Every December when Year 12 results are finally released, newspapers everywhere can be relied upon to fill their pages with stories of hard work, sacrifice and academic triumph.
Some focus on those students who achieved the unthinkable - the "perfect" 99.95 ATAR - while others tell tales of success in spite of extreme or unusual adversity. The predictability of it all has an almost Groundhog Day like repetition to it.
But this year is different.
The 2021 cohort - unlike all those that preceded them in recent memory - is the first cohort to complete the entirety of their VCE during a global pandemic.
No other cohort has had to reckon with the disruption, uncertainty and isolation of remote learning and lockdowns, nor endure the rising anxiety that accompanies perpetual fears of broken dreams and interrupted life trajectories.
To that end, all students, whatever their ATAR score today, deserve to be congratulated for their show of strength and tenacity.
Nonetheless, there will inevitably be a significant number of students whose ATAR result will have prompted crushing feelings of failure, inadequacy, deflation and perhaps embarrassment.
This article is for those students.
IN OTHER NEWS
To show that a student's ATAR is neither career- nor life-defining, we spoke to some Ballarat alumni whose life experiences were a testament to that important truth.
Lawyer Tom Sullivan - director of Ballarat law firm Curwen-Walker Lawyers - was 34 when he started his own law practice. But despite all appearances, the successful lawyer did not in fact get the marks to stroll straight into law school.
"I didn't do terribly in year 12, but I certainly didn't get the outstanding marks you need," Mr Sullivan said.
"I was deflated about that. I felt like I'd let my whole support network down by not achieving what I wanted or what my school was hoping I'd achieve."
Encouraged by his legal studies teacher to pursue law regardless, Mr Sullivan proceeded as planned to take a gap year, during which he worked as a clerk in the Melbourne Magistrates' Court.
"Once the dust had settled, the excitement of a whole new world waiting took hold," Mr Sullivan said. "I couldn't get down the Western Highway fast enough."
In the blink of an eye, one year of clerking turned into four, until Mr Sullivan finally received some wisdom he said he'd never forget.
"One night over dinner, Justice [David] Berman gave me the best advice I've ever got: when an opportunity arises, grab it with both hands."
Four weeks later, Mr Sullivan found himself working in the Northern Territory and, shortly after, had enrolled in law school as a mature age student. The rest, as they say, is history.
Mr Sullivan said while he would always remember feeling dejected about his ATAR score, he believed it ultimately prompted him down a pathway that was altogether more enriching and fulfilling than straight, undergraduate law.
"It's fine to feel flat about your ATAR but you need to be able to roll up your sleeves and be willing to do some hard work to find another pathway in," Mr Sullivan said.
"There are alternative pathways out there in all industries.
"Only once was I asked in a job interview what my ATAR was, and it ended up being the worst job I've ever had - the point is, no one's ATAR matters in the long run."
For carpenter John Wheeler, school was - in his words - one of those things to which "he was never overly enthused."
"School was challenging, it was sometimes fun, but I was never very good at sitting down for too long," he said.
Though Mr Wheeler attended an academically focused school, he said he was determined to pursue a career which would get him out and about. He initially worked on the railways before injuries from a car accident compelled him to find an alternative career pathway.
"I was fortunate to find work in my father's joinery," he said. "From there, I did an apprenticeship in carpentry and then moved down to Ocean Grove."
Looking back on his schooling, Mr Wheeler said that, though tempting, it was important not to view year 12 as the entire sum of a student's learning and experience.
"I didn't realise it at the time, but all those things you learn during school that at the time you think are useless - like trigonometry or legal studies - are things which set you up for life," he said.
In other words, he said, those life-long learnings from school can play an equally, if not more important, role than the ATAR in helping a person build a fulfilling life.
Beyond that, Mr Wheeler said year 12 graduates must broaden their perspective of what is possible to find a career that is conducive to that nodding sense of fulfilment.
"Everyone changes their mind about what they want to do so many times in year 12," he said. "And that is something that doesn't change when you leave school."
"One of my best mates went to uni and became an engineer, found he didn't like it, and then went on to study medicine. He's now a GP in Ballarat."
It's a view shared by winemaker James Oliver, who said his tertiary winemaking course was made up of a "very diverse mix of people".
"There were a few people in the course who, like me, had come straight from school," Mr Oliver said. "But there were also people who'd been doctors, dentists or lawyers, who just wanted a change of occupation."
Mr Oliver, who was inspired to enter the wine industry by his grandfather's winemaking connections in the Pyrenees, said that diversity made his university experience all the more enjoyable.
"I met some amazing people who I'm still in contact with now," he said. "Your ATAR clearly doesn't define you or your life and it's not the end of the world if you don't achieve what you were hoping for.
"I know that even if I didn't quite manage to get the right score, I would've eventually found a way in if I truly wanted to."
To the reader, what all these different, individual experiences appear to speak to is an ability to not only adapt, but to have the courage to find and pursue your dreams and passions.
And if any cohort is well-positioned to apply those important lessons, it is surely the 2021 cohort.
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