The concept of the “top 4” VCE subjects has long been discussed. In this article, we’ll look briefly at why that’s the case, what the “top 4” refers to, and how you should approach those VCE subjects through your own VCE experience.
It’s firstly important to note that everything contained in this article is merely my personal opinion. I’m a past VCE student reflecting on my own experiences, and I think you’ll be able to use the information in this article to help you develop your own approach. And that’s the important thing – it’s your own approach. Different things will work for different people, and there’s more than one way to approach VCE. With that in mind, let’s get into the article!
To understand this – and everything to come in this article – we first need a basic understanding of how VCE works, and how study scores (and ultimately ATARs) are calculated.
Essentially, the ATAR is based on something called the “aggregate”. And the aggregate is based on the sum of (after scaling):
It’s a forum guide I created called “VCE Behind the Scenes: Moderation, Rankings, Scaling, Aggregates”. It gives a basic overview of everything you need to know (well, in honesty, a lot more than you need to know – but hopefully explained in relatively basic terms!).
The important thing to realise at this stage is that your best English subject, plus your next three best subjects (after scaling), contribute more to your aggregate – and, therefore, your ATAR – than your fifth or sixth subjects. This is where the term “top 4” comes from. Of course, you don’t need to study more than four subjects to achieve an ATAR, and not everybody will – but for sake of this article, I’ll assume you’re studying either five or six Units 3&4 subjects in total.
So the basic idea, then, is that it might be beneficial to focus more on those top four subjects – after all, they’ll contribute more to your ATAR. There is discussion about this every single year (see here, for example), and generally there’s a lot of confusion centred on whether or not this is something to seriously consider when going about VCE study.
I don’t think there’s an objectively correct answer to this – and, as above, different things will work for different people. But in this article, I hope to step back a little bit and consider some of the potential pros and cons to taking this approach, based on my own experiences. Let’s get into that right now.
Below are four common arguments in favour of prioritising your “top 4” Units 3&4 subjects:
The logic goes that, if some of your VCE subjects will ultimately contribute more to your ATAR than others, it makes sense to focus more heavily on those particular subjects. And due to the way that the ATAR is calculated, this could be justified. Let’s look at a case example of the conveniently named “Student A”.
Let’s say Student A studies the following six Units 3&4 subjects: Biology, English, Further Maths, History: Revolutions, Maths Methods, and Visual Communication Design. A wonderful mix! What would happen if they received a very respectable raw study score of, say, 35 for every single one of those six Units 3&4 subjects?
According to ATAR Calc, which provides an ATAR estimation based on previous years’ data and scaling reports, Student A would be looking at an ATAR between 85 and 86.
But what if we changed four of those subjects to a 40, and the other two – let’s say Maths Methods and Visual Communication Design – to a 20? Plugging these new results into ATAR Calc suggests an ATAR between 91 and 92 – a decent jump.
So the idea here is that improving your “top 4” subjects at expense of your “bottom 2” can actually be worthwhile in a sheer ATAR maximisation strategy – or, at least, in the specific circumstances presented above. Note that this is definitely not always the case, and there are also potential issues with this approach, which I’ll touch on a little later in the article.
Speaking theoretically, if you focus mostly on four Units 3&4 subjects rather than six Units 3&4 subjects, you could intentionally focus on the four subjects you most enjoy, and this could lead to a more enjoyable Year 12 experience overall. For a lot of people, it’s easier to study for subjects you’re interested in – it’s less of a grind – and I don’t disagree with that on paper.
For example, my own Units 3&4 subjects through VCE were Business Management, English Language, Further Maths, HHD, Psychology, and Visual Communication Design. Overall, my two least preferred subjects (just personally) were Business Management and Further Maths, so if I could have spent less time studying those, and more time studying the other four, ostensibly I would have maximised enjoyable study time – at least one in sense.
Naturally, there are potential issues with this approach also, such as if you require a certain level of achievement in a certain subject to act as a university pre-requisite. I’ll touch more on this later in the article as well.
Let’s say you were planning to study four Units 3&4 subjects through Year 12. What harm would it cause to add a fifth subject, but still focus primarily on the original four? Doing this would provide a “bonus 10%” of sorts – an extra 10% from your fifth subject toward your aggregate, which otherwise you wouldn’t have received.
Say our good friend Student A was studying Art, Chemistry, Literature, and Psychology, and then decided to add Physics as their fifth subject. What impact would that have, really? Well, let’s say Student A achieves a 35 raw study score in the first four and, because they’re focusing on it a bit less, a 20 raw study score in Physics. Having that fifth subject would improve their ATAR from (according to ATAR Calc‘s estimations) something like 79-80 to something like 80-81, assuming adding the fifth subject has no impact on Student A’s achievement in the first four (which realistically may not be the case).
Or if Student A achieves a 40 raw study score in the first four and, because they’re focusing on it a bit less, a 25 raw study score in Physics, their ATAR would improve from something like 90-91 to something like 91-93.
