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As a student, holding yourself to a high standard often translates into higher goal attainment and better grades. But when the inability to meet an unrealistically high standard results in physical and emotional strain, perfectionism may be to blame.

Perfectionists strive for—you guessed it—perfection, or an extremely high, often unattainable, standard. Counterintuitively, perfectionism can interfere with the ability to meet goals and deadlines, contribute to anxiety, and lower self-esteem. Through their own experiences with perfectionism, Master’s students and peer mentors Jody Nelson and Shannon Gentry share examples and best practices for managing the less productive aspects of this personality trait:

Perfectionists strive for an extremely high, often unattainable, standard.

What does perfectionism look like? How do you know if you’re a perfectionist?

Perfectionism can manifest differently in different students, but it often takes the following forms:

Unrealistic time management

For Jody and Shannon, perfectionism often means dedicating too much time to reading and writing assignments. Of course, it’s important to take the learning process seriously, but often, perfectionism results in an inability to submit work on time for “fear of receiving less than a 100%,” Jody notes.   

An obsession with grades

Similarly, perfectionists tend to value grades over the learning process. As such, they might check “obsessively for grades or instructor feedback,” Shannon says. And when that grade is posted, perfectionists are unlikely to be happy with anything less than a perfect score.

Decreased self-esteem

Perfectionists are often much harder on themselves than students who simply hold themselves to a high standard. As a result, they may, as Jody notes, feel "‘stupid’ or completely incompetent because of small mistakes,” focusing only on the more critical aspects of an instructor’s feedback, or those two small percentage points that prevented them from earning a 100%.

An extreme fear of failure

No one wants to receive a failing grade or make a mistake, but, from Jody’s experience, when an aversion to failure becomes an “unwillingness to challenge ourselves for fear of making mistakes,” perfectionism might be the culprit.   

How can I overcome perfectionism?

The good news is that it’s possible to combat perfectionist tendencies with a positive mindset, self-awareness, and practice.

Jody and Shannon suggest these 5 strategies:


Monitor self-talk

person looking in mirror

In moderation, constructive self-criticism can encourage growth, but, when the voice in your head becomes “overly critical and negative,” Shannon explains, it does more harm than good:

"Some common phrases that are extremely harmful and unhelpful (but easy to identify when I pay attention) include:

  • I guess I'm just too stupid to understand this
  • I read as fast as a toddler,
  • Everyone else seems to be doing just fine, so why can't I?"

Recognizing when self-criticism becomes destructive to your self-esteem and motivation is key to mitigating perfectionist tendencies.


Focus on the positive

As a scholar, self-improvement is critical, but if you struggle with perfectionism, take Jody’s advice and “focus on the progress, victories, and positives before assessing ways to improve.” Taking the time to celebrate the positives can help drown out the more disparaging voices in your head.

Becoming Elastic

Check out the blog post On Becoming Elastic: The Role of Resilience in Facing Challenges to learn a 4-step strategy for meeting setbacks and failure with optimism.


Reflect on the big picture

When managing perfectionism, Jody also finds it helpful to reflect on her larger goals: “Will a small setback REALLY impact achievement of the real goal?” she asks herself. It’s unlikely that a slightly lower grade will interfere with your graduation plans, so reflecting on the big picture can help put setbacks into perspective.

person reflecting


Practice failure

If a fear of failure interferes with your enjoyment of the learning process, then try, as Shannon suggests, practicing: “Something drastic like submitting your worst attempt at an assignment can have potential consequences that are risky, so find some safe opportunities to practice failure. Examples might include guessing someone's age (if they're okay with it), attempting a new skill for the first time (such as drawing, painting, or sewing), or applying for a job you think you are unqualified for (especially if you are in a place where you do not currently need a job).” Practicing failure in these safe, small ways emphasizes that setbacks—like getting the wrong answer or struggling with a new skill—are opportunities to learn and improve, rather than catastrophic missteps.

playing video games

Video Games as Resilience Practice

For more on practicing failure, check out Jody’s blog post:

Videogames as Resilience Practice


Track your time

Take note of the time you are spending on reading and writing assignments. Shannon suggests asking yourself these questions:

  • Is it taking me more than an hour to write just my introduction paragraph?
  • Am I finding distractions and other things to do so that I do not have to work on something that is stressing me out?

As Shannon notes, “These are signs that I am too caught up in making sure it is perfect, instead of just doing as well as I can.”

Consider allotting yourself a set amount of time for an assignment, setting a timer, and—when the timer goes off—wrapping-up what you’re working on. You might also try taking a time inventory or tracking your time in a daily journal to better understand which activities are eating up the bulk of your time.

To those who are struggling with the less desirable effects of perfectionism, Jody and Shannon offer these closing words of encouragement:


“Overcoming perfectionism is a learning process. Be gentle. Be kind. The instances in which we are able to lay perfectionism down for a moment are incredibly freeing and liberating. We can still have high standards; we just do not have to adhere to them to the point of self-destruction.”
-Jody Nelson

“Perfectionism is a habit, and habits can be broken. As with all goals, break up your attempt to thwart perfectionism into small, actionable steps and keep working toward it. And remember, if you fail, you can keep trying and reset any time.”
-Shannon Gentry

Finally, Shannon advises, “if perfectionism is something that is causing you significant distress in your life, consider seeking additional help from counseling services for additional tools.

Remember that you can always reach out to Walden’s Student Assistance Program for mental health resources and support.

Emily Bruey is a member of Walden’s Master’s Academic Support team, which provides paper reviews, hosts webinars, and develops resources for Master’s students. Before joining Walden in 2020, Emily provided academic and social support to college students, including teaching and tutoring writing online. Outside of her professional life, Emily enjoys reading, gardening, yoga, and hiking.

Shortly after completing her BS in Human Services through Walden in 2021, peer mentor Jody Nelson began a master’s degree in social work, with the goal of becoming a licensed clinical social worker. Jody lives in Arkansas with her husband, three sons, two cats, and a bird. Her hobbies are diverse, and when she’s not studying, you can find her engaged in any number of creative pursuits, including playing the fiddle, violin, or guitar; practicing archery; weaving; and painting.

Shannon Gentry is pursuing her Master of Clinical Mental Health Counseling degree. Professionally, she’s interested in supporting families and couples (especially the LGBTQIA+ community) through periods of stress. She earned her Bachelor of Psychology through Walden in 2021 and has been supporting students as a peer mentor since 2020. Shannon enjoys reading, writing, cosplay, and videogames. She lives in Oregon with her husband, best friend, and a menagerie of pets.