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What is VCE — Subjects, SACs and ATAR: How it all works

Chances are you've heard of VCE. But what is it exactly? How does it work and which VCE subjects are right for you — we simplify and explain it all here.

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Math Minds

Friday, 8th July 2022

If you're wondering what VCE is all about, this is the article for you. You'll find everything you need to know about subjects, how the program is structured, and what you should expect through this next phase of your schooling life.

Study designs, scaled scoring, and your ATAR score are important factors in your tertiary education and career planning. We break it all down for you so that you can make informed decisions about your future.

Victorian Certificate of Education

The Victorian Certificate of Education, or the VCE, is the certificate that is awarded to students who successfully complete secondary education in the Australian state of Victoria. It's designed to give students the opportunity to apply for tertiary education and/or seek employment.

How is VCE structured?

The course is made up of VCE studies that have four units (Units 1, 2, 3 and 4), each of which is a semester in length.

The majority of students complete VCE over 2 years, typically studying Units 1 and 2 in year 11 followed by Units 3 and 4 in year 12.

Over the 2 years, most students study between 20 to 24 units - that's about five or six subjects.

There is some flexibility in how you choose to structure your units. For example, you can take longer than 2 years to finish VCE if you want. Some students begin Units 1 and 2 in year 10 in order to complete Units 3 and 4 in year 11.

Minimum Requirements

To successfully receive your VCE you must complete at least 16 units including:

  • three units from the English group, two of which must be a Unit 3 and 4 sequence

  • at least three additional Unit 3 and 4 sequences

Research your options

For most VCE studies, Units 1 and 2 are required before 3 and 4. However, there are a handful of subjects in which you can complete Units 3 and 4, without having completed Units 1 and 2. This is because the units are unrelated.

Whether or not this option is open to you, will depend on your school. The following is a list of some VCE studies for which you can go straight into units 3 and 4, without having completed 1 and 2.

  • Business Management

  • Economics

  • Psychology

  • International Studies

  • Legal Studies

  • Health and Human Development

  • Accounting

  • Biology

  • Physical Education

A popular approach is to complete Units 3 and 4 for one of the above subjects in year 11, as this can help reduce the workload in year 12.

You should consult with your teachers or career advisor on how to arrange your VCE program to best match your needs.

How are you assessed in the VCE?

VCE students are assessed on their performance in school-based assessments (School-assessed Coursework / School-assessed Tasks) and external examinations (set by VCAA).

  • For Units 1 and 2, your teachers will set a range of assessments and/or exams, marked by your school. You'll receive either an S (Satisfactory) or N (Non-Satisfactory). Your school might give you a grade as well, but only the S counts towards your VCE.

  • For Units 3 and 4 you'll get actual grades calculated from A+ to E, UG (Ungraded), or NA (Not Assessed) as well as an S or N. These grades are the ones that count towards your final ATAR score.

For Units 3 and 4, there are a total of three graded assessments. These are a combination of School-based assessments and external examinations sat at the end of the unit. The percentage split varies greatly according to the subject. For example, in English, your exam is worth 50% of your final study score, as opposed to Maths Methods, in which the final exams are worth 66%.

What is a study score?

If you obtain at least two graded assessments and achieve an S for both Units 3 and 4 in a study in the same year, you receive a study score. This is a number between 0 and 50 that indicates your ranking against all students doing that study in that year.

Scaled study scores

In order to keep things fair, the VCE study scores are adjusted up or down according to the level of student competition in that subject. VCE subject scaling ensures that each study score is a more accurate reflection of a student's achievement relative to the rest of the cohort.

Languages, Maths and Sciences tend to scale up whereas Arts and Humanities subjects generally scale down.


There is often a lot of confusion surrounding the extent to which SACs matter. Put simply, SACs do matter, but the exam is what really counts.

The reason for this is that your SAC scores are moderated. This means that your school's marks are adjusted to reflect your performance in the VCAA external exam.

For example, if your school is known to be very generous with its grades, the VCAA may adjust your marks downwards. Similarly, if your school is known to be very strict, the VCAA may adjust your marks upwards.

The moderation process is designed to ensure that all students are on a level playing field, regardless of which school they attend.

Even though you're competing against each other, you actually want your school cohort to ace their final exams, as this has the potential to boost all your SAC marks up. So help each other out!

What is an ATAR?

The Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) is a number between 0.00 and 99.95 that indicates how your Year 12 results compare to those of other students.

It is calculated on the basis of your scaled study scores. To be eligible for an ATAR, you must have at least four subjects (study scores), one of which needs to be from the English group.

Your ATAR is not a measure of intelligence or ability. It is simply a ranking, which is used by tertiary institutions across Australia to select students for admission into university courses.

