Academics and Perfectionism: My Experience Trying to Be a Perfect Student

So, it’s a stressful time of the semester. Finals are fast approaching, and we’re all trying to survive until Thanksgiving Break (during which we’ll tell ourselves we’re going to get a lot of homework done, but who are we kidding?). With the end of the semester comes grades, which are a whirlwind of stress and nervousness and disappointment. Or maybe that’s just me. I have a love/hate relationship with academics that has affected my identity as a student since middle school. I’ve spent my academic career trying to be the perfect student and then hating myself when I don’t reach my self-mandated standards. Sure, I graduated as a valedictorian, but that only mattered for a few months at the end of senior year, and it doesn’t really matter now that I’m at Belmont.

I’m currently in my first semester of college, and a little before midterms I had a mini crisis when I realized that no matter how hard I tried in class I was not learning. I was studying, doing all of my homework and reading assignments, and I’ve never skipped class. But I felt like all of the information was vaporizing as soon as I encountered it, passing into me and then flowing right out without leaving a trace in my mind. I was so focused on grades, on getting straight A’s and being the perfect student that I missed the point of education. I wasn’t studying for comprehension but for the sake of my grade. My motivations for doing well weren’t driven by a personal desire for education, but by the pressure I was putting on myself and the personal belief that if I didn’t get an A I was failing myself. I can’t help but think my grade-centered mindset is the result of an education system that values grade point averages over the personal improvement of the student. Senior year was especially frustrating because when I was applying for colleges I recognized that no matter how well I was doing in school there was always someone who was taking harder classes, getting better grades and they were therefore more valuable in the eyes of universities and scholarship applications. Equating personal value to academic success is something I’ve struggled a lot with during my time as a student. Currently, I’m trying to break the habit of connecting my self-worth to my grades that plagued me during high school and made senior year extremely stressful. There is the added pressure of college because I’m paying for these classes and I want to do as well as I can, but doing well isn’t fully determined by grades. Grades are important, but not as important as gaining experience and actually learning, because grades don’t necessarily reflect how much effort is put in and how much that student has improved.

I’m only in my first semester of college, but I think I’m going to lose the 4.0 that I anguished over in high school. But do you know what? It’s okay, and it might be good for me. Even though the class I’m going to “fail” (in my mind, failing is anything below an A) might ruin my perfect GPA, I’ve learned since I’ve begun to be less focused on my letter grade. Yes, the class is hard, and yes, it takes a lot of work, but I’ve learned, which is something I can’t say for a lot of the classes I aced in high school because I didn’t care about the subject, just the stamp on my report card (precalculus, I’m looking at you).

Here’s another thing I’ve realized I need to work on: prioritization. I’ve been subconsciously prioritizing my really hard class over the classes I’m taking for my major, probably because I knew it was going to be harder to get a good grade in the hard class than the classes directly related to what I’m going to do as a career. Not that the really hard class isn’t important, but I was judging its importance based on what I needed to do to ensure a good grade and not what I needed to focus on to ensure I will be thoroughly educated in the expertise of my career path. By the time graduation rolls around, it will be more important for me to be able to apply what I’ve learned and not simply show the grade I got in my classes. Intelligence isn’t just the acquisition of knowledge, but the application of it. Before next semester, I’m going to reevaluate my learning strategy and shift it to be focused on my understanding of the subject matter instead of having a singular focus and goal of getting the highest grade I can get. While adjusting my academic approach, I’ll sketch out a new vision for the perfect student: a girl who isn’t focused on striving for perfection confined to a few letters of the alphabet, but a girl who is focused taking what she’s learned to make an impact in her life.

Stress is an unavoidable part of school and academics, but if you think it’s becoming out of hand or you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety, remember that counseling services are available. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

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