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Overcoming Academic Perfectionism

Overcoming Academic Perfectionism

Last week was one of those weeks. My midterms were nearing, I had a confusing paper due at the end of the week, and I felt overwhelmed by my extracurriculars. Despite pouring hours into my studying and writing, all I could envision were low scores and future disappointment.

The state I was in was a reflection of my academic perfectionism, something I have been working on as I progress through my university years. In high school, I was the student that would not accept a grade below eighty percent (yes, I was the teacher’s nightmare, and it was likely annoying for my friends to hear me complain about getting Bs). Unfortunately, this mind-set has stayed with me in university. With my high standards, I managed to do well in most of my first year courses, leading me to think, “hey, this university thing is not so difficult after all!” This attitude has changed: I’ve talked about some of the obstacles I have overcome. But what I did not realize at the time was the personal stress I was inducing by my inflexible academic standards.

It was when I started classes last semester that I realized I seem to take my academic success to heart. This struck me after I had gotten a 75 on an exam: when I told my friend I was upset, she responded in shock: “a 75 is bad?” I had to check myself. No, a 75 is not bad. But in my mind, it had seemed like the end of the world! I realized┬ámy perfectionism is what motivated me to study, and motivation was not something I wanted to let go of. But I needed to step away from the idea that it’s the end of the world if I do not get a 4.0 on every test.

To reflect on this, I used a worksheet on Overcoming Academic Perfectionism from Academic Success (they are located in the Student Success Centre on the ground floor of the Koffler Student Services Centre, and have handouts and strategies online at www.studentlife.utoronto.ca/asc/learning-strategies).

Photograph of Overcoming Academic Perfectionism Worksheet
This worksheet from Academic Success has helped me reflect on the benefits and consequences of perfectionism.

With my worksheet in hand, I was able to reflect on my “unrelenting high standards.” The worksheet organized my thinking into four boxes which are the following:

  • negative consequences of these standards
  • positive consequences of these standards
  • personal benefits you expect if you loosen your standards
  • personal costs you expect if you loosen your standards

As I filled in these areas, I noticed I had two common themes. The ultimate consequence I felt as a result of my academic perfectionism was stress. And when I worked it out, there were few plausible positive consequences of keeping up my high expectations. The only one I wrote was, “gets me to study!” When I considered the outcomes of dropping my standards, I found a different picture. I expected the personal costs of doing so to be a lack of motivation, but the personal benefits I expected filled the box to the brim: less stress and worry, more sleep, an ability to actually be interested in the material on my own terms, etc.

To be honest, I am still working on my perfectionism: it’s not like I changed overnight! Last semester, I focused more on giving myself time to relax, like watching an episode after a few hours of studying. I made it a personal goal to have my books closed and notes put away before midnight. Also, I made sure to check in with myself and my friends. I still expect a lot from myself, but I am trying to realize that I can have limits to how much work I can carry. When these stressful periods arise like the brutal last week I endured, I try to figure out how my standards are getting to me, take a breath, and then try to achieve my personal best without going overboard.

I make a plan to reach out to my friends during my study breaks, to see how they’re doing and try to laugh about the piles of work we have, rather than just stressing out on my own. I try to remind myself before every exam that it is just one of many assessments: there will be plenty more to write and I tell myself that I have studied all that I can. I’ve been able to approach each midterm with less fear and more energy. It’s funny: by trying to be less “perfect,” I think I’ve found a way to work towards being a better self.

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