'It's like the real life Hunger Games.' Why the Year 12 exams are failing teens.

I really hate the HSC. It causes so much angst year in year out, and yes, I know we need exams to help with university admissions, so no, I’m not suggesting we abolish the HSC all together. But I do think we need to make some serious changes, because our current system sucks.

For starters, the pressure and hype that surrounds the HSC is ridiculous. And no, the stress students complain about isn’t exaggerated or an over-reaction on their part, the pressure they’re under is real and completely valid.

Sure, as adults – with the benefit of hindsight – we know the HSC won’t make or break their futures. That if their ATAR isn’t high enough to grant them direct access to the course they’ve had their heart set on, it won’t matter in the long run, because if there’s an area of study they really want to pursue, they’ll find a way to get there, no matter what their ATAR.

But this isn’t the message our students get. They’re being taught, by the hype attached to the HSC and the stress they’re under at school, that their ATAR is all important and a direct measure of their intelligence, worth, and future prospects, but sure – no pressure.

Side note… Mia Freedman says ‘there is life after Year 12 Exams’. Post continues after video. 

Video by Mamamia

Except that Year 12 students are feeling the pressure, and they’re collapsing under the weight of it. It’s evident in the growing number of special provision and Educational Access Scheme (EAS) application forms I’m asked to complete each year – the forms that enable students with recognised mental health issues to access things like rest breaks or extra time during their exams, or entry to university – and the high (and growing) rates of anxiety and depression we’re seeing in Year 11 and 12 students.

And sure, some students are applying for special provisions and the EAS on mental health grounds because stressors in their personal lives are impacting their ability to study, but a hell of a lot of the students I see are stressed because of the HSC and the ridiculous pressure they’re under to outperform each other and secure their futures. It’s an academic ‘Hunger Games’, and it’s gotten way out of hand.

hsc system is broken
It’s an academic ‘Hunger Games’, and it’s gotten way out of hand. Image: Getty.

Case in point – I spoke with the Deputy Principal of a well-known Sydney high school last week to discuss a student who for the sake of her mental health, really shouldn’t be sitting the final HSC exams. She’s a diligent and hardworking student so I also don’t think she should have to repeat Year 12 should she be forced to bow out of her final exams due to anxiety. The response of her school floored me: ‘But is she in hospital? I can’t see us being able to do much if she’s not in hospital. A lot of our students with mental health issues do their exams from hospital. If you want us to do something I need something more compelling to take to the Board of Studies’.


How did we get to a point where student wellbeing is being sacrificed for an ATAR? If an employer anywhere in the world told an employee they couldn’t have time off for mental health reasons and would be ruled out for a promotion if they couldn’t perform their upcoming presentation as planned, despite that employee having documentation from not just their GP, but their psychologist as well, all hell would break lose. As it should. Because it’s illegal. Yet we’re pushing our Year 12 students to complete HSC exams in the midst of nervous breakdowns.


I’m not suggesting we wrap our teens in cotton wool and shelter them from the realities of life – that’ll just replace one problem with another – but we do need to re-think our current system, and the message we’re sending our teens.

hsc system is broken
"We’re pushing our Year 12 students to complete HSC exams in the midst of nervous breakdowns." Image: Getty.

Starting with why university admissions come down to a single number. That all important ATAR. After all, job applications don’t. There’s an interview process where you’re afforded the opportunity to talk about what you can bring to the table. What your strengths are. Why you’ll be an asset to your employer. Numbers are only part of the process, not the whole process, because they’re not a reliable indicator of an employee’s value. So why is a high ATAR the holy grail?


Maybe it’s time we adopted a new system. One more in line with the US college system – which granted, isn’t completely flawless as we’ve seen with the US admissions scandals – but what is better about the US system is their willingness to look at the bigger picture. When it comes to college admissions, other factors – a student’s involvement in extra-curricular activities and their school community, personal essays, letters of recommendation – are taken into account too. It’s not just test scores that matter.

We can tell our teens that their ATAR won’t make or break the rest of their life, but unless the academic system they’re operating within expands to look at the bigger picture, we’re wasting our breath.

Our teens aren’t coping. Change is needed. I just hope for the sake of everyone involved that that change comes sooner rather than later.

Dr. Sarah Hughes is a clinical psychologist and founder of Think Clinical Psychologists. You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter

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