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High Schools

It’s not your imagination. High school seniors are more over the top than ever before.

High school seniors across the nation are rolling through what arguably is the first normal senior year since the pandemic radically impacted schooling in 2020.

And that means students such as Ava Abel have been pulling out all the stops. Because finally, it’s showtime.

“I was dreaming about this year after the lockdown when I honestly didn’t think we’d even get a normal senior year,” says Abel, 18, who is wrapping up at Horizon High School in Winter Garden, Florida.

“When my parents were in high school, it didn’t seem like this stuff was a big deal,” she says. “But times have changed. And after COVID, having these memories is more important than ever.”

Ava Abel of Winter Garden, Florida, poses with a borrowed graduation gown for her 2024 senior class photo, taken during a family trip this past summer to Greece. Abel and other seniors are pulling out the stops when it comes to their post-COVID senior moments.

For Abel, that meant creating a senior parking space that reflects her passions, including her favorite musician (Morgan Wallen) and her top sports team (Atlanta Braves).

For others, it means staging elaborate senior portraits that often require multiple wardrobe changes (from gowns to sports gear) and a range of portrait locations (including far-flung destinations) − all at a price tag that can easily hit four figures. In the months to come, many seniors may add to the mix candid videos of the moment that big acceptance lands electronically from their school of choice.

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With COVID restrictions behind them, the Class of 2024 is eager to make memories

Seniors have to some degree always dedicated time and money to memorializing their last gasp of childhood. But what’s clear − from conversations with students, parents and professionals who help craft these moments – is the Class of 2024 feels especially unleashed to put a dazzling spotlight on themselves after these last few cataclysmic years of shuttered schools and nixed proms.

In many ways, seniors are also merely replicating our "spotlight on me" society at large.

Christian Renaud took many senior photos in front of his car. The Tucson, Ariz., college freshman was eager to celebrate his senior year of high school in a big way after the pandemic.

Babies come with a gender reveal party, proposals are captured by professional videographers, brides have different gowns for their wedding and their reception, and both brides and grooms take bachelor and bachelorette destination trips with their attendants. If life has a milestone, we want to celebrate it. Writ large.

But there's a notable caveat here, experts say. Those nonstop celebrations could set up great expectations that won't be matched going forward in life.

"We live in a 'me' culture now, and it's everyone just trying to cut above the noise with whatever it is they have to share," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Distinguished Faculty Fellow in the psychology department of Temple University in Philadelphia.

"It’s all about curating your life online, and by doing that, who you’re presenting to the world risks not really resembling who you are," she says. "Going forward, what happens when your resume isn’t really your resume, or you don’t look like the model you’ve put out there?"

Hirsh-Pasek also cautions that parents can sometimes go overboard when it comes to trying to make sure their children feel special. Case in point, she says: the recent college Varsity Blues cheating scandal, where wealthy parents across the nation were caught paying large sums and falsifying information about their students to help them get into prestigious colleges.

"Everyone is buying into this better than, higher than, more than," Hirsh-Pasek says.

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Today's high school seniors say they're aware of those repercussions, and their mission is not to create scandal but rather simply celebrate the good times while they're here.

"Coming out of COVID, I knew that life could suddenly change at any moment, so whether it's decorating parking spaces or taking cool photos and sharing them, at least we have something to look back on and smile in case things get bad again," says Christian Renaud, 18, of Tucson, and a freshman at the University of Arizona.

Janet Fu in one of a variety of senior portraits taken of the Fayetteville, Ark., student, who was a high school senior last year and is at the University of Pennsylvania.

For his senior photos, Renaud and his family hired a local photographer, Jacquelynn Buck, to take portraits of him in the desert and with his car. Renaud also leaned on his mother to let him party a bit harder than she might have before the pandemic.

"She isn't too lenient," Renaud says with a laugh. "But I told her, 'Look, I've been locked up for a year,' and she let me go. She understood we had to celebrate."

Janet Fu felt the same need as she graduated last spring from high school in Fayetteville, Arkansas, before decamping for the University of Pennsylvania.

"You can't take anything for granted anymore," she says. "If you get a chance to celebrate, you should take it."

That meant not only a variety of senior photo locations but also attending countless parties, many of which were organized by parents. "It was such great fun for everyone to be in the spirit of things, versus just letting the moment pass by," says Fu.

Photographer Matt Mendelsohn of Virginia shows some of the portraits he shot of high school seniors. During the pandemic, a portrait session with his daughter led to an idea: photographing her entire senior class pro bono during lockdown.

For veteran photographer Matt Mendelsohn, "the big pivot" for seniors happened during the pandemic. That's also when Mendelsohn, a former ӣƵ staffer, saw his wedding photography business in Alexandria, Virginia, vanish.

