15 years ago, we were the Year 12 success story. It was a trap.

Fifteen years ago, we were the High Achievers.

On a sticky morning in December, 2008, we stopped at a newsagent to buy The Daily Telegraph. According to a few frantic phone calls, we were on the front page.

Sure enough, there we were. It was an appalling photograph. More than a decade later, it still is. As we bought the paper, we smiled creepily at the newsagent – who completely ignored us.


We were twins who had received almost identical results. We both got Premier Awards, and one of us topped the state in Extension History, while the other came fifth. Back then, it was a UAI instead of an ATAR, and we got 98.50 and 98.30.

They weren’t the top marks in the state by a long shot, but it was an easy story for journalists to run with. Twins doing weird twin s**t, etc. Works every time.

A television crew was at our house the morning we opened our results, and we were interviewed by a bunch of radio stations. There were photographs and sound bites and lots of people exclaiming “Congratulations!”

It’s hard to say who was more surprised. Us, who had never been called ‘High Achievers’ in our entire lives, our parents who had never considered us High Achievers in our entire lives, or our teachers who were just pissed off because we were always forgetting a blazer or a hat.

We were the High Achievers, and for a while it was all exciting. There was a fuss and Dad rang our grandpa and one of our teachers cried.


Watch: Mia Freedman on life after Year 12. Post continues after video.

But over the coming days, months and years, we’d discover a secret. A few secrets, actually.

Awards don’t actually make you feel… anything.

The funny thing about other people’s approval or even adoration, is that it’s something you can’t feel. That’s their feeling. Not yours.

You’re left wondering why these external achievements haven’t overwhelmed you with pride and contentment. And it’s because it’s just an impersonal, arbitrary metric. The moments that made you proud already happened. Like the moments you were tired and kept working, or were disappointed and persevered. They’re real regardless of whether or not there’s an award at the end of it.

It turns out you can win as many awards as you like and your self-esteem remains the same. How easy would happiness be, if it was just the end point of a series of achievements? Unfortunately, it’s much more complicated than that.


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You’re about to suffer a fall from grace.

Being a Year 12 ‘Success Story’ is a trap. One that ultimately sets you up for a less than dignified fall from grace.

For five minutes in December, words are thrown around like excellence and merit and outstanding. For a moment you think you might be really, really, special.

Maybe you’re a… low key genius. Who’s going to find the cure for cancer while giving important speeches in court and getting multiple PhDs.

Then you get a job working behind the bar at your local golf club, and you can’t change a keg. Or make a coffee that isn’t burnt.


You start university and you almost fail your first assignment, because you’ve forgotten that no one is good at anything immediately. And there will be some things – many things – that you’re never, ever good at.

You change courses and you’re not sure what you’re interested in or what you’re capable of, and you meet people who are far better writers and thinkers than you can ever imagine being.

You get your first full-time job and no one ever looked at your Year 12 score. It had no bearing on them hiring you.

You start and you make mistakes and you’re bad at it and it’s hard and you feel stupid for months on end. You work with people who are remarkably talented and not once does it cross your mind to ask whether, years ago in December, they were called a High Achiever.

Year 12 results aren’t the beginning. Or the end.

The thing about being a High Achiever is that it’s not a permanent state.

It’s temporary, and before you know it, the people around you are achieving in ways you’re not.

The HSC wasn’t the end, and it wasn’t the beginning. It was a blip in the complicated and messy structure of life, where sometimes you’re special and sometimes you’re not.

There was no permanent halo, or a badge you got to wear that said: ‘Trust me, I’m competent. I’m a High Achiever!’

Fifteen years on from that photo – which Mum bought from the paper and now sits framed in our parents’ room – we see something very different to what we did in 2008.


We see two young women who had no idea that the world was about to become bigger. Harder. More competitive. We thought for a moment that we’d finally proven ourselves, but that’s not how life works. 

There’s no such thing as ‘proving’ yourself. You just show up. And some days you’ll succeed and other days you’ll fail.

In the coming months, when the tests are done and the results are in, the media’s 2023 High Achievers will be the centre of attention. We’ll see pictures of them smiling, on a day when they succeeded. And good on them.

But there’s much more to the story. They’ll learn too that an award means far less than they thought it did.

For a moment, that might feel disappointing.

Ultimately, though, it’s the most liberating lesson you ever learn.

Feature Image: Supplied. 

For more from Clare and Jessie Stephens, follow them on Instagram and Facebook

This article was originally published in December 2019 and has since been updated.

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