How to help your child choose subjects for HSC

Deciding what to study for the HSC can be daunting, but with the right information parents and carers can help teenagers find a pathway that's right for them.

Two late teenage students sitting together in a classroom and smiling, listening to a teacher seated next to them.
Image: Some students will already have a clear idea of what they want to do after Year 12 but many will be uncertain.

The NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) is regularly updating its advice about the Higher School Certificate (HSC) as the coronavirus outbreak unfolds. Schools are well placed to provide advice to parents and students about changes to the HSC in 2020. You may also access NESA’s Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) advice page directly.

In study, as in life, perhaps the most important piece of advice you can give your child is to be themselves.

As Prue Greene, Leader, Secondary Curriculum, Learning and Teaching Directorate, puts it, students do better when they choose a combination which matches their natural talents.

"When choosing subjects you need to take into account your interests, abilities and possible career needs," she says.

"You do much better and get more satisfaction studying subjects that you are interested in and able to do well in. Higher engagement means greater success at the HSC."

Requirements for HSC

First it's important to understand the eligibility criteria for the Higher School Certificate or HSC.

Students themselves will probably be familiar with most of these but parents and carers may need reminding.

Read the full list of preliminary requirements and timing options.

Broadly, students need to complete:

  • a preliminary pattern of study (usually Year 11) that includes at least 12 units
  • an HSC pattern of study (usually Year 12) that includes at least 10 units.

There are also specific requirements governing choice of subjects and courses, all of which are explained in the Rules and Procedures Guide published by the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA). Every HSC student in NSW should receive a printed copy in Year 10 but it's also available online from NESA.

Individual schools often have their own specific requirements and many also publish HSC course booklets.

"It's very important for students to understand that some study and career options require them to complete specific courses." Ms Greene says. "Avoiding disappointment requires just that extra bit of research and planning to make sure you've chosen the right courses for you and your career plans."

Where will HSC lead?

While the requirements may sound stringent, students actually have a lot of flexibility in deciding how to meet them.

Figuring out what to do requires a little planning and thought.

Here are two key issues to consider:

  • Where is your child headed after HSC? The workforce, a tertiary institution, vocational education or some combination?
  • Which courses and subjects will best prepare them? If it's further study, what are the prerequisites?

These questions may be harder than they seem. Some students will already have a clear idea of what they want to do after Year 12 but many will be uncertain.

Parents and carers can help simply by talking with their child. As anyone with a teenager will know, this may be easier said than done. There are techniques you can use to get them to open up. Try some described in this video.

Video - What is your teenager trying to tell you?

Duration - 2:53

What is your teenager trying to tell you?


Vocational Education and Training

Students can choose from a range of Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses as part of their HSC.

These play an important role in helping them prepare for further vocational study, employment and lifelong learning. VET courses are offered as early as Year 9 and you can find information about the VET HSC options.

Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATR)

Those planning university study must complete the relevant course and subject requirements to receive their Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR).

The ATAR is not a mark but a rank, calculated separately by the University Admissions Centre (UAC), based on HSC results. Universities use it to help select students for different courses.

You can find a full list of eligibility requirements for an ATAR on the UAC website and the UAC study compass is a great way for your child to check their selection.

"It's really important that students and parents understand the difference between the HSC and ATAR. For students seeking entry to a university, knowing how their HSC results and ATAR are calculated will provide them with the option to make more informed choices," Ms Greene says.

Making sure they have it right

There are many thousands of potential course combinations and choosing between them can get complicated.

To ensure your child's pattern of study matches their needs and aspirations, both of you should:

  • consult the school, speaking to teachers and career advisors
  • read NESA's Rules and Procedures Guide
  • check the UAC site for ATAR eligibility requirements
  • check whether preferred university courses have prerequisites
  • note that while some university courses do not have prerequisites, students will have a poor chance of success if they have not taken the appropriate HSC subjects (for example, mathematics for students planning to study engineering).

After they've made their selection, your child will be asked to sign a Confirmation of Entry showing their pattern of study. This is also to confirm they have received and read NESA's Rules and Procedures Guide.

Moderation and scaling

Final results for both HSC and the ATAR are produced by a process of adjustment to ensure consistency across different schools and study combinations.

NESA and the UAC do this separately using a process of moderation, in the case of HSC, and scaling, for the ATAR.

This is why there will be a difference between your child's HSC assessment and exam marks, and their final HSC mark and ATAR.

You and your child will probably hear all sorts of theories about how to leverage the process to improve outcomes but the most reliable sources of advice are:

  • the UAC
  • NESA
  • schools and teachers.

It's important to remember the process of moderation exists to ensure no one is disadvantaged by the subjects and courses they choose to study.

What this means is that students will usually do best with combinations that match their natural academic strengths and interests.

What's more, it's also likely these will lead to a more rewarding and sustainable career path.

What if they are still unsure?

Do your best to help your child make course choices but reassure them it's normal to still feel uncertain.

People change direction many times during a lifetime and study is no exception.

"One of the biggest misconceptions for students and also parents is that HSC determines their career and what they can do in life," Ms Greene says. "It's better to see the HSC as just the beginning of the process of sorting out what you'd like to do after you leave school, not the end."

The HSC is important but it's not a life sentence and the ATAR is just one of many pathways to university.

Ultimately, the purpose of Year 11 and 12 is to prepare students for a happy and fulfilling life, regardless of their results:

Try to keep an open mind and be realistic. Not every HSC student will go on to university but they still have a wealth of excellent and satisfying career options.

If they don't get the marks they need for the university course of their choice, there are other pathways. The success rate of mature age students is actually much higher than for those who go straight from school.

Making decisions is part of the HSC process. The more independently your child can do this, the better prepared they'll be for higher education or the workforce.

Forming ideas about career direction

When it comes to thinking about the future, there are a number of sources students can turn to for insight, including informal ones:

  • your own life experience and reflection as a parent or carer
  • adult friends working in various industries who can explain what possibilities they might offer
  • older siblings or family members who've been through HSC recently and have gone on to work or further study.

Just remember that courses and entrance requirements change so it's important to check the details.

Professional advice

The school mentoring program, counsellors and teachers are all key resources during the HSC.

School staff will already be familiar with your child's strengths, which can help a lot in narrowing down options.

They'll have other resources at their disposal too, including aptitude tests, quizzes, case studies and industry connections.

Ms Greene says "parents should encourage their children to seek advice and input from teachers and counsellors who are in the business of helping students find the right careers. They are an easily accessible source of support."

Careers events

Expos and university open days are a chance to speak directly to admissions staff, course coordinators and recruiters.

As well as providing inspiration and new ideas, these people can also help students understand which HSC courses will help them prepare for further study and career options.

Online resources

The NSW Government's LifeLauncher platform includes a range of interactive features to help students understand their strengths and suitability for potential careers.

There are many websites providing information about study in Year 11 and 12 but the most reliable are those linked directly to the HSC:

The UAC's subject compass suggests HSC options based on a student's profile of interests, skills and future study and career plans.

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