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When he talks about his current career as an engineer with Rio Tinto, Jacob Nock lights up.
But finishing high school with an ATAR of 99.95 six years ago had no bearing on his dream career.
“In a way [it] almost set me back six months,” he says.
Jacob Nock.
As students around Western Australia are anxiously waiting for the score they believe will make or break their future, four former students who managed that elusive perfect ATAR result tell how the percentage behind the comma has shaped their future post-high school.
They also share some insights into what they believe sets their study techniques apart from their peers.
Nock, 24, who now works for resource giant Rio Tinto in the Pilbara, says he was interested in engineering throughout high school, but achieving the perfect ATAR score made him think of all the possibilities at his disposal.
“I thought, what’s the highest kind of thing I can try and aim for with this ATAR and medicine was like the highest requirement thing, and I always found it interesting,” he says.
He passed the gruelling admission process and got accepted into the highly competitive Doctor of Medicine degree at the University of Western Australia. But he only lasted six months.
“It wasn’t for me.”
He then switched to an engineering degree, continuing on his high-flying path with several awards for ranking on top of his cohort.
“If I didn’t have that high an ATAR, if I maybe got something in the mid-90s or in the 80s maybe I would have just gone straight to engineering because I wouldn’t have been able to get into medicine,” he says.
Jessica Doan.
Nock admits he’s competitive, but says he was neither the smartest nor the hardest worker, believing his reaching academic excellence was grounded in his ability to do tests well.
For Jessica Doan, 19, graduating with a perfect score last year and winning the prestigious Beazley Medal, Australia’s academic award for secondary students, meant fulfilling a childhood dream of studying medicine.
She was offered the Fogarty Beazley Scholarship at UWA and has just completed her first year of undergraduate studies.
“I think this scholarship has definitely opened doors to leadership, networking, and mentoring opportunities. I feel very blessed to have this opportunity,” she says.
Knowing what it took to get into medicine, she says she tried not to get swept up in the rivalry of her cohort at Perth Modern, an academically selective high school.
“For some students, competition can be a tool that drives them … but I think it can also lead to some unnecessary stress. For me, I think that it’s important to just focus on yourself and do the best that you possibly can,” she says.
Linda Zou’s perfect score last year meant she could have a crack at the Tripos BA of Mathematics at the UK’s University of Cambridge, one of the most difficult and intensive mathematics courses worldwide. After mastering the onerous admission process she got accepted and has since moved to the UK.
“My dream perpetuated and pushed me further in year 12,” she says.
Linda Zou.
“When I was studying for the ATAR, I wasn’t particularly aiming for the perfect score, I was more enjoying the process and just learning different concepts,” she says.
“I was trying to tell myself, ‘don’t compare [yourself] with other people’. The only opponent that I can beat is just myself.”
Caitlin Revell, 24, is a mechanical engineer with Woodside Energy, who graduated with a perfect ATAR score at Perth Modern in 2016. She says with no particular goal in mind at that stage, her driver was basically just to do as well as she could.
“By no means do I think I’m the smartest person in the cohort at all. I think I was just very determined and persistent to understand everything and cover all bases and I wasn’t really satisfied with myself unless I understood everything as much as possible,” she says.
“It was not driven by pressure from my parents or anyone around me.”
With a keen interest in science and understanding how the world works, she has since completed a Bachelor of Science with a double degree in engineering and physics and a Master of Mechanical Engineering at UWA. She says her ATAR score definitely gave her an advantage.
“It’s given me a fair few opportunities as well in terms of scholarships, public speaking opportunities, getting to meet like-minded peers throughout university,” she says.
But Revell admits her drive to do well caused her to put a lot of pressure on herself.
“It’s easy to put the blinkers on, and the exam was kind of the … key determining factor of your future,” she says.
It’s a pressure that is keenly felt by many students in their final years of high school. A 2022 Macquarie University study found about 19 per cent of Year 12 students could be classified as clinically stressed going into the Year 12 period.
“During that time, I potentially did not [have] the most healthy routine,” she says.
“I’d probably wake up around 6.30am, do an hour of study before school, and then often come home and study until 11pm or midnight.
“During those last few years, I put a lot of my self-worth and value on the outcomes of school and exams and my studies, which retrospectively was probably an unrealistic amount of pressure.”
Caitlin Revell.
She says in the years after school, experiencing the workplace, travelling and having different experiences, she came to understand the importance of balancing focusing on success with also having strong friendships.
Zou says she found balance and relaxation in doing extracurricular activities, such as table tennis, tutoring, and her role as yearbook editor for her high school, the Presbyterian Ladies College.
She advises other students to check in with themselves weekly to ask themselves how they were feeling.
“If you’re not feeling OK, make sure you’re having five minutes of meditation or even just relax, listening to your favourite songs. This moment will really increase your productivity substantially and it’s OK sometimes to feel a bit overwhelmed,” she says.
Nock, who attended the public Woodvale Secondary College, attributes his academic success to finding the joy of learning within a group of like-minded people.
He says he had a great group of friends around him at school, especially in year 12, which made learning a lot more fun and attractive.
He also believed tutoring students in lower grades was instrumental.
“That really helped iron out any silly mistakes you would make with the more fundamental side of things … you could just make simple arithmetic errors like multiplying two numbers instead of dividing,” he says.
“I felt through tutoring, just repeating simpler questions, reduced the frequency at which I would make those kinds of mistakes in tests and exams.”
Jacob Nock works for Rio Tinto.
He says he tried to get his hands on as many practice exams as he could and was doing them “non-stop”.
Zou agrees, saying reflecting upon mistakes made is important to an effective study routine.
“When you take a break and look back, consciously force yourself to look at the mistake you have made and minimise your own mistakes next time,” she says.
Practice exams were also a big part of Jessica’s way of learning.
“Try to simulate the exam conditions as best as possible, such as by completing them under time pressure, and without any breaks in between,” she says.
Thousands of WA students are nervously waiting for the link to appear that will reveal their ATAR results, and some of them will have their hopes pinned on the elusive perfect score.
“Yes, the results kind of can impact your future and help you get into university and provide, again a bit of a leveraging opportunity to get into the workforce, but it’s by no means the sole deciding factor,” Caitlin Revell says.
While her score was relevant for Jessica Doan’s admission into medicine, she says in the end it was just a tool.
“If your ATAR isn’t what you expected or isn’t perfect, that doesn’t really matter in the end,” she says.
“There are many different ways into tertiary education and to achieve your goals”.
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