Words Of Wisdom To Year 12 Students, From Former Grads Who Are Thriving

When William Clifton-Andrews was in the thick of his HSC, life was happening outside the exam room. 

"I was coming to terms with being gay (luckily with very supportive family and friends) and my dad had cancer at the time," he told ten daily.

"So it's fair to say my focus was elsewhere."

Clifton-Andrews, now 32, says he wasn't engaged at school, and went on to fail all of his exams, barring English and Drama.

"I was anxious and basically buried my head in the sand and ignored it as best as I could," he said.

Exams were a stressful and unpleasant experience for Kate Iselin who finished high school in Victoria at the young age of 13.

"I experienced pressure and anxiety of being a so-called 'gifted' kid and struggling to cope with the responsibilities of choosing my VCE subjects and sitting my exams at such a young age," she told ten daily.

"A week or two before my exams, I really began struggling and actually didn't attend most of them."

It’s a form of pressure Albert Santos knows all too well. He went to a partially selective high school in south-west Sydney where “everyone was aiming for UAI’s in the high 90’s”.

“It was a case of even if you are above-average or performing at an excellent level, it was still be quite stressful,” he said.

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It was also quite triggering for Santos, who managed anxiety, depression and self harm.

“Looking back I had to build myself back up from that point," he said. 

Iselin, now in her 30s, doesn't remember her ENTER score; "it was somewhere in the 30s or 40s", she recalls. But, like the other former students ten daily interviewed, she is grateful for her successes that came after.

It's a message they want all students to hear loud and clear as thousands in New South Wales kick off their HSC exams on Thursday.

"In all honestly, I have a pretty good life now; a great house, partner, dog, car and job that I (mostly) like," said Clifton-Andrews.

That job is a property manager and leasing consultant in Sydney's eastern suburbs. It came from many years of administration and customer service roles and a keen interest in real estate.

"I did my real estate certificate, and here I am!" he said.

"If it all goes horribly wrong, there's plenty of ways you can turn it around when you're ready."

Years on, Iselin is now a columnist and copywriter for small businesses.

"Honestly, I got here by writing and blogging on my own platforms, networking as hard as I could and just pitching to editor after editor until someone responded and gave me a 'yes'," she said.

Santos, too, had always had his eyes on becoming a music journalist. With a UAI of around 66, he opted for a communications degree at the University of Western Sydney via a scheme offered to local students who received below-average scores.

But then life got in the way. After being diagnosed with Crohn's disease and managing his mental health, Santos dropped out of uni twice before beginning freelancing.

“It’s odd looking back at how that entire thing played out: how I went from having a sub-par UAI, dropping out of uni twice and now working as a journalist, which is where I always wanted to be," he said, urging current students to “look past the paper”.

“Even if you do well, if you don’t, life has a funny way of getting you back to where you want to be.”

Looking back on her former self, Iselin said she'd remain quiet.

"I'd listen to her, because she was under a real lot of stress and I know she would have appreciated a friendly ear," she said.

Clifton-Andrews urged students who are struggling to reach out if they need support.

"Ultimately your mental health and happiness is more important than a mark," he said.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.