How Can I Keep My Perfectionism from Hurting My Grades?

I consider myself a perfectionist. As a college student, I find that this really hurts me academically. Everything I write has to be PERFECT, so I obsess about every word and it takes me forever to write papers or answer essay questions on exams. Everyone around me seems to burn right through those essay questions. I’ll get maybe three paragraphs done by the time the exam concludes, and while those three paragraphs are literary gold, I’ve barely scratched the surface on the topic and I end up getting a lower grade than I really warrant based on my knowledge of the material. What is my problem? Why can’t I accept “good enough” from myself and just plow ahead? —Perfectly Unclear
Dear Perfectly Unclear,

Perfectionism can be so incredibly frustrating. I hear that frustration coming through loud and clear in your question. When you have worked so hard to master complex academic material and to produce very high-quality work, but are not able to finish within the time constraints of an exam, it can be very demoralizing. You know you have the knowledge of an “A” student, but you don’t end up with the “A” to prove it.

While setting the bar at perfection can feel lofty, ambitious, or even noble, in reality it all but guarantees failure. As human beings we are inherently flawed, imperfect creatures. It is impossible for us to achieve perfection or produce anything that is truly perfect. Certainly, there is a difference between intellectually understanding such a concept and truly accepting it. Acceptance is a process—a process that might be hastened by partnering with a therapist—but it can be so liberating to let go of this unrealistic, damaging expectation. A therapist would be able to help you explore how perfectionism has been helpful and hurtful to you in your life. Therapy would also afford you a space to develop an understanding of the origins of your need for perfection and how to truly let go of it.

If you choose to work with a therapist on this issue, it might be a good idea to consider consulting with a one who has an expertise in academic testing and assessment. There can be connections between perfectionism and attentional issues and other learning issues. Having never met you, and having no more information than you have provided in your question, I cannot venture a guess as to whether any of these issues apply to you, but it might be something worth exploring as you try to understand and conquer your perfectionism.

Imagine how it might feel to sit down to write a paper or take an exam and be confident not only in your knowledge of the material, but also your ability to complete the task without struggling to meet unattainable expectations. You deserve the freedom that will come from liberating yourself from perfectionism.

Kind regards,

Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in working with people who are struggling through depression, anxiety, trauma, and major life transitions. She approaches her work from a person-centered perspective, always acknowledging the people she works with as experts on themselves. She is honored and humbled on a daily basis to be able to partner with people at such critical points in their unique journeys.
  • Leave a Comment
  • Brenda

    March 1st, 2014 at 10:32 AM

    I do not think that wanting the best is detrimental but to the degree that you fins yourself taking this then obviously there is a problem there.

    I know that you are in all likelihood a very good student and have the potential to do so much, so there is this concern there about why all of this is holding you back?

    I don’t have an answer for that but since it is hurting your grades and hurting the chance for success that you want to achieve then it is something that you definitely have to work on until you come up with som real world solutions that are likely to help you through this.

  • Terra

    March 3rd, 2014 at 4:00 AM

    Something that someone told me once fits really well here. I too was that perfectionist student who felt the need to do everything right and to not make mistakes. But then I got very stressed about it and had to talk to a counselor. She asked me point blank if I really thought that anyone eventually was going to care of I made an A or a B in this one class that I was really stressing over. When she said that it was like a light bulb went off. I saw that she was right, that in the end those little things don’t matter to anyone but me. I didn’t want to live all tied up in knots because of the difference of a few small points in my GPA.

  • aundi

    March 7th, 2014 at 11:00 AM

    So u have the hard part done- u know what the issue is- u now just have to work on letting go just a little and realizing this is controlling ur life and not n a good way

  • Steph

    March 20th, 2014 at 3:06 PM

    Have you tried some different test taking strategies? Instead of starting out writing the great American novel from the very beginning maybe you should sketch out notes on what you want to cover in the essay. make an outline of the important things that you want to make sure are in your essay and then begin the writing process based upon those talking points. Maybe that can help you make sure that you don’t leave out anything important and that will help you stay focused on getting the entire test completed.

  • manuel

    March 27th, 2014 at 5:34 PM

    English is my second language so I have been struggling with this too. In my home country I am an excellent student but here only mediocre and it is making me feel like such a failure even though I know that this is one of many obstacles and challenges I still have to live with and work through. I try to tell myself that this too will get better over time and not to be so critical but I know that it hurts because I know how good I can do when given the opportunity but right now I feel like I am struggling to find those right moments to shine.

  • Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC

    March 28th, 2014 at 1:57 PM

    Manuel, I’m glad to hear that you are trying to refute the negative feelings about yourself with positive self talk (i.e., this will get better… not to be so critical). This is really important. What you are trying to do is very difficult and it will take time, but you can do it and keeping a positive outlook will probably help you to achieve what you want to more quickly.

  • FutureCompost

    May 17th, 2014 at 9:30 PM

    Dear Perfectly Unclear, The Now Habit, by Dr Neil Fiore ($8 on Amazon) discusses prefectonism in depth. It came out a long time ago but I found it so helpful. All the best!

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