When I got my uni offers, I chose my second preference – the Bachelor of Arts / Bachelor of Laws at Macquarie University and I couldn’t be happier.

But not everyone gets their preferred uni course – some of us unfortunately miss out on the first time around because of ATARs. Some of it is beyond our control. Whether it’s was not applying ourselves enough during the first few assessments, or having a bad teacher for one of our courses (because admit it, it can have a huge impact on how we learn!), it doesn’t mean that we should have to give up on our dreams because of a number.

Nowadays, we are lucky that there are a lot of different ways to get into a uni or college without getting the required ATAR. These are called pathways and ready and waiting for you to explore!

What are ‘pathways’?

Your ATAR is not indicative of your intellect: it is merely an objective way of assessing academic performance for admittance into a tertiary institution. There are still many factors which can impact your performance during your HSC Year – sickness, misadventure, even bad teachers!

We are lucky because getting into university now is easier than ever: we have many ways to get into tertiary institutions despite our ATAR. That being said, having the ATAR you need makes life a lot easier.

Pathways allow you an alternative method of entry into a tertiary institution by considering more than your ATAR.

Institutions like to have special names for this, but it’ll generally be something along the like of ‘alternative entry’ or ‘pathways’ or ‘entry schemes’.

If not the ATAR, what do institutions look at?

Depending on the institution and the program, an institution may choose to take other qualities into consideration to assess who you are as a person, not just a number (they love to use that line in advertising too!).

They can include, but are not limited to:

  • Community work and volunteering;
  • Leadership experience;
  • Credit for previous study at another institution (such as TAFE);
  • Distance education.

This means that if you were involved in extensive community work such as being a part of the Community Fire Unit, or a young leader who does motivational speaking alongside school, the institution may still consider your application even if you fall below the cut-off.

Alternatively, if you’ve done previous study before – like having a Certificate IV – institutions may consider some of your HSC Results and/or ATAR and your Certificate. If you’ve done work in a particular area, some institutions will look at your work experience and your HSC Results/ATAR. How much they take into account varies between each institution.

What kind of programs do institutions offer?

It really depends what you are looking for! My university, Macquarie University, offers seven different types of alternative pathways, and I’ve met people in my degree who have used each different one. It just goes to prove that your ATAR is not a barrier to your dream degree. 

Let’s take a look at three different pathways to get the gist of what is on offer at MQ, and potentially at other institutions.

Let’s say you wanted to be admitted into a course where the cut-off is 80 for this but got a 65.

Macquarie University – Next Step Pathway

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The Next Step Pathway allows a high school student (i.e. HSC 2015) to complete a range of units (university lingo for ‘subjects’) with provisionally admittance (admitted, with terms and conditions!) into the actual course (i.e. Bachelor of Arts).

Essentially, MQ is allowing you to start the selected degree – the Bachelor of Arts – with an ATAR lower than 75 on the proviso that you pass all of your units. Once you pass, you are guaranteed entry into the Bachelor of Arts!

Macquarie University – TAFE and private college

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In some cases, TAFE may be a good option to get into university. If you do not feel that you’re ready for the intensity of university, TAFE or private colleges can offer options which are qualifications lower than a Bachelor’s Degree level. You might decide to take up TAFE and earn some money working part-time while you’re at it.

Once you decide that you’re ready for uni, some courses will recognise TAFE and private college qualifications as ‘credit for previous study’.



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The UTS: INSEARCH Foundation Studies program is a preparatory course which you can take to get admission into an undergraduate course at UTS or the diploma programs at UTS: INSEARCH.

UTS has lower entry requirements to get into the UTS: INSEARCH programs, and gets you to the same point that you could have been at with a higher ATAR to get into your course.

Means to an end?

So as you can see, there are a variety of methods to get into university even if you do not make it the very first time with your ATAR.

Some of them *cough UNSW* are easier to find than others, so I’ve made a list of the different entry pathways you can take some of the major public universities in Sydney:

Got your ATAR and not feeling good? Let’s have an honest chat about why you shouldn’t let it define who you are. 


Elizabeth Goh isn’t a fan of writing about herself in third person, even if she loves writing. Elizabeth decided she didn’t get enough English, History or Legal Studies at Abbotsleigh School for her own HSC in 2010 so she came back to help others survive it with Art of Smart Education. She’s since done a mish-mash of things with her life which includes studying a Bachelor of Arts (Politics and International Relations) with a Bachelor of Laws at Macquarie University, working for NSW Parliament, and doing her own investigative journalism after listening to Serial.

Elizabeth is currently on academic exchange at the University of Vienna, Austria.