Every year, thousands of young school leavers receive an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank and discover where they stand in the queue for university offers that will soon follow.
Top 1 per cent? "Hurrah!" Top 20 per cent? "Well done." Lower end of things? "Mmm, I hope you get into something…"
But despite the blood, sweat, tears and stress that many students — and schools and parents — go through to secure that ATAR, barely one in four undergraduate students will be admitted to their course based solely on their ATAR.
It's like having to queue at a Boxing Day sale and discovering that most people aren't queuing like you are — they've found another way.
New analysis released today by Victoria University's Mitchell Institute shows a pronounced disconnect: schools and students place an enormous importance on ATAR, but the higher education sector uses it less and less as a basis for admission.
The Australian Tertiary Admission Rank was established to simplify and regularise university admissions, but it may have overstayed its welcome.
Universities are more open than ever before, so the idea of an orderly, if highly competitive, single-file queue as the only means of entry is outdated.
For students, attaining an ATAR remains a stress-filled period of their lives with a heavy workload and hours spent agonising over subject choices, median scores, bonus points and scaling up and down.
It has come to be seen as the culmination of 13 years' schooling and an end in itself — almost as if nothing else matters in a young person's education.
There is also evidence ATAR essentially distorts the "education" component of the final years — for as many as three or four years in some schools — influencing what teachers teach and how students learn. "Will that be in the exam?" has become a limiting refrain in schools around the nation.
For example, between 2001 and 2015, there was a 10 per cent drop in HSC students studying intermediate maths (HSC Mathematics) and a 9 per cent increase in the number studying lower level maths (HSC General Mathematics). About half of students and teachers surveyed indicated that maximising ATARs was the reasoning behind choosing the less advanced course.
It wasn't meant to be like this.
Ranking students in their final year of schooling was introduced to provide a simple and equitable way of comparing the overall academic performance of all students in a cohort year, whatever subject combination they chose.
The idea was all students would receive a rank that they could use to apply to any university around Australia, and universities would have a simple system of being able to identify the students they wanted to admit.
However, widespread reforms in the higher education sector have fractured this once-close relationship. The move to demand-driven university places opened the sector and brought forth many new access points and methods of entry.
Students now enter university via early offers, aptitude tests or via moving up from certificate courses. Several universities have special-entry schemes tied to specific schools and most universities have equity schemes.
If the system is no longer fit for purpose, it is time to assess if there is a better way, one that manages transitions to tertiary education and ensures final year students develop the broad skills and capabilities they need for later success.
The Federal Government's tightening of university funding may lead to restricted places and somewhat of a reversion to ATAR-led selection.
But it is timely to review the significance of ranking all students at the end of their schooling, and to contemplate if that is that the best way to help them make the transition to the next stage of their lives.
As students know, one, two, three or 20 years on from receiving their ATAR, they are more than a number in a queue.
Education is more than a number, more than a ranking and more than a competition.