Twenty years on, three women who topped their classes in Year 12 have found that learning how to fail is just as important as celebrating success. While they all have glamorous careers and degrees from the world's top universities, life has not been all straight As and open doors.
By the time Ceridwen Dovey got her HSC results, she had already been accepted into Harvard University on a scholarship.
The year was 1998, and the South African-born student collapsed in a heap in the Sydney apartment she shared with her sister.
"In some ways I have never worked again as hard as I did in that year," Ms Dovey, now an author, said.
She was enrolled at North Sydney Girl's High School and her academic parents monitored their lives while they were teaching in South Africa.
Ms Dovey was sent Down Under from South Africa aged 15 to complete her studies, and her aptitude for hard work has continued throughout her career.
She managed to not only complete the HSC but also sit the American Suite of Assessments (SATs) which made her eligible to head to the United States for university.
'Stop studying so much'
Around the corner from Ms Dovey's apartment, Dr Sarah Irving-Stonebraker was studying all hours of the day at Wenona School in North Sydney.
"Mum and Dad were always trying to tell me to relax," she said.
"I was very driven, if anything they were like stop studying so much."
Dr Irving-Stonebraker, now a history professor, had known she wanted to be a historian since visiting Cambridge with her family as a child.
She finished high school with a Universities Admissions Index (UAI) — now known as an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank — of 100, topping the state in the subject of Ancient History.
"I wasn't really stressed because I didn't need a particular UAI but I was trying to prove something to myself," she said.
A goal from the start
Meanwhile, lawyer Keppie Waters, who grew up on the Central Coast, had a geographical barrier to overcome in order to follow her passion.
Ms Waters, who was completing her core HSC subjects from Gosford High School, did an Aboriginal Studies course long distance from Dubbo School of Distance Education.
Like Dr Irving-Stonebraker, she knew from a young age what she wanted to be: a lawyer and advocate for Indigenous Australians.
She said that dream was born after witnessing racial discrimination towards Indigenous students from teachers at primary school.
"I remember standing in the school library going I'm going to be a lawyer and I'm going to work with the Aboriginal community, it was quite a strong, vivid memory," Keppie said.
At the end of Year 12 Ms Waters had received the highest mark in the state for Aboriginal Studies and went to University of Technology, Sydney.
"I did social inquiry and law for a year and then as soon as I got the opportunity, I transferred across to do Indigenous Law," she said.
During her five years of university, honours and practical legal training, Ms Waters volunteered at the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) in Redfern.
The opportunity allowed her to shadow senior solicitors, but it wasn't until she was hired by the ALS as a lawyer that she really understood the job.
"Once the pressure is on you and you're on your feet, it's a completely different ball game," she said.
Dr Irving-Stonebraker had been accepted into University of Sydney where she did an arts degree, and honours, majoring in history.
"That was great fun, I could study ancient history, medieval history, modern history, early modern history ... it just expands your intellectual horizons so much," she said.
But there was an even more prestigious tertiary education to come — a PhD from England's Cambridge University.
"I really wanted to be able to study at Cambridge or Oxford and I ended up being able to do both which is pretty crazy," she said.
Yes, she also ended up studying at Cambridge's academic rival, and heavyweight of European education, Oxford University, but more on that later.
Finding out how she fit in
Meanwhile, in Boston, as Ms Dovey was in the midst of a four-year degree in Liberal Arts, she discovered a love of anthropology and filmmaking.
"It was one of those moments that you wait for in life and think oh my God I've found the thing I want to do," she said.
"Anyway it turns out that's not the thing."
After finishing at Harvard, Ms Dovey moved to Cape Town to rediscover her roots and work as an ethnographic filmmaker.
But with no work and little support she became disconnected from her career plan.
She began writing and at 23, finished her first novel Blood Kin.
"It was a way to process my feelings about South Africa being white and having gone back to figure out if that was my identity and finding out that it wasn't a place I wanted to live," she said.
Lost and found
Ms Dovey was not the only one feeling restless.
Eight years into her work with the ALS, and Public Interest Advocacy Centre Ms Waters went to New Zealand, where she spend three months studying Mori and Waitangi studies.
"I found very quickly that it was much easier to be back in Australia than to try and get my profile across to New Zealand," Keppie said.
So she came back, and began practising with NSW Legal Aid.
"I'm not going to solve all the problems, I'm one of many who will come and many who will follow, in terms of working with the community, but all I can do is do my best," she said.
After studying three and a half years for her PhD at Cambridge, Dr Irving-Stonebraker began trying to find a fellowship placement, to continue her research.
"I must have applied for about 32 of these things and I'd get shortlisted time after time and interviewed six or seven times, but yeah 31 knock backs," she said.
In the end Dr Irving-Stonebraker was accepted and headed to Oxford, but eventually, her path led back to Australia.
After 13 years studying and working abroad, Dr Irving-Stonebraker was hired as a senior lecturer in modern history at the University of Western Sydney.
Dr Irving-Stonebraker said she had always kept her career in perspective.
"You don't want to just work for achieving career success or acquiring more stuff ... work is not what life is about," she said.
Ms Dovey decided academia, and filmmaking were not for her.
Now back in Sydney, and having written two more books, she said she had learnt to embrace the fact that things do not always work out.
"It's not just about succeeding," Ms Dovey said.
"It's about freedom to fail."