How to manage academic perfectionism

Posted in: academic skills, reflective learning, resilience

The Skills Centre has created a new self-access online resource which explores what academic perfectionism is, how it can negatively impact your studies and strategies for managing it at university.

Do you set extremely high standards for your academic work? Are you a pro at making lists but find it hard to actually get started with an assignment? Do you feel the need to study excessively long hours?

If this sounds familiar, you may be experiencing ‘academic perfectionism’.

While perfectionism can be associated with positive things like high quality, attention to detail, ambition and success, perfectionists are often motivated by fear and put themselves under huge pressure to reach unattainable goals. Their best efforts may never be good enough in their eyes and they feel like they could always do better.

How can perfectionism affect your studies?

Piling huge amounts of pressure on yourself can adversely affect your overall wellbeing, leading to unhappiness, increased stress and low self-esteem. It can also, ironically, make you less productive.

Perhaps you have a tendency to overwork and study really long hours. You might feel there's always another book to read, leading to a never-ending search for more information.

Or maybe you find yourself in a cycle of re-writing and editing, striving for the perfect, polished piece of work.

You might soon find yourself overwhelmed and so exhausted that you struggle to meet your deadlines.

[Perfectionism] can take a huge toll on mental health and ability to maintain a good work-life balance - I think often students don't get enough sleep and are working for ridiculous amounts of time to get an assignment perfect and are sacrificing wellbeing to do so. – Skills Co-Creator

How to manage perfectionism

So what can you do to manage perfectionism? Here are some tips:

  • Break your assignment down into manageable chunks to make it less daunting.
  • Make a study schedule, prioritise your tasks and make sure you factor in time for breaks.
  • Set a limit on how many times you'll re-read and edit your work.
  • Define your research clearly and create a research matrix to help you organise and search for material.
  • Self-reflect on your strengths and weaknesses and use your lecturer’s feedback carefully.
  • Understand the assessment rubric your lecturer provides so you're clear about what constitutes good work. (And remember that ‘excellent’, ‘very good’ and ‘very effective’ are not synonyms for ‘perfect’!)
  • Find out how long an assignment is expected to take and try not to exceed that time.
  • Embrace mistakes! These are an important part of the learning process, so try and view them as positive opportunities for growth.

I think guidance on exactly what the expectations for a project/task are can be very useful - helping a student estimate the expected time an assignment should take and encouraging them to stick to it is very useful. – Skills Co-Creator

Finally, actively challenge your perfectionist behaviour. What aspects of university work do you believe must be perfect? Why do you hold those beliefs and how justified are they? Are you making a clear distinction between excellence and perfection?

Reflecting on your perfectionism is a good first step in managing your personal expectations.

Something that helps me I guess is just being aware that I will always think that I could have added more or done better no matter how much I do - so just to take each part as it comes and trust that I have put the work in to achieve the grade I want instead of beating myself up about what else I could have added. – Skills Co-Creator

The new short resource is part of a range of support which includes the University's Focused Minds free online programme. This aims to help students deal with the problems related to perfectionism, improve self-worth, tackle self-criticism and aim high without feeling 'not good enough'.

Links to other relevant support are provided at the end of the resource.

If you've got your own tips on how to tackle perfectionism, please comment below!

Posted in: academic skills, reflective learning, resilience

Managing academic perfectionism at university


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