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Each state in Australia has its own certificate of education (CE) for high school leavers.

Victoria has the VCE.

Queensland has the QCE.

South Australia has the SACE.

Western Australia has the WACE.

The Northern Territory has the NTCE.

Tasmania has the TCE.

So New South Wales must have the NSWCE… right?

Not quite.

In NSW, it’s the HSC; the Higher School Certificate.

If you’re a student in New South Wales, this acronym is all too familiar.

It’s what you work towards your entire high school life. Or at least, what you’re meant to be working towards.

Everything you do is supposed to be in preparation for year 12 – your HSC year.

It’s the only thing that stands between you and adult life.

The last hurdle!

What is the HSC?

The HSC is a standardised education program based on a syllabus published by the Board of Studies Teaching and Education Standards (BOSTES), which is the governing school education body in NSW.

The HSC is important because it gives you your ticket to university.

Once you complete the HSC, your results are translated into an ATAR, or Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank, which is what universities use to determine your admission into undergraduate programs.

Your final HSC mark is the result of your efforts in two areas: internal assessments and external HSC examinations. Each component counts for 50%.

Let’s delve into these a little further.

  1. Internal assessments This component includes the exams and assessments undertaken during year 12. These are ‘internal’ because they are written and set by your teachers, and are therefore unique to your school.

Your school keeps a record of your marks in each subject, and these form one half of your final grade at the end of the year.

  1. External assessments This component refers to the exams taken by all NSW students at the end of year 12 in the official examination period. These are ‘external’ because they are set by the BOSTES. All students in NSW sit the same HSC exams at the same time.

Each exam varies in length from one and a half to three hours. This is the most important component of your HSC year, since 50% of your mark comes down to one final exam.

Preliminary HSC

While year 12 is your official HSC year, there are some preliminary components.

Every HSC subject is comprised of two years: the year 11 (preliminary) course and the year 12 (HSC) course. To study an HSC subject in year 12, you must have studied it in year 11.

While your year 11 results don’t count towards your ATAR, it is necessary to complete the year 11 course to obtain the knowledge necessary to continue studying them at an HSC level.

However, this doesn’t mean that every subject you study in year 11 will be mandatory study in year 12.

If you’re not sure what you’ll perform best in, you can take extra subjects in year 11 (up to seven subjects, or 14 ‘units’). Based on your end of year results you can then drop one or two of these subjects come year 12, as the minimum HSC requirement is 10 units.

The purpose of preliminary HSC subjects is to simply prepare each student for the more complicated year 12 workload.

Choosing HSC subjects On that note, what subjects should you take in the HSC? Are some better than others? How do you choose?

English (Standard or Advanced level) is the only compulsory unit in the HSC. Every year all 70,000 students in NSW kick off their HSC with the English exam.

From there you have total freedom to choose your subjects, as long as you have at least 10 units in total. Each subject is equivalent to two units, except extension subjects which are one unit each.

Pro Tip:

It’s a good idea to take 12 units so you have a ‘back up’ should something go wrong in the final HSC exam and you get a poor mark. While you’ll have a heavier workload, you’ll be under significantly less pressure as only your best 10 units will be counted in the final result.

Many students find it confusing and difficult to decide which subjects are ‘worth’ studying. A subject may sound appealing to you, but it may not necessarily be in your best interests in the pursuit of a high ATAR. Others might not be very appealing, but might offer a more challenging academic experience.

Because your results will be scaled, it’s important to think strategically about your HSC subject choices, as some scale better than others. As a general rule, ‘harder’ subjects will scale better, and ‘easier’ subjects will scale worse.

Four of the best scaling subjects include:

  • Extension II English (contingent on outcome of final major work)
  • Extension II Mathematics
  • Chemistry (if ranked above average in school cohort)
  • Physics (if ranked above average in school cohort)

However, you should only consider subject areas in which you have an existing level of competence. Getting a bad mark in Chemistry is not better than scoring a good mark in Society and Culture.

At the top end, however, a good mark in Extension II maths scales far better than a good mark in Society and Culture. This is not directly linked to the difficulty of the course (though Extension II maths is a difficult course), rather it is more related to the performance of the cohort who take that subject.

Therefore, choosing a subject only for its scaling value is definitely not a good idea! But you should still consider scaling in your HSC subject selection to give yourself the best chance of obtaining a high ATAR.

A full list of HSC subjects can be found on the BOSTES website, but while this is a useful resource for understanding what each subject is about, it doesn’t offer much by way of classification.

To make your life a little easier, Crimson has categorised the HSC subjects into four tiers, based on their popularity and influence over the ATAR.

Tier 1 HSC Subjects

Tier 1 subjects are the most important subjects offered in the HSC. They are the most commonly sat subjects in the HSC and are often prerequisites for tertiary study. They offer a number of extension (1 unit) courses, each step an increase in difficulty.

They include:

  • English (Standard, Advanced, Extension I, Extension II)
  • Mathematics (General, Mathematics, Extension I, Extension II)

It is extremely important that you have a comprehensive understanding of these subjects. In the calculation of your ATAR, your top 10 units must count, two of which are your strongest units of English.

English (Standard or Advanced) Paper 1, which the whole state sits, is the standard against which all other subjects are scaled. This means that scaling does not apply to Paper 1 and so your mark in it is critically important.

Tier 2 HSC Subjects

Tier 2 subjects are the subjects with the highest participation level that tend to scale well. These are offered at most schools across the state.

They include:

  • Sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Earth and Environmental Science and Physics)
  • Business Studies
  • Economics
  • Legal Studies
  • History (Modern, Ancient, Extension)
  • Engineering Studies
  • PDHPE (Personal Development, Health and Physical Education)

Students should choose at least one subject from this category, if not more, in order to better their chances of receiving a higher ATAR.

Tier 3 HSC Subjects

Tier 3 subjects may be less commonly offered at schools, and their scaling can vary quite a bit (especially within the languages).

Tier 3 subjects are also far more specialised and prepare students for specific degree choices. Subjects such as Music are common among students who eventually study at the conservatorium. It is very common, however, for students to study at least one of these subjects.

They include:

  • Languages (Including Ancient Languages like Latin and Ancient Greek)
  • Drama
  • Music (Music I and Extension)
  • Visual Arts

These subjects, especially Visual Arts, are marked more subjectively by HSC markers, colleges and universities because of their emphasis on creative expression.

Tier 4 HSC Subjects

Tier 4 subjects are far less commonly offered by schools and, as such, have far smaller cohorts, making scaling highly variable from year to year. These are also very specialised courses that prepare students for more specialised university degrees and courses.

They include:

  • Software Design and Development
  • Textiles and Design
  • Information Processes and Technology
  • VET Curriculum subjects
  • Life Skills Courses
  • Society and Culture
  • Studies of Religion

It should also be noted that it is not necessary to study any one of these subjects in order to pursue a course similar at university. Software Design and Development, for example, is only a preliminary course that is briefly covered at the beginning of computing courses at university.

ATAR Calculator

If you'd like to know how your NCEA, IB or CIE results would stack up as an ATAR, we have an ATAR calculator or three to help you out.

But first: What is an ATAR?

Your ATAR is a number between zero and 99.95 that indicates your state cohort rank. It is an indicator of overall academic performance.

An ATAR of 90 does not mean that your average mark for your subjects was 90 – it means that you ranked within the top 10% of your state cohort.

The NSW Standards Authority gives the University Admission Centre (UAC) all the raw, unbanded HSC marks. Each uni then sets a minimum ATAR for admission to a course. The cut-off is the score of the person with the lowest ATAR admitted to the course that year.

Some degrees have much higher cut-offs than others. Many students think that a higher ATAR cut-off is a reflection of the difficulty of the course, but it’s actually determined by demand.

Differences in ATAR cut-offs across universities are significant. The highest cut-offs are generally for prestigious universities based in the major cities, and lower cut-offs apply for regional and less well-known universities.

As an example, the ATAR cut-off for a Bachelor of Laws at The University of Sydney is typically in the high 90s (97 in 2017), whereas a Bachelor of Laws at La Trobe University is in the low 80s (83 in 2017). More students want to study law at USyd than they do at La Trobe.

Not all degrees require an ATAR, and not all degrees are based on an ATAR alone. For instance, medicine and health science courses, while taking your ATAR into account, also base their decisions off a separate test called the UMAT as well as in-person interviews.

When you apply to uni through UAC, you submit a list of preferences. The system works down your list of preferences and makes you an offer for the highest course that you qualify for.

There are a main round of offers and then later rounds. That’s why it’s important to put your dream course as your first preference, even if you think you won’t qualify. If that particular university doesn’t meet its numbers for the course, you may be considered for admission in a later round.

HSC results

The strength of your school can play a pretty big role in how your assessment marks scale.

Student at high performing private schools are likely to benefit, since their assessment marks are carried by the overall higher performance of your grade.

Seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it?

However, it doesn’t mean that you will get a bad HSC result if you go to a public school. Ultimately, it’s about how well you perform against the rest of the state. If you consistently get good marks in your assessments and do well in your HSC exams, you will overcome any disadvantage your school may have.

Therefore, the best strategy to gaining top marks in the HSC is to spend your time studying (and encourage your friends to do the same!) – not worrying about what school you’re at.

HSC Timetable

Want to know more about HSC exams and the HSC timetable? Follow the link!

How to Prepare for the HSC

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