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If you’re a high school or college student, how do you feel when you get a C? If you’re like many students you feel frustrated, wish that it was a B and resolve to do better on the next exam. However, if you are a perfectionist, a less-than-perfect score on an assignment can mean depression, anxiety and a whole host of other negative feelings.

Academic Perfectionism

Academic perfectionists have high standards for themselves and immediately jump to an overly-critical place if they fall short of their personal standards. There are two types of perfectionism:

  • Personal standards: self-imposed, excessively high
  • Evaluative concerns: concerned about making mistakes, worried about social judgment

Someone with academic perfectionism sees their world crashing down around them when they miss the extra credit question and can’t get a 101 on the final exam, because that was the highest score possible and they need the highest score possible. Every adult still remembers the name, seating chart location and worst meltdown of the perfectionist student in their class.

Personal standards perfectionism sometimes evolves through family dynamics and is a double-edged sword. It’s associated with many good things, like a high level of effort and performance, but can also lead to crushing depression when things don’t go as envisioned. Evaluative concerns perfectionism comes as a result of external pressure and correlates only with negative outcomes like procrastination, anxiety, depression and low motivation levels—the exact opposite of what that family probably thought they were fostering.

Academic perfectionism can also manifest through students who have strict rules about when and how they can get their work done. They might initially appear to be procrastinating, but in reality, they are having trouble deciding where to start, when to start and how to get the assignment done. They also often will review and re-do work so many times that the task is completed very late. When they cannot perform perfectly and to their standards, they will throw in the towel entirely.

Perfectionism Often Comes to a Head in Adolescence

Perfectionism begins to snowball in high school and college, once classes get more difficult and a perfect score is out of reach. Students who find it easy to be at the top of the pack in younger years have confidence in their abilities, but suffer when their abilities (and identity) are challenged. If the straight-A student since Kindergarten earns a B during her junior year of high school, she can’t be a straight-A student anymore. What began as just another test is now an identity-disrupting moment.

One study tracked students between the ages of 12 and 19 and found a strong relationship between high academic achievement and rising levels of personal standards perfectionism and evaluative concerns perfectionism.

Is It Worth the Cost? 

Age-old wisdom tells us that academic perfectionism is a good thing because it can lead to higher performance levels. However, academic perfectionists don’t simply stop wanting more when they get perfect scores. Instead, their perfectionism continues to increase and manifest in high anxiety levels. Positive feedback pushes standards even higher until students are aiming for impossible levels of achievement and taking it out on themselves when they inevitably fall short. If you have to ask if that is worth the cost, the answer is simple—no!

Dealing with Academic Perfectionism? 

If you or your child is dealing with academic perfectionism, contact CBT Baltimore to get on the right track at 443-470-9815.