A reminder: there is life beyond the HSC
23 September 2013
Dr Michael Spence also appeared on Channel 9's The Today Show, 23 September 2013, talking about life after the HSC. Watch the video above.
I am an HSC sufferer, survivor and perpetrator. I am a sufferer because one of my sons is doing the HSC right now; a survivor because our household has already been through this twice; and a perpetrator as vice-chancellor of one of Australia's leading universities. I have learnt that there are a few things to remember at this time of year if you are enduring the HSC.
The first is that your HSC results are a measure of your academic performance over a particular 18-month period. They are nothing more than that. At the end of last year I think my son secretly wanted to beat his older brother and sister at the ATAR game. Then his mother died during the Christmas holidays and he remembered that there are many things more important than the HSC. His may be an extreme case, but every 18-year-old is learning things about life far more important than those that their ATAR captures. And every parent is proud of their son or daughter (as I am of mine) for far more important reasons too.
The second is that your ATAR points are not frequent flyer points. You don't have to use them all in the fear they will be ''wasted''. We have hundreds of students with ATARs of 98 and above doing arts degrees. By contrast, I have taught many miserable law students doing the degree out of a grim sense of duty because they were admitted and because they (or their parents) thought that it was the ''right'' thing to do. A university degree makes you more employable: it teaches you crucial skills in critical thinking and in written and oral communication. It prepares you not just for your first job, but for the job after that (perhaps a job that has not been invented yet). You should choose a course that you are excited about, at an institution that seems right for you. And if you sail into the degree with 10 or 15 ATAR points to spare, that is better than using all those points for admission to a degree in which you have no interest.
The third thing to remember is that you are not alone. The HSC experience is a shared one, with students past and present, and no matter what your result, should generate enormous pride. But to help make it through make sure you look after yourself. Take regular study breaks. Eat well. Sleep. Give yourself some time each day to regroup or exercise. Try to be positive as it will help you stay motivated. Even a little study is better than no study at all, so keep going. Do lots of practice exams and try to simulate exam conditions.
Finally, and most importantly, remember that the ATAR does not determine the course of the rest of your life. If you don't do as well as you had hoped - and there are many reasons why people don't - it is not the end of your career hopes. The ATAR determines what you can do for the next three years, or for some for the next year or two. Remember there are opportunities for those who excel while at university to transfer to different courses they might have missed out on originally. Your ATAR may determine whether the route to your career is shorter or longer, but when you first leave school time is on your side.
Incidentally, taking a gap year between school and university, even to stack shelves in a supermarket, is a good idea. People learn important lessons during that year that are not on the HSC syllabus. At Oxford, I taught students in very small groups and there was a noticeable difference among first-year students in the maturity of those who had taken a year out.
So it might surprise you to hear a Vice-Chancellor say it, but the HSC and ATAR are probably far less important than they might seem in many homes right now. On the other hand, hard work never goes astray and achieving the best possible ATAR you can will give you the satisfaction of having done your very best, as well as providing you with the broadest possible range of immediate study options.
Dr Michael Spence is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Sydney.
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