nifty list of traits of perfectionism that I’ll share and comment on below. Perfectionism manifests in the following ways:
- all or nothing thinking: Making progress toward challenging goals isn’t enough. “Almost perfect” is seen as failure.
- critical eye: very hard on oneself and others; attention is drawn toward small mistakes rather than the overall accomplishment.
- push vs. pull: While high achievers are pulled toward their goals, perfectionists are pushed toward their goals by fear of not achieving them. I would also add that high achievers allow opportunities, insights, and achievements to be drawn toward them whereas perfectionists are always doggedly pursuing the next gold star.
- unrealistic standards: setting extremely challenging and outsized goals for oneself and one’s work. Sometimes these goals aren’t even reasonable.
- focus on results: overly focused on the end product rather than enjoying the journey. If the result isn’t exactly what you want, you feel like all efforts have been wasted.
- depressed by unmet goals: wallow in disappointment, self-pity, anger, regret, shame, fear, and envy when you don’t meet your goals; hard to bounce back from not making it where you wanted to be.
- fear of failure: a lot of fear attached to not reaching one’s goals and/or “failing.” This fear of failure leads to the following problematic behaviors:
- procrastination: since the perfectionist wants everything to turn out picture-perfectly, getting started toward or making significant progress toward a goal is often delayed due to overthinking, fear of failure, and overly focusing on whether your efforts will achieve the desired results.
- defensiveness: Since failure is so painful to the perfectionist, any kind of feedback that isn’t 100% positive is threatