If you are in year 10 and about to choose your subjects for Preliminary and the HSC (or if you are a parent), you should carefully consider your subject choices, rather than merely choosing the highest scaled subjects.
Scaling makes some subjects more attractive than others, because they generally lead to higher ATARs. However, as explained the article on HSC scaling, subjects are scaled higher to compensate for the fact that the candidature in that subject happens to be “more able” academically, for that year. Therefore, choosing higher scaled subjects makes it harder to achieve a high rank.
The best advice we can give is to choose the subjects you are good at. That way, you have a good chance of attaining high percentiles. At the top 1% region of most subjects, the scaled mark is close to 50/50 anyway. For example, if you are a Biology genius and score in the top 1%, your scaled mark would be 45.2 in 2008, which is better than top 10% for Maths Extension 1.
There is only ONE situation where we advocate making your decision based on scaling, and that is in the case of Maths Extension 2. Our advice is that if you are at least somewhat good at maths, enrol in Maths Extension 2. The reason is that Extension 2’s scaling tends to overcompensate for its higher inherent difficulty, and students invariably score scaled marks higher than what they would have had they not done Extension 2. Another benefit of Extension 2 is that it makes Maths Extension 1 count for 2 units, instead of 1, effectively doubling the Extension 1 scaling benefit, which is already extremely high.
Choose your subjects wisely. The worst thing you can do for yourself is to choose subjects which you have no interest in. No amount of scaling can save you if your indifference to a subject causes you to score below average percentiles. For example, in 2008, if you chose Maths Extension 1 for its great scaling, but do dismally in the exams and scored in the 25th percentile, your scaled mark would be 36.8/50. Say you’re passionate about Economics instead, and had you done it, you would have scored in the 90th percentile (top 10%) then your scaled mark would be 43/50, much better than your Extension 1 result. This is an extreme result, but it illustrates what could happen if you choose subjects which you have absolutely no interest in.
For the most part however, students rarely find any subject where they have absolutely NO interest in. If you “sort of” like maths, that’s generally a good enough excuse to do at least Maths Extension 1, partly because it scales well. Scaling should always be a consideration in your final decision. We are just saying it should not be your ONLY consideration. For example, if you absolutely love Business Studies, but you have some talent in Maths, and you are choosing between the two, you should choose Maths (and Extension 1) over Business Studies, if your goal is to maximise ATAR.
On the other hand there are some very bright students who will do well at practically anything they do. The way ATAR calculation works is it works on rank. Everytime you consider choosing a particular subject, ask yourself this question: if I were to do this subject, would I have a good chance to score in the top 10%? Usually if students choose subjects they are genuinely interested in, this question is already answered ‘yes’ for all chosen subjects. However there are some students who, even if they have no interest for maths, can do well in Maths Extension 2. If you’re one of those lucky few, then by all means, choose the highest scaled subjects – you are destined for a high ATAR and great things in life. But for the majority, choose subjects that you enjoy.
An important consdieration is your school’s quality of teaching in particular subjects. Different schools have different calibres of achievement in different subjects, and this is in large part to do with the quality of teaching staff they have. For example, some schools have a reputation for excellence in Maths, year after year. Does this mean that the students of that school just so happens to have an especially high aptitude for maths year after year? No. It is because that school has quality maths teachers.
One major consideration which potentially has a larger effect than scaling is the quality of your school’s teaching in particular subjects. We recommend you do some research and find out past results of your school in the subjects you are considering. Are there a high proportion of Band 6s? Personally talk to the teacher(s) that will be responsible for taking the classes. Do you think they are great teachers? These are all questions which need to be considered.
Also not every school offers every subject, especially most language courses with low candidatures, or Extension 2 courses. This is one thing you will have to discuss with your teachers.