In what was one of the most challenging HSC years in recent times, a handful of students who completed their final exams achieved another exceptional feat.
Four students from St George and Sutherland Shire topped the state in the NSW First in Course awards, which were announced on January 19.
Aquinas Catholic College Menai's Oliver Wells and Brock Wilson shared first place in construction.
Shire Christian School Barden Ridge student, Katherine Coffey, of Woronora Heights, blitzed the state in Music 1, and Beverly Hills Girls High School's Roaa Ahmed was first in Arabic Extension.
They were acknowledged for their extraordinary academic achievement at a ceremony that was livestreamed on the NSW Education and Standards Authority (NESA) website.
Oliver, 17, of Bangor, was taken by surprise when he found out. He was happy to share the title with his former classmate.
"I wasn't expecting it. I was blown away," he said. "It's great for both of us and shows how much work the teachers put in.
"It was definitely hard staying motivated with homeschooling and working towards a goal when not actually being at school.
"Now I'm waiting to see what ATAR I get. I want to do a project construction management course. I have early entry into Western Sydney but hoping to get into UTS."
Brock said he was also proud of what he achieved.
"To be rewarded with an accolade that recognises hard work is great," he said.
"It was a tough year with uncertainty around confidence in getting the work experience done. I'm happy to get through it all."
He also hopes to study at university.
Aquinas Principal James Clancy said both students were deserving of their achievements, particularly in a tough schooling period during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We are very proud of what they have achieved. It's been a really hard two years," Mr Clancy said. "They worked really hard and were well organised.
"As a VET course, construction was disrupted because students could only do one or two work placements.
"But all our year 12s got on with the job and stopped worrying about things they couldn't control. We said if they put the work in, they will be alright."
Premier Dominic Perrottet also congratulated students on their outstanding results.
"To top the state in an HSC course is an incredible achievement at the best of times; to do so today highlights even more so the grit, dedication and talent of the students being recognised," Mr Perrottet said.
Minister for Education Sarah Mitchell said 149 certificates were presented to 139 students.
"The future looks so bright for the inspiring young people who we will celebrate today, and for all HSC students who showed great perseverance and resilience in their final years of school," Ms Mitchell said
"Combined with their abilities and skills, First in Course recipients have shown what can be achieved when there is a real commitment to learning - a quality which will hold them in good stead for the future.
"I am sure the Class of 2021 are already looking to the future and are ready to take on work, training and further studies.
"As always, my thanks goes to the experienced and dedicated NSW teachers who, along with family and friends, have supported and encouraged these young people to achieve at the top of their class."
About 76,000 HSC students who sat at least one exam in 2021 will receive their results by SMS, email and online from 6am tomorrow, January 20.
All Round Achievers, Top Achievers and Distinguished Achievers will be published on the NESA website on Monday, January 24, at midday.