These aren’t massive differences, and I should point out very clearly that these numbers I’m presenting as scenarios are pretty arbitrary (there are thousands of potential scenarios, each with very specific outcomes), but every little bit can make a difference. And when places in university courses are limited, for example, having that fifth subject could be the difference between being accepted or not being accepted. For that reason, I recommend studying a Units 3&4 subject in Year 11 if possible (see here for some tips!).
Now, I’m not really a fan of this line of thinking at all (and you’ll see why below when I speak about the difficulty of predicting study scores), but some students may intentionally invest less time into their fifth and/or sixth subjects to simply have a more chill time through Year 12. And if that’s what you want to do, that’s fine – it’s your journey, after all, and we all have different circumstances. But I personally found it a problematic approach within the realm of my own situation – if you’re capable of giving each subject your all, why not give it your best shot?
And that leads nicely into the counter-arguments – the case against focusing heavily on your “top 4” subjects to detriment of your others.
Below are four common arguments against prioritising your “top 4” Units 3&4 subjects:
For me, one of the most compelling reasons against trying to organise your “top 4″/”bottom 2” subjects is that study scores are, straight up, super hard to predict accurately. There are so many factors at play; you can’t just say “I’m averaging 80% in Psych but 60% in Methods, so I’m going to get a better study score in Psych!” It just doesn’t work that way.
I again recommend this thread here, which I hope will go some way to explaining why it’s not quite that simple. But just one thing to consider is that your study score for each subject depends on more than just your own results – it also depends on the performance of the rest of the state. So even if you feel considerably more confident in one subject, it doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily receive a higher study score in that subject.
For transparency, I tried to be fairly consistent across my subjects in Year 12, even though I preferred some to others. Even with that in mind, I was pretty confident throughout the entire year that Visual Communication Design would be my best subject in terms of study score. It ended up being my worst, bar none. These things are very hard to predict and, therefore, focusing on four subjects only is, to me, pretty risky. The way I see it, trying to pigeon-hole your “top 4” can actually result in a lower ATAR, just depending on circumstances.
If you’re at all interested, you can read more about my own VCE journey and other thoughts here.
Part of the reason I say that prioritising your “top 4” is risky is because in some sense, you lose your subject “buffer” (or safety net) from your fifth and/or sixth subjects. That is, if you invest consistent effort across all of your Units 3&4 subjects, and then end up not doing as well in one of your best subjects (for example, if you have an off day on the day of the end-of-year exam), the “damage” probably won’t be that severe, as one of your other subjects can take its place in the “top 4” instead.
But if you pigeon-hole just four subjects, and then don’t do as well as you had anticipated in one of those four subjects, the “damage” might be worse – you don’t have the comfort of having another subject you tried your hardest in to take its place in the “top 4”. In a way, working toward a “top 4” throughout the year flat out puts more pressure on you to nail those specific subjects through the examination period.
To again refer back to my own experiences, I thought Visual Communication Design was going to be my best subject, but I didn’t do as well on the final exam as I had hoped. In the end, it didn’t impact me too much, as I had another subject ready to take its place in the “top 4”. Had I not tried to be consistent across my subjects throughout the year, that would not have been the case.
In some cases, entry into certain university courses or other pathways can require pre-requisites – that is, certain things you need to achieve or tick off before you’re considered. This might be something like “a study score of 25 or above in a VCE English subject”, or “a study score of 30 or above in VCE Maths Methods”.
In cases like these, it’s obviously important to keep those particular scores in mind, and having those subjects in your pre-conceived “bottom 2” just might not be an option.
And, more holistically, I encourage you to think about your VCE experience on a broader level, thinking about more than surface level score maximisation.
VCE is an awesome opportunity to, well, learn some cool stuff. With acknowledgement that people are looking to get different things out of Year 12 – which is totally fine – it seems like a bit of a waste to me to not do your best in any of your given subjects, no matter what “doing your best” means to you. You can use VCE subjects to help foster interests, to test new areas, or to see what you might like to pursue in the future – and these are all valid considerations when it comes to study strategy.
My personal view is that pigeon-holing your “top 4” subjects is fraught with danger, particularly early in the year, due to the risks presented above. I didn’t focus too much on this sort of thing when I was in Year 12, and I think trying to get as many marks in as many subjects as possible benefitted me in the end (more on this here).
Does that mean you should use the exact same strategy, or have the exact same approach? No – and I imagine there are many stories of students who did accurately predict their “top 4” subjects, and maximised their ATAR accordingly. But in my personal view, the potential downfalls outweigh the personal gains – or, at least, that was my thinking through Year 12.
For those reasons above, I’m going to sit on the fence a little in these concluding remarks. I don’t think there’s an objective best way of “doing VCE“, but I hope this article at least provided some points of interest to think about. I recommend chatting with your teachers and school if you’re keen for another perspective when it comes to your study approach.
We’ve also set up a specific discussion thread on the ATAR Notes Forums for this particular article, which you can find here! We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.
Good luck with your VCE studies!