Too Perfectionist

Too perfectionist?

Any personal style of approaching studying will have advantages and disadvantages, and perfectionism is no exception. Your strength if you are a perfectionist is your commitment to getting things right, which is usually a potent engine for careful preparation and systematic planning.

Satisfied perfectionists will say:

‘I love making myself a detailed timetable for revision, and get a kick out of sticking to it and crossing each item off!’

‘I revise very thoroughly;’

‘I made a resolution to write something every day and just got on with it;’

‘I got a set of past papers out of the library and worked my way systematically through them and then felt well prepared’.


But perfectionists may set themselves unrealistically hard schedules, or have very self critical inner voices .

Perfectionism at a less helpful level results in comments like: ‘ I always feel I could do better'; or ‘ The examiner will see how stupid I really am, and I feel so embarrassed that I can’t do myself justice in an exam the way I do with lots of time for an assignment’. or even more extremely:

‘ I hate not being able to do my best. I want to do well and when time’s limited I won’t put it as I would like to. I like my writing to be really organised. I’ve understood the course really well and got A’s on assignments and I hate the thought of getting less than a distinction.’


Many perfectionists are still reacting to some significant person in their youth who said, in one way or another ‘ You could do better.’ Students have spoken of parents who only ever commented on the critical comments on their school reports, teachers who castigated them or humiliated them in front of classmates, and so on. It can be useful to identify YOUR critical person and notice that you now are studying to meet your own needs, and don’t have to prove anything to them! ( Though of course this is easier said than done)

Pause for thought: Spend a few minutes thinking about the most common message you remember getting about your own efforts as a child. If you had frequent ‘could do better’ or ‘could try harder’ messages, what effect do they now have on you?

As a perfectionist myself, I know I was left believing I was very lazy. For study and exam purposes, it means I can push myself beyond the point of efficient study because I’ve given myself an unrealistic target and won’t let go of it.

Perfectionists often do get good grades on continuous assessment because of the time and effort they put in. Their challenge is to understand the different nature of the exam process and be willing to adapt their approach to it. They, particularly, need to do their preparatory thinking before the exam to counteract their habit of prolonged thinking around a topic before beginning to put pen to paper.

They may find the ’80/20 rule’ useful here too. This states that in a huge variety of circumstances, and almost always in exams, you get a piece of writing about 80% right in the first 20% of effort you spend. Think about it! If this is so, and all they need to do is to get their answer 80% right, it may be more feasible to let go of the wish to produce something 100% right in such potentially adverse circumstances, and settle for getting on with the 80% that could be comfortably within their grasp. The benefit lies in letting go of the critical inner voice saying ‘you should be doing better than this!”

Perfectionists may also need encouragement to schedule in time off from revision for relaxation, recreation and refreshment. If you are a perfectionist, look at the diary and think what you would put into your timetable as a treat.

The following are the most frequently cited fears of perfectionists. Note how many of them are ones which bother, you, and whether you feel they are minor concerns or significant worries which you’d like to discuss with a good listener or fellow students:


– I”m too slow to do myself justice in an exam

– My memory will let me down. I’ll forget key points.

– I’ll be caught out and shown up as a fraud who doesn’t REALLY know what I pretend to.

– I didn’t do enough revision to deserve to pass

– Unless I’ve read everything and remembered it all I shall be caught out

– Unless I’ve understood everything it’s not worth taking the exam

Now look at these comments which are designed to help you review the truth of each of these myths:


Slowness of thinking needs to be tackled at the revision stage.

Slow writing is a difficulty. If you have any physical disability which affects the speed at which you can write you need to ensure special arrangements are made for you. If not, PRACTICE until you are writing more quickly, aiming for somewhere between 500-700 words for a forty minute essay answer, yet still with reasonable legibility. THIS MAY MEAN GETTING OFF YOUR COMPUTER!

Keep reminding yourself that it is quality of argument which counts more than quantity of words. It is more important to have learned and practised ways to plan an answer quickly than to worry about slow writing!


Anxiety does affect your memory. But revision practice about identifying and recalling essential information will help . The comments about making sure what is required in your assessment are important too. Most exams test your capacity for arguing a case much more than they test straightforward memory.


Feeling a fraud: few students realise that most examiners marking schemes are designed to give marks for every point being made. The examiner is not generally trying to catch you out, but looking for ways to pass you. If you had an opportunity to see the marking scheme you would have clearer ideas about what you are required to do to accumulate marks, but even if you have not seen it your preparatory revision to identify relevant points will help you to think about how to do so. Very few exams deduct marks for errors, yet it is the dislike of making mistakes that often inhibits perfectionists from putting down points they have thought of but are not 100% sure of.


If you feel you don’t deserve to pass unless you’ve been a perfect student doing extremely thorough revision, you perhaps need to substitute a more reasonable and encouraging tone in your conversations with yourself! e.g. instead of ‘I don’t deserve to pass’ you might tell yourself:’ I have done some work, and it’s worth doing my best now”. In the exam room you might as well be kind to yourself and have a go!

If you had understood everything on a course, the chances might be that it was too easy for you! But all students can benefit if they use the revision period to make a more systematic and overall review of the course.

All real learning is characterised by some sense of ‘not knowing’ or ‘not knowing enough’. But if you have passed your continuous assessment, you should know and understand enough to tackle the final exam after some focused revision. The exam cannot offer you an opportunity to demonstrate all you know, it is too brief a sample of work. But it can show how you construct an argument or respond to a previously unseen question about the material you have been studying.

Some readers may be astonished by the content of this unit, and see themselves as not perfectionist enough. They may even be at the other extreme, and instead of ‘trying hard’ may actually be quite slapdash. This may be just as big a disadvantage in its own way.

This can be a handicap particular to able students who managed to ‘get by’ and do well at school with very little effort, and later have to develop the discipline to study something which is less easily mastered. Not having developed some systematic ‘plodding’ work habits, they may simply avoid those subjects that don’t come easily.

If this is your issue, the revision planning advice may go very much against the grain. Once more it becomes a matter of motivation. If you want to get a particular result, you will experiment until you find work habits which are ‘good enough’ to get results. But my advice to you is ‘Do experiment till you find some system that helps. Just hoping for the best will let you down.’

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