Senior subject selection: a crash course


Senior subject selection for Year 11 & 12 is one of the most important decisions you’ll make in high school. The subjects you pick will have a bearing on your performance in the HSC, your ATAR and your future university course. Understandably, this makes selection pretty daunting, especially if teachers aren’t clearly explaining what selection involves. We’re here to make it easy for you – we’ll break down commonly asked questions about units, ATARs, scaling, prerequisites and everything in between.



What is an ATAR and how is it different to your HSC mark?

Your HSC marks are the medians between your raw mark in each HSC subject and your moderated mark from school assessments. Your HSC marks fall into “Bands” with Band 6 (or E4 if you’re doing extension subjects) being the highest sector.

Your ATAR is not your HSC mark, or even a score. It stands for Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank and is a number between 0 and 99.95 that is calculated based on your rank compared to every single person sitting the HSC in your year group. It’s a number that is calculated from comparing your overall HSC results to the results of your cohort. For example, if you get an ATAR of 90 it doesn’t mean you got 90% right in everything – it means you’re in the top 10% of your state’s year group.

Your ATAR is what gets you into uni; every course has an ATAR cut-off and if your rank is equal to or higher than that number, you’ll get in. This is subject to conditions – some courses (like a Bachelor in Commerce at UNSW) give you bonus points if you score Band 6s in English and Maths. There’s also ways to get in via scholarships if you fall below the required ATAR, or perhaps the course will take in people with lower ATARs during second round offers if they aren’t at full capacity.

Your ATAR is determined by the Universities Admissions Centre (UAC).


Low scaling subjects vs. High scaling subjects

You’ve probably heard the term scaling a lot. Essentially, scaling is a way of standardising every HSC subject so that you can be ranked on equal terms with every other student, no matter how different the subjects you take are. So somebody who takes Standard English won’t have an advantage over someone who takes Advanced English if they score the same mark, even if Standard is generally easier. Scaling is also affected by your school’s performance – if your school’s Year 12 performs poorly in the HSC but your school marks all are high, UAC will view your school as easy markers and scale you lower. Your rank within your school is extremely important, as it tells UAC how to measure you in relation to your school – so make sure you select subjects where you are in the top tier.

You shouldn’t determine what determine what subjects you’ll take just based on whether a subject scales highly – remember that UAC scales according to the performance of all the students that year, so how a subject scales can fluctuate. If you pick a subject that scales high but you perform poorly, your mark won’t be as good as someone who got a Band 6 in a low scaling subject.

However, you can probably guess how a subject will scale based on their relative difficulty, i.e.: subjects like Physics, Chemistry, the Extension Math subjects, the Extension English subjects tend to scale the highest. If you excel in these areas, or think you can, then selecting them is the best way to maximise your HSC mark. Additionally, we recommend that you select Advanced English over Standard English, unless you really struggle with English, as Standard English tends to scale down.


How many units?

Most subjects are ascribed units of value. You are required to take a minimum 12 units worth of subjects in Year 11 and a minimum of 10 units in Year 12.

Most subjects such as Standard English, Advanced English, General Maths, Advanced Maths, Biology, Physics, Chemistry etc. are all worth 2 units each. Extension subjects are worth less, being 1 unit each.

UAC determines your ATAR by taking your best 8 units + 2 units of English. Most people stick with 12 units or more in Year 12 for this reason – the subject or subjects you do the worst in won’t count and affect your ATAR.

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Remember – English is compulsory

It is compulsory for you to take 2 units of English (either Standard English or Advanced English). No matter how you perform in your English subject, it will count and its scaling will count. This is the reason why we previously recommended that you should take Advanced English if it is within your capabilities.

Compulsory prerequisites or assumed knowledge

When selecting subjects, you should also keep in mind what course you’re thinking of pursuing in university. Some courses have prerequisite subjects that you need to complete to take the subject. There are also assumed knowledge requirements where it is assumed you passed a subject at certain level.

Example 1:

To study medicine at UNSW, you will need to:

• Receive an ATAR of 99.95+
• Meet UMAT & Interview requirements
• Meet assumed knowledge requirements: At least English Standard – Band 4 or higher
• Take the recommended (not compulsory but will probably give you an edge) subject of Chemistry.

Example 2:

You will need to achieve a Band 4 in the NSW Higher School Certificate (HSC) Mathematics (not General Mathematics) or equivalent for some subjects at USYD, such as:
• Agriculture
• Commerce
• Economics
• Engineering and IT
• Health
• Medicine
• Pharmacy
• Psychology
• Science
• Veterinary science

We recommend that you look at university course pages to see the exact prerequisites and assumed knowledge for each subject. Here are some university course pages:

If you’re an indecisive person and realise halfway through Year 12 that you want to pursue a course that you haven’t done the prerequisites for, don’t sweat it. You can always take a university bridging course – although, it’s wise to avoid the time and costs if you can.


Pick subjects you are good at

The most important thing is to pick subjects that you excel in, rather than pick subjects based on high scaling alone. We reiterate that your rank within your grade matters, and it’s easier to get high ranks in subjects you are naturally great at. There’s no point in picking a high scaling subject if you’re going to end up doing bad in it – that will certainly drag down your ATAR. You need to strategically figure out your best subjects, and pair them with high scaling subjects that you know you can do well in, in order for the best result.

We wish all Year 10s good luck in senior subject selection!



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