With Year 12 exams wrapping up this week, thousands of students across the country are aiming for a coveted high ATAR score.
Yet the way tertiary institutions and employers view high school qualifications is rapidly changing. Schools need to urgently alter their career coaching methods to match the new landscape.
These days, universities are implementing a much-needed change in the system, almost eradicating the historical 'one-way' entry for school leavers. There are now hundreds of pathways through which students can enter university, and schools must have a finger on the pulse of these changes to ensure students are aware of these options.
Schools also have a responsibility to provide a breadth of learning and co-curricular opportunities, allowing students to explore their individual interests and talents, which could lead them down a less-trodden career path.
Of course, there will be some degrees that will always be based on a single number, such as pre-medicine and law. However, the more school career counsellors educate their students on plan B's, C's and even D's, the less students need to stress about their overall score and can focus more on the studies that will actually help them achieve their goals.
Tackling the fear of failure
ATARs will never not be important; however, removing the stigma around not hitting a desired goal is.
It's about giving students confidence. If they are confident in their options post-Year 12, they will perform better during those critical exams.
Too often, career counsellors and teachers see intelligent students falter under the pressure of trying to achieve that perfect score.
School-leavers can navigate to the career of their dreams by choosing diploma and certificate programs, or a whole range of associate degrees, which can act as a stepping stone without adding extra time.
Every journey has the potential to be unique. Nearly two million students completed Year 12 in Australia last year, meaning they could now be undertaking almost two million different pathways.
One of the key pieces of advice I tell students at Methodist Ladies' College (MLC) is that it doesn't matter what route you take, employers want to employ human beings with real-world knowledge.
You could go to the best universities and score top grades; however, without practical skills and passion, you won't be able to stand out from the crowd. Interdisciplinary learning, volunteering and work experience are critical.
Choosing a passion-based career
What may be a popular and in-demand career now might not exist in years to come, meaning no student can confidently predict what they will be doing after completing their academic studies.
Generations of the past could not have comprehended the concept of virtual reality, for example, which is becoming a booming job market. In the three months following Facebook's rebrand to Meta, the number of job advertisements related to the metaverse grew five-fold.
While we have an idea of the job growth areas, it is more important for schools to encourage students to choose a career based on their passions. There will no doubt be a flurry of roles that we might not even know about yet that require their specific skills.
Instead of saying, 'I want to be a doctor', they should go into the ATAR saying, 'I want to be in the medical profession'.
Having soft skills and interests is just as important to career success as that piece of paper, and schools need to provide students with the opportunity to foster them.
With Australians changing careers an average of 12 times over the course of their working lives, soft or transferable skills are a great way to facilitate the transition.
Teenagers are so much more than their scores. While the perfect ATAR is still the aim, there was a fundamental flaw in the old system that saw many fall under the pressure.
Let's educate our students to help them understand that whatever they choose is not forever but simply the first part of their career adventure.
Chris Walkley is the Head of Careers at Methodist Ladies' College (MLC) in Melbourne.
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