When high standards become unrelenting, they can lead to perfectionism and to behaviors that actually get in the way of achieving your goals and enjoying your Harvard journey. 

Unrelenting Standards in High Achieving Students 

Perfectionism is the over-application of high standards related to excellence. In today’s society, there are many misconceptions about perfectionism and its relationship with excellence, many of which you may have encountered on your journey to Harvard. You might have been rewarded by parents and teachers, for instance, for setting extremely high standards for yourself and working relentlessly to achieve them, even at the expense of your wellbeing. This external reinforcement of unrealistic standards of perfection, although often well-intentioned (they want you to do well and achieve great things!), can easily translate into an unhealthy obsession with achievement that carries over to college. 

At Harvard, however, the tough demands of coursework and high level of achievement amongst your peers can often mean that the strategies that made you successful in high school are no longer sustainable. The very relentlessness of perfectionism that once led to praise can cause students to miss deadlines, obsess over minute details of assignments, and sacrifice their wellness. Perfectionists often struggle to moderate their behaviors not because they enjoy the feeling of struggling to meet high standards, but because they believe that they must continue to be perfect to be successful and accepted by others. In fact, the opposite is often true: students who learn to develop realistic (not low!) standards for themselves often see the quality of their work and relationships improve. 


Scholars have identified three types of perfectionism:


Self-oriented perfectionism involves having unrealistically high standards directed toward one’s own performance and abilities. Self-oriented perfectionists tend to be overly critical of their own errors and struggle to let go of work that doesn’t meet their exacting standards.


Other-oriented perfectionism involves having unrealistically high standards of others’ performance and abilities. Other-oriented perfectionists often expect others to complete tasks flawlessly, even with little communication about their desired outcomes, and are excessively bothered by errors others make in group work.


Socially-prescribed perfectionism involves a belief that one is being held to extremely high standards by society in general or by a person or persons in particular. Socially-prescribed perfectionists often believe that if they do not perform at a level expected by others, they will fail completely or lose affection within specific relationships. These external standards may be real or imagined, but the socially-prescribed perfectionist perceives them as inviolable.

No matter what kind of perfectionist beliefs you hold, there are some tell-tale behaviors that accompany these beliefs. Often, they go unnoticed by students for a variety of reasons that might vary from inaccurately naming the behavior (“I wasn’t excessively checking my p-set! I was just being thorough!”) to seeing them as actually counter-indicating perfectionism (“A real perfectionist wouldn’t procrastinate! They’d be on time with everything!”). 

Behaviors often rooted in perfectionism:

  • Procrastinating

  • Avoidance

  • Excessive checking

  • Reassurance seeking

  • Overcompensating

  • Repeating and correcting

  • Excessive organizing and list-making

  • Difficulty making decisions

  • Giving up too soon

  • Not knowing when to stop

  • Correcting

  • Failure to delegate



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Managing these behaviors can be draining and unpleasant, preventing you from enjoying your education.  At the ARC, we want to support students’ desire to achieve, while also helping them find the balance they need to be healthy, fulfilled learners. Often, this means finding individualized strategies for combatting your perfectionistic behaviors. Perfectionists may be hesitant to seek support for their struggles because they fear letting go of the achievements that are so important to their identity, but often students find they are more successful—and much happier—when they start to move away from destructive, perfectionistic self-talk. Schedule a meeting with an Academic Coach to discuss how small behavioral shifts can help you develop the grace, positive self-talk, and resilience needed to navigate academic pressures effectively!

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If you would like to work on overcoming perfectionism in the company of others, consider attending the workshop series on Overcoming Perfectionism through Self-Compassion regularly offered by Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

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