When he decided to create an elaborate senior portrait shoot for his daughter, who during the height of lockdown was a high school senior, a light bulb went on. Mendelsohn offered to photograph all 500 of the school’s seniors for free. His labor-of-love gesture , generating appearances on network morning talk shows and calls from around the world. Now senior portraits are virtually his entire business.

“Even though COVID now is largely over, the same sentiment remains around helping these kids celebrate a big moment in their lives. And for me, that means photos that showcase what makes them tick,” he says.

So instead of kids in front of a white sheet of paper, Mendelsohn will take a senior with a passion for horses to her barn, or another with a love of sports to the field hockey pitch.

One Michigan family chose their 'happy place' for senior year portraits: Arizona

For other students, locations with sentimental value strike a chord. When Stacie Pratt got to thinking about where her two kids might want their senior photos taken, one choice was clear: Arizona. Even though they live in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

Waylon Pratt went to the desert outside Tuscon, Ariz., for his senior portrait, which required a trip from the family's Michigan home. Photographer Jacquelynn Buck says the students she speaks with are eager to stand out in today's cookie-cutter world.

“My best friend moved there years ago, so we’ve gone yearly since the kids were small, it’s our happy place,” says Pratt. So, twice she flew down to Tucson to also have photographer Buck take senior portraits of her kids, Jesse, now 20, and Waylon, 18.

For Jesse, taking special photos in the desert was a way of negating her canceled junior prom as well as a senior prom replete with COVID tests and masks. “I love being on Instagram, and this just allowed me to share a special place with all my friends,” she says.

For Waylon, who also posed in the desert alongside towering saguaro cacti, the motivation was the same. “It’s just about sharing a side of yourself with people you care about,” he says.

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Buck concludes that a driver bigger than the pandemic is the way today’s culture seems to require kids to stand out and be unique at a young age, especially given the prevalence of social media sharing.

“A lot of it is looking to find a way to be an individual in a world where it’s easy to feel like you’re in a cookie-cutter mold,” she says. “Expressing yourself as someone unique in photos is a part of that transition from high school to college and adulthood. For a moment, you can be this amazing version of yourself.”

But is all this senior class showmanship good for mental health?

Sharing that amazing version of yourself on social media, however, can have its risks. For every person who might be thrilled at your dazzling portrait or creative parking space, there will be others inclined to react with jealousy and spite. This is why some parents encourage senior celebrations but urge discretion.

Morgan Lamb sits in the middle of her parking space, which she decorated with her father when she was a senior a few years ago. Lamb's mother, Tania, posted a popular how-to guide for other students and parents looking to go to town for the annual tradition.

“I get it, you want to share your joy because you’ve earned this moment in the sun,” says Tania Lamb, a movie blogger from Winter Garden, Florida, who when her daughter, Morgan, was a senior a few years back.

But when it came to sharing those high school moments, which lately include those viral videos of college acceptance moments, Lamb urged caution.

“My kids aren’t allowed to have Instagram or other apps like that,” she says. “I talk to them about it. We enjoy sharing in people’s moments of joy, but I remind them that people process things differently. What is a joy to you might not be to them.”

That’s the theme of an essay written by Zach Gottlieb for The Atlantic titled His take: You may be thrilled, but odds are your video is making others miserable.

“Decorating parking spaces and taking fun photos are cute senior traditions, but these videos aren’t healthy, as it makes others dwell on the fact that they didn’t get in,” says Gottlieb, 17, a senior at Windward School in Los Angeles. “If you record yourself, maybe just keep it to yourself. I don’t think our lives should play like a game show.”

Zach Gottlieb, a high school senior from Los Angeles, plans to record the moment his college acceptances come in via email. But he won't share them. Gottlieb is concerned about the mental health implications, as he wrote in an essay for The Atlantic.

Gottlieb says even videos that show a disappointed senior lamenting his or her rejection while listing their GPA and credentials “just makes those watching even more anxious about their chances at that school," and students have enough mental health issues to contend with already.

When his time comes, Gottlieb says he does plan to record his moment of truth – alone in his room and with the intention of stashing it away as a digital memento of a huge life inflection point. “It’ll just be this personal thing,” he says.

Florida senior Abel feels similarly. She says she has dreamed for years of attending Florida State University and hopes her diligent academic work and extracurricular activities will get her in. She will record the moment the email arrives, but only her parents may see it. Just depends.

As for the other flashier senior moments, she is happy to share, whether it’s her personal passions via her parking space or her sunny, smiling senior photograph taken during a dream family trip to Mykonos, Greece.

“You want this year to be memorable,” she says. “You’re only a senior in high school once.”

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