use the term “we are doing the HSC” but it is only when you live through it that you realise the journey is one the entire family takes: from turning our living room into an art studio as she completed her major art work to endless discussions of the biology of the human eye over dinner. All those who have been part of the HSC journey know what I am talking about.

Attending a number of functions at her school, I saw the same look on the faces of parents and students as I do at my university’s open day: one that verges on shear panic about the mystical number that we call the ATAR.

As the Head of the Academy at the Western Sydney University – a program designed for high performing and high-ATAR students – I am continuously asked for advice about what to do and what happens if “I do not make it”? People are surprised when I say: “Do not stress, your ATAR will not define who you will become.

The irony of the stress caused by this single number is that it is only relevant for a grand total of one day: once received and a student decides on options, it is quickly forgotten.

Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that it is not important, nor that it does not open doors. But I am saying that we are lucky to live in a country where the ATAR is only one pathway into university. What options you may or may not have following the HSC results can change.

No matter your ATAR result, please refuse to be defined by it. The ATAR is not a measure of intelligence but one of aptitude: your ability to work through a program named the HSC. Like all such numbers and programs around the world, this is a deeply flawed process and should not define you.

If your goal is university and the results are not what you desired, don’t stress, there are many options available.

First, if you do not get the grade you want and cannot get into the degree you want, you have not “bombed out”. My advice is enter the university you want, even if it is not the degree of choice, and work towards a transfer into your desired degree. This is what I did.

Second, you can take advantage of the various pathways programs being offered through university-based college programs. At Western Sydney University, I have seen students enter uni this way and eventually go on to do a PhD.

Various universities offer such programs now and provide an outstanding orientation into uni – moving directly into second year if you get through first year. The environment is highly supportive and aims to get you “uni-ready”.

The third option is to spend some time in the workforce before applying to enter uni as a “non-school leaver”. Again, I have seen students enter university after a number of years of working and then excel in their studies and build successful careers. Many of these students have been among my best. They enter with a maturity and resilience, openly admitting that they are glad they did no progress directly into university from school.

The final pathway is to combine the above two: working while undertaking some part-time study through a free open program or college. For example, we are surrounded by various “massive open online courses” (affectionately known as MOOCs) offered by universities across the world. These are often self-paced and allow you to build knowledge and give you a taste of your area of interest.

In March next year, I will deliver my first lecture to our new group of first year students. As part of the introduction, I will tell them that despite being a professor, heading a program for high-performing students, having published various books and being named the 2012 Prime Minister’s University Teacher of the Year, I only just scraped into university. I didn’t get into the course I wanted and had to take the long journey.

On my first day as an undergraduate, I attended the wrong lecture and through my degree, I felt like an imposter – that I was never smart enough to be at university. It is a feeling that frequently returns even now. I failed half my first-year subjects and the then Dean suggested I pursue a non-university career. He asked “what does your father do?” (He was a labourer).

Despite the imposter feeling, I never allowed the HSC to define who I was: I used various pathways to achieve my goals.

No matter your results this week, I encourage you not to be discouraged and never stop striving for what you want to achieve.

Originally published: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/atar-results-dont-let-a-number-define-you-20141217-128vx9.html – 18 December 2014.