If The HSC Seems Like The End Of The World, That's Fair Enough

It can be so easy to tell a stressed-out year 12 student the whole thing doesn’t really matter.

Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but it isn’t something you can wrap up and gift to a teenager. Looking back, I wish the adults in my life hadn’t tried to push theirs on me.

I did my HSC in 2013 and no one has asked what ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank) I've got in years. I doubt my boss even knows what high school I went to.

Finishing my Higher School Certificate, at the time, was my be-all-end-all.

Getting an ATAR of above 95 was EXTREMELY important to me.

“Young people need to understand that their ATAR is not going to be tattooed on their forehead for the rest of their lives,” University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence told The Australian earlier this week.

I wanted my ATAR tattooed on my ribs.

That's no joke. I wanted it in very small print, to be fair, but branded on my body nonetheless.

At the time, that rank was the single biggest achievement of my life.

It was 13 years of work coming to an end -- and it really did feel worth celebrating.

Me (bottom left in both pictures) with my group of friends in high school. We all cared about our marks, from year 9 when the top photo was taken until year 12 in the bottom. (Image: Supplied)

Now, six years on from my final exams, I know Vice-Chancellor Spence is right (and I’m happy to report I never got the tattoo).

But it's easy to see how similar sentiments were lost on 18-year-old me.

I thought the HSC was going to set a predetermined path for the rest of my life — from the uni course I got into, to the job I landed after and the husband my mum keeps telling me I’ll bump into in the office kitchen.

As thousands of students across NSW prepare to sit their first exams on Thursday, similar concerns might be plaguing some of them.

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According to mental health service ReachOut, two-thirds of young people are experiencing worrying levels of exam stress in 2019.

Sixty-eight percent of students said their stress was driven by a self-generated pressure to succeed.

I was lucky enough to have parents who never pushed me, and I didn’t have to navigate the ultra-competitive arena of selective schooling, so external pressures to succeed were few and far between.

Self-generated pressure was my drug of choice.

The panic attack during my ancient history exam? That was all me, baby. You would have been hard-pressed to find anyone in my life who thought it was worth hyperventilating over a 25-marker about Marcus Agrippa.

Self-generated pressure was my drug of choice. (Image: Getty)

At the end of it all, I got the ATAR I wanted, the golden ticket that was going to fast track me straight to adulthood.

You can imagine my surprise when it didn’t.

Three weeks into the first degree I had chosen, I was a mess. I hated it and couldn’t stomach the idea of dedicating four years and a subsequent career to it, so I dropped out.

I had picked the wrong course and the fallout hit me like a sledgehammer.

Here I was, ATAR golden ticket in hand, and not in university?

I had to wait for the next semester to begin before I could go back and start in another area of study — a few months delay on my road to glory. This was unexpected turn number one.

When the time finally came to try again, I decided to do a business degree. This was unexpected turn number two because until then, I had shown little to no interest in the subject.

My HSC subjects were spread across the humanities — advanced English, history, visual arts — what did I know about debits and credits?

My fast-track was becoming increasingly hap-hazard.

Geography was one of my top subjects (maybe because our teacher ordered us bespoke cakes). (Image: Supplied)

I hadn’t even graduated before unexpected turn number three took me down another path, and I landed a gig in journalism.

I'm still trotting down that path and I'm happy to have ended up here, in a career my marks in high school and university have had little to no bearing on.

The adults in my life knew well before me that my HSC results wouldn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things,  and they did their best to assure me of it when I was in tears over a less-than-desirable assessment mark.

"It won't even matter! Your ATAR isn't the end of the world," was about the gist of the most common responses to my stress.

I understand their hearts were in the right place.

READ MORE: Words Of Wisdom To Year 12 Students, From Former Grads Who Are Thriving

It can be easy for adults who’s final exams have long since faded away in the rearview mirror to belittle the stresses of high school exams, as their own stress is the result of 'more mature' things.

How serious can you take nerves about a student's Advanced English Paper 2 when you have mortgage repayments to worry about?

But how is it that after more than a decade of being told to “work hard”, “pay attention in class”, and “if you can’t handle this amount of homework how will you survive the workforce?”, adults are surprised when kids aren't soothed by their claims that final exam results won't have that much impact on their lives?

113 students pose for a photo after receiving awards from NSW Premier Morris Iemma in Sydney, 2017, for topping courses in the HSC. (Image: AAP)

More than 60 percent of students don't seek external help to manage exam stress, ReachOut stats also revealed. So, maybe it's time to switch up how we try to help students who do say they are stressed.

I wish I'd been given facts -- cold hard numbers to read and check and check again -- to bring me back down closer to earth when it was all getting too much during my own exam periods.

Just over a quarter of undergraduate university admissions are based on an ATAR these days. Meanwhile, the average Australian changes career about five times in their lifetime.

Perhaps students would respond better to this information than the condescending promise that the biggest undertaking of their lives thus far isn't worth much.

Or maybe you could tell them the story of the journalist with a business degree and no tattoos.