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What nobody tells you about being a perfectionist in university

By: Veronica, Nursing, Class of 2021


I guess you could say that I’ve been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember. I was raised with the mentality that if something was not perfect, you start again (and again, and again…). This mindset has stuck with me my whole life. Before coming to Queen’s, this trait was quite beneficial for me: I got really good grades, I was very involved in the community and with extra-curriculars, and I was well-liked by teachers and employers. I’m sure a lot of you grew up this way too.

Last year, in my first year of university, I quickly felt totally overwhelmed by life and school. I was like a new mini-adult who had responsibilities like making sure I ate enough veggies that day, and that I had clean underwear for tomorrow. I felt like I had to socialize all the time so people would like me. I was also here for school, so I had to make sure that I kept up with the giant workload that comes with being a university student. And, of course, perfectionist me wanted to excel at all of those things. I soon learned that life at Queen’s can feel like it’s on hyper-speed. I simply couldn’t keep up. The ways I had done things my whole life were now being tested and I had to adjust quickly if I didn’t want to crash and burn.


Now in my second year, I learned and regularly apply a lot of lessons about how to achieve the things I want without letting my perfectionism become a burden. Here are some strategies I’ve learned and that you can try too:


  1. Let things go


Being a perfectionist means that you can be quite stubborn. You won’t quit until something is perfect. That’s useful when you’re dealing with a tough course, but it can actually be bad in some situations. For example, when writing an essay, it is so easy to keep editing because you feel like your writing just isn’t perfect enough. I’ve learned that at university, writing is never going to be perfect. Your prof will always have feedback on how to improve your thinking and writing. If you are going to lose hours of sleep over fixing that essay, it is not worth it. You need to simply let it go—use your time thinking about your prof’s feedback and how to improve next time. I’m making this sound dramatic, but letting go for the first time is hard for a lot of perfectionists. I can promise you, though, you will be glad you got those extra hours of sleep.


  1. Prioritize

So you have a quiz tomorrow morning that is worth 2% of your grade, and a midterm later that afternoon for another class that is worth 30%? When it comes to university, you have to be realistic with your priorities. Don’t stay up until 3am studying for that measly quiz when clearly the midterm is a lot more important. Maybe you have to sacrifice a good quiz mark to get a good midterm mark. This is okay. Setting priorities will make things the hectic midterm season, when everything is due at once, a lot less stressful. You should also prioritize your courses, too. If your long-term goal is to go to medical school, you should be putting more of your focus on your biology course than your film elective. Decide which is most important to you and stick with it: you’ll look back and thank yourself later!


  1. Accept help

I used to be the type of person that never asked for help. I always felt like I didn’t want to bother anyone and I could eventually just figure things out on my own. However, university can be really hard and sometimes you just need to let others help you. Whether that’s asking a friend to explain a math concept to you, talking to a prof or TA, or taking advantage of the school’s many academic support services (like SASS), you will save so much time and in the end, probably do a much better job than if you tried to do things on your own.


  1. Learn from your mistakes

This has truly been the biggest life lesson I’ve gotten from being here. As a perfectionist, you’re simply not used to losing or having things not go the way you wanted them to. Now that you’ve let go of some of your perfectionist-tendencies, embrace the losses. You have to realize that with every mistake, you need to look on the bright side and see what you can learn from the situation. If you get a poor grade in a paper or test—and it will happen to everyone at university level—seek help, reflect on the feedback you’ve received, and make a plan for improving your work next time. Having this attitude has truly made my life more positive and helped me avoid burn-out and stress caused by my perfectionism.


So there you have it, my fellow perfectionists. As hard as it sounds, it’s so important to let go of the incredibly high standards that you hold for yourself. But trust me, you will thank yourself in the long run. Coming to Queen’s doesn’t mean that you have to stop trying as hard as you used to, it just means that you have to shift your focus to the bigger picture. Take that passion that you have for everything you do and use it to your advantage. You’re going to do amazing things with it one day. I believe in you!