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There's more to education than university

There's more to education than university

Didn't get the marks you needed to enrol in your preferred university degree? You know, people aren't lying when they say, "your ATAR isn't everything" because there's more to your future than university.

I recently bought new shelves for my home study and in a gust of motivation brought on by the fuel of everyone else's New Year's resolutions I decided to clear out some old stuff. Among old conference timetables and notes from my English tutoring days, I found my (New South Wales) Higher School Certificate record and my University Admissions Index, which is now known as the nationwide Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR). Wow, I was spectacularly bad at French.

I'd forgotten about my rank, because once I secured a place in the media course that I thought was going to launch my Walkley-award winning career in journalism, I had other things to focus on like assignment deadlines and getting through a massive pile of readings each week. As it turned out, the course only served to demonstrate to me that I didn't actually really want to be a journalist—what the hell was I thinking?—so much for that.

Which brings me to the ATAR. Of course there were friends who had aimed very high and achieved a place in 'prestigious' law and medicine courses, and there were those who either didn't apply for a rank because they weren't interested in university or didn't get the rank they needed to secure a place in their dream course. One friend who wasn't interested in university went on to do a TAFE course in hospitality and now manages a hotel; another friend who didn't have anywhere near the marks to get into medicine took a side route via a general science qualification, sat the Graduate Australian Medical School Admissions Test (GAMSAT), and is now close to graduating as a paediatrician.

What are the lessons here? Having the right ATAR is, admittedly, the easiest way to enrol in university, but it is not the only way. Here are some alternatives:

1. Learn in parallel
Most courses look the same in their first year. Enrol in a less specialised degree with a lower entry barrier that covers the same ground as your dream qualification, or at least one where you can choose equivalent electives. Work your arse off and attain good marks. Transfer into your dream qualification when others less passionate than you inevitably drop out. Rejoice!

2. Start smaller
Did you know that many diplomas are equivalent to a first year of a degree? Vocational education and training (VET) qualifications through a registered training organisation do not usually require an ATAR, just an Australian Year 10, 11 or 12 certificate and willingness to apply yourself. With self-paced online options now becoming popular, you may well achieve a diploma well before your university counterparts finish the first year of a degree. You could probably use that extra time to secure some work experience or an entry-level job to leapfrog those undergraduates.

3. Ditch the degree
For a number of professions, and I mean in the true sense—medicine, engineering, law and accounting—a degree is a necessary step to become a practitioner. For the rest of you, a degree may be the glamorous option, or the one your parents want you to follow, but this does not necessarily translate into the best start for your career. Consider the role of work experience, internships, and entry-level jobs in your overall portfolio of skills.

Many people choose courses based on the wrong things, such as their marks, peer pressure or suggestions from relatives, and not on what they're really cut out to do. Some find out through study, like I did, that what they wanted to do when they enrolled is not what they actually want to do when they graduate. Why hang your entire future career on your ATAR? You're young. You have plenty of time to figure it out as you go along.

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