Be aware: Your ATAR is not an exam score. There is no pass or fail. It's a ranking. For instance, if you achieve an ATAR of 80.00, this means you have performed better than 80% of all students in the country. In other words, you fall into the top 20%!

How is it calculated?

The ATAR uses study scores from Units 3 and 4 and, where appropriate, VCE VET programs and higher education studies.

Your best four scaled study scores (one of which must be either English, English Language, Literature or English as an Additional Language) contribute the most to your ATAR, with smaller increments coming from your 5th and 6th subjects.

These scaled scores are added together to give you what's called an aggregate score. Aggregates are then placed in order on a percentile scale, which is then converted into your ATAR score (between 0 and 99.95).

Note: A maximum of six subjects can contribute to your ATAR. If more than six subjects are undertaken, only the six highest will be used and the rest will be discarded.

What is the GAT?

The GAT, or General Achievement Test, is a 3-hour test taken by all VCE students in addition to their regular studies. Held on the 7th of September, it's designed to measure general skills and knowledge, as well as provide a point of comparison for students from different schools.

The test covers a range of topics, including English, Maths, Science, Humanities and the Arts. It's made up of 2 writing tasks and 70 multiple-choice questions. Students enrolled in one or more VCE or scored VCE VET Units 3 and 4 must sit the test.

Why is the GAT important?

Your GAT score is not included in your ATAR calculation, but it is still an important part of the Victorian Certificate of Education.

The results are used to check that VCE external assessments and school-based assessments have been accurately and fairly assessed. According to VCAA, if a student does well in the GAT, they are likely to do well in their other assessments.

The GAT is also important because it gives you an opportunity to boost your final exam marks if they are not reflective of what you achieved during the year. For example, if you scored poorly in your English exam but got a high GAT score, this may be taken into account by the VCAA when moderating your marks.

Your GAT score can also be used if you apply for a Derived Examination Score. Sometimes hardship—say an accident or trauma—causes you to underperform or not even sit final exams. VCAA could then turn to your GAT results to help determine your final score for a VCE external assessment.

The GAT is therefore an important safety net for students who may not have performed as well as they would have liked in their exams.

Should VCE students revise for the GAT?

The GAT is designed to measure the skills and knowledge you've already acquired during your schooling. So it's not an exam that you can study for in the traditional sense.

However, it might be worthwhile to familiarise yourself with the types of writing prompts and multi-choice questions that could appear by having a go at some past GAT papers.

The GAT can only ever improve your VCE marks—it can't lower them. There's really nothing to lose so you should give it your best shot!

VCE subjects available

Subject selection is an important time, not only for what you'll be studying but also for your future career. It's essential that you choose subjects that interest and challenge you, while also keeping in mind what you might like to do when you finish school.

You must take one English subject in Years 11 and 12 (Most international students choose English as an Additional Language). The remaining subjects are completely up to you.

There are over 90 VCE studies to choose from, covering a wide range of interests—from traditional academic subjects to more creative vocational ones. These are spread across 9 Key Learning Areas:

  • English (4 to choose from)

  • Languages (other than English)

  • Science

  • Mathematics (5 to choose from)

  • Technology

  • The Arts

  • Humanities

  • Business Studies

  • Health and Physical Education

Choices include:

  • 4 English subjects

  • 5 mathematics subjects

  • 5 science subjects

  • 10 arts subjects including 3 music, 3 performing arts and 3 visual arts subjects

  • 5 technology subjects

  • 17 humanities subjects including 8 history and 3 politics subjects

  • 5 business subjects

  • 3 health and physical education subjects

  • over 40 languages other than English

So what's next for you

Now that you know how VCE works, it's time to start thinking about what subjects you might like to take.

There is no 'right' or 'wrong' combination of subjects—it all comes down to what interests you and where you see yourself after school. If you'd like to know how to get a high ATAR, it's important to remember that you don't need to study all the 'hard' subjects.

The best way to figure out which subjects are right for you is to speak with your parents, teachers, careers counsellor or anyone else who might be able to offer some advice. They'll be able to help you choose specific subjects that will complement your strengths and future plans.

You can also check out the VCAA website for more information on each VCE study design, policies and procedures.

If you need some support with understanding the VCE maths curriculum, a refresher of the fundamentals or are ready to get ahead of the pack, then our VCE tutoring program has you covered. Get in touch with us today—Book a free online assessment and experience the Math Minds difference.

Remember, VCE in years 11 and 12 is not the be-all and end-all but in many ways the most important years of your schooling. So work hard, enjoy the journey and make the most of it!

Please Note: The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and are not affiliated with the Victorian Curriculum Assessment Authority. To learn more about the VCE study design, visit the VCAA website.

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