Perfectionism in Pre-Graduate Students

Sydney Waddington

May 2, 2023

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a personality trait that involves striving for excellence and setting excessively high personal standards, often accompanied by high levels of self-criticism [1]. Perfectionism knows no bounds, as it can affect all areas of life, such as appearance, health, sports, relationships, and as we’ll soon come to discuss, academic success.

Risk Factors of Perfectionism

Being highly perfectionistic can have serious consequences for some people. Research has shown that perfectionism, and particularly perfectionism that involves a high degree of self-criticism, is associated with the following…

  • Mental health challenges, such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and nonsuicidal self-injury [2, 3]
  • Maladaptive coping strategies, such as rumination [4]
  • Difficulty achieving one’s goals [5]

It is important to note that just because something is highly correlated, such as perfectionism and mental health challenges, does not mean that it is a determining (i.e., causal) factor. Everyone is different, and thus everyone will have different outcomes in life.

Perfectionism vs. Competitiveness

Sometimes it can be difficult to tease apart perfectionism from other traits that are also related to striving for success, such as competitiveness. One form of competitiveness that can be particularly tricky to contrast is personal enhancement competitiveness, which is characterised by “the desire to perform well to display one’s competency, achievement, and self-improvement” [6]. The key difference between perfectionism and competitiveness is that perfectionistic individuals are concerned with performing flawlessly, whereas competitive individuals are concerned with outperforming someone, whether it be themselves or someone else.

Perfectionism vs. Academic Achievement

It is important to realize that perfectionism is not the same as having reasonable expectations for your academic performance. While perfectionism can contribute to unhealthy habits due to unreasonably high expectations, academic achievement involves setting and achieving realistic goals that do not significantly interfere with other aspects of your life.

Perfectionism and academic achievement won’t look the same for everyone, but some examples to distinguish the two are the following…

Academic Achievement:

“I can’t hangout with friends this weekend, because I have an exam on Monday”

“The graduate program I’m interested in suggests that applicants should have experience in two different labs, so I’ll consider joining a third lab if I have time, to stand out on my application”

“I’m not confident in my graduate school application essay, so I’ll read it over and see where I can improve it”


“I can’t have friends because I need to focus on earning over 95% in every course”

“The program I’m interested in suggests that applicants should have experience in two different research labs, so I’ll join five to really stand out”

“I have to re-do my graduate school application essay, because I saw one typo and can’t risk any mistakes”

Perfectionism and Pre-Graduate School

As mentioned, perfectionism can affect any and all areas of life, and completing the daunting checklist involved in applying to graduate school is no exception. Many students can begin to feel overwhelmed by the high expectations set by graduate programs, leading to the development of some perfectionistic tendencies regarding their academic success.

Some areas where perfectionism can creep in are…

  • Filling out graduate school applications
  • Filling up your Curriculum Vieta
  • Maintaining a high GPA
  • Taking graduate school admissions tests
  • Participating in extra curriculars
  • Finding ways to develop or demonstrate certain skills

How to Cope with Perfectionism as a Pre-Graduate Student

Although there are many ways to cope with perfectionism, and not every method will work for everyone, here are some strategies that have been dug up from education, psychology, and counselling literature [7, 8] …

  • Reframing perfectionism as a multidimensional construct
    • Rather than perfectionism being all bad, try to pull apart which aspects of perfectionism are helpful and healthy versus the ones that are maladaptive and self-damaging, then do your best to stay within the positives.
      • Some examples of adaptive aspects include having a strong work ethic, having a good sense of responsibility and accountability, etc.
      • Some examples of maladaptive aspects include fixating on one thing, doing something at the expense of your own mental health, and being overly self-critical when excessively high standards are not met, etc.
    • Promote realistic goal setting
      • Rather than setting unreasonably high expectations, take a step back and revaluate the reality of what you’re asking yourself to do, and question if achieving the goal involves jeopardizing any aspect of your life, such as mental health, relationships, other responsibilities, etc.
    • Work on developing a growth rather than fixed mindset
      • While a fixed mindset is an ‘all or nothing’ outlook where you believe that there is only failure or success with no in-between, a growth mindset emphasizes that there is value in making mistakes because you can learn and grow from them.
        • One way to foster a growth mindset is to try and pick out ways that your mistakes can act as learning opportunities, rather than viewing them as instant failure.
      • Find a counsellor or use counselling strategies
        • Counsellors can help people manage their perfectionism through employing various therapeutic approaches. If, however, counselling doesn’t interest you, consider reading counselling books to find some healthy coping strategies.
      • Find a community
        • Making connections with others who struggle with perfectionism can lead to positive outcomes by going through the highs and lows with a peer.

Perfectionism can be difficult to navigate and can add stress and anxiety on top of already stressful situations, such as gearing up to apply to graduate school. It can also be challenging to tell the difference between perfectionism, competitiveness, and academic achievement. To help understand and navigate perfectionism, check out these resources below:


[1] Stoeber, J. (2016). Perfectionism. In: Zeigler-Hill, V., Shackelford, T. (eds) Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer, Cham.

[2] Egan, S. J., Wade, T. D., & Shafran, R. (2011). Perfectionism as a transdiagnostic process: A clinical review. Clinical Psychology Review31(2), 203-212.

[3] Zelkowitz, R. L., & Cole, D. A. (2019). Self‐criticism as a transdiagnostic process in nonsuicidal self‐injury and disordered eating: Systematic review and meta‐analysis. Suicide and Life‐Threatening Behavior49(1), 310-327.

[4] Kun, B., Urbán, R., Bőthe, B., Griffiths, M. D., Demetrovics, Z., & Kökönyei, G. (2020). Maladaptive Rumination Mediates the Relationship between Self-Esteem, Perfectionism, and Work Addiction: A Largescale Survey Study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(19), 7332.

[5] Powers, T. A., Koestner, R., Zuroff, D. C., Milyavskaya, M., & Gorin, A. A. (2011). The effects of self-criticism and self-oriented perfectionism on goal pursuit. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin37(7), 964-975. 10.1177/0146167211410246

[6] Klein, R. G., Dooley, D., Lapierre, K., Pitura, V. A., & Adduono, D. (2020). Trait perfectionism and competitiveness: Conceptual similarities and differences in a lab-based competitive task. Personality and Individual Differences, 153.

[7] Dickinson, M. J., & Dickinson, D. A. G. (2015) Practically perfect in every way: can reframing perfectionism for high-achieving undergraduates impact academic resilience? Studies in Higher Education, 40(10), 1889-1903.

[8] Ginsburg, K. R. (2013, October 29). What creates perfectionism.,feel%20smart%20when%20they%20avoid

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