Wednesday, November 9, 2016

I've just been reading this article by Adam Spencer, which has some interesting (one might say scathing) things to say about ATAR scores.

At the end of high school, in 2002, I went through a process that I haven't thought a lot about since then but has just now struck me as significant.

The QLD system gives eligible students an OP, which ranges from 1 to 25, with 1 being the highest score. The calculation of the OP is different to that of the ATAR, so they aren't easily convertible. But once you have a score the process for entering uni is similar.

I had an OP1. Very proud and all that, but then it came time to apply for a university course. The QTAC form allowed you to choose 6 options, and if you didn't get an offer from your first choice you would then be able to try for the second, and so on. Each course was associated with an OP, which was the lowest OP (biggest number) that they had accepted the previous year. Some courses were fairly stable but others could fluctuate 2 or more points from year to year.

I wanted to do science and maths in Brisbane. There were only two courses I found in the QTAC handbook that I liked the sound of: one was a Bachelor of Science at UQ, the other was a Bachelor of Applied Science (accelerated) at QUT. The first had an OP9, the second an OP1. The second required potential students to go for an interview before being accepted.

The first significant thing about my process was that these two courses were the only two I applied for. Common wisdom said to use up all six options, because the low OP of 9 does not guarantee that the course won't suddenly be hugely popular amongst OP1 students! But I couldn't find any other courses I actually wanted to do. The above article says that some students will apply for courses based on their ATAR: "I really want to do med. If I miss that, I'll do law...". I couldn't bring myself to apply for a course I wasn't interested in.

I put the QUT course first (because it had the higher score). After a few weeks I received a letter from them saying that I had been accepted for an interview, which was very nice.

But then came the second significant thing. I had realised by this stage that I wasn't so interested in applied science, because I wanted to do maths for maths' sake. But on the other hand I really strongly felt that I would be 'wasting' my OP1, which I had worked hard all through high school to get, if I 'settled' for a course that only needed a 9 to get into. There was prestige associated to the QUT course which wasn't attached to the UQ course.

But I reminded myself that the score for the UQ course was only low because it is so broad that they accept a lot of students, reminded myself that I wanted to do maths and not applied science, (and to be honest the idea of the interview scared me a little bit), and declined the interview. I was then offered a spot in the BSc at UQ and didn't look back.

Even at the time I was surprised by how strong the pull of prestige was. The idea of having 'wasted' my OP1 on a lower-prestige course, though it niggled at me, is baloney: If I'd only learnt enough to scrape through getting into the course then I wouldn't have had learnt as much at school. As it was I found myself struggling at uni, and being less prepared might have led to failing a subject or two. Or quitting before I did.

In retrospect I know that I made the right choice, but funnily enough for a different reason to the one I had at the time. The course was OP1 because it was accelerated, which would have challenged me. That might have been a good thing. But I don't think you learn as well if you try to learn in a hurry. The brain needs time to absorb knowledge. I did a 1-year honours course instead of a 2-year masters (because it was easier to get into the masters), and I now regret it.

Bottom line - not every opportunity will be good for you, or what you actually want to do.

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