HSC Subject Selection

If you are in year 10 and about to choose your subjects for Preliminary and the HSC (or if you are a parent), you should carefully consider your subject choices. Knowledge of how scaling works should play a vital role in your subject selection decisions!

Effects of Scaling

Scaling makes some subjects more attractive than others, because they generally lead to higher ATARs.

However, as explained the article on HSC scaling, subjects are scaled higher to compensate for the fact that the candidature in that subject happens to be “more able” academically, for that year. Therefore, choosing higher scaled subjects makes it harder to achieve a high rank. But don’t shy away from high scaling subjects, from the collective experience of our academic staff and past students, it’s generally easier to achieve any ATAR goal using higher scaling subjects than it is with low scaling subjects.

The rule to follow when deciding on your subjects for year 11 is:

“Among the high scaling subjects, choose the subjects you think you’ll do well in.”

That way, you have a good chance of attaining high or decent percentiles, which leads to strong scaled marks and ATAR.

For example, if you are a Biology genius and score in the top 1%, your scaled mark would be 45.2 in 2008, which is better than top 10% for Maths Extension 1.

The case of Maths Extension 2 – an example of scaling.

If you are good at maths, enrol in Maths Extension 2. The reason is that Extension 2’s scaling tends to be extremely rewarding – often overcompensating for its higher inherent difficulty, and students invariably score scaled marks higher than what they would have had they not done Extension 2.

There’s a reason why most graduates with 99+ ATARs getting into Law / Medicine have done this subject!

Another benefit of Extension 2 is that it makes Maths Extension 1 count for 2 units, instead of 1, effectively doubling the Extension 1 scaling benefit, which is already extremely high.

Consider Scaling when choosing your subjects

Choose your subjects with scaling and ability in mind. The worst thing you can do for yourself is to choose subjects which you have no ability or interest in. No amount of scaling can save you if your indifference to a subject causes you to score low percentiles.

For example, in 2008, if you chose Maths Extension 1 for its great scaling, but do disappointingly in the exams and scored in the 25th percentile, your scaled mark would be 36.8/50.

Say you’re passionate about Economics instead, and had you done it, you would have scored in the 90th percentile (top 10%) then your scaled mark would be 43/50, much better than your Extension 1 result. This is an extreme result, but it illustrates what could happen if you choose subjects which you have absolutely no interest in.

From 2000 to 2015, the below list of commonly chosen subjects have experienced consistently strong scaling:

  • English Advanced
  • Economics
  • Modern History
  • All mathematics except general maths
  • Physics
  • Chemistry

The list above is not exhaustive of course, but you can’t go wrong choosing these because they experience consistently strong scaling, especially mathematics.

 

Which level of English should I choose?

In the NSW system, at least 2 units of English is required for HSC and ATAR eligibility. Therefore, every student is faced with the question above. Our answer is simple: always choose English Advanced. The reason is again because of scaling. The scaled mean for English Standard in the last decade has not changed much, hovering around 18/50 which is appalling and below average to say the least. The scaled mean for English Advanced has hovered around 31/50 over the same time period (source: Table A3 2001 – 2015). Look at Table A3 to see corresponding percentiles at each level of achievement – typically to get a median scaled mark in English Advanced, you’d need to be in the 95th percentile in Standard.

While it can be argued that Standard is easier than Advanced, we view it as Advanced being an environment where students are given more opportunity to earn marks than Standard. If you are aiming for a <80 ATAR, it’s not too big of a deal, but for students aiming for ATARs of 90+, choosing English Advanced is the way to go.

 

School considerations

An important consdieration is your school’s quality of teaching in particular subjects. Different schools have different calibres of achievement in different subjects, and this is in large part to do with the quality of teaching staff they have.

For example, some schools have a reputation for excellence in Maths, year after year. Does this mean that the students of that school just so happens to have an especially high aptitude for maths year after year? No. It is because that school has quality maths teachers.

One major consideration which potentially has a larger effect than scaling is the quality of your school’s teaching in particular subjects.

We recommend you do some research and find out past results of your school in the subjects you are considering.

Are there a high proportion of Band 6s? Personally talk to the teacher(s) that will be responsible for taking the classes. Do you think they are great teachers? These are all questions which need to be considered.

Also not every school offers every subject, especially most language courses with low candidatures, or Extension 2 courses. This is one thing you will have to discuss with your teachers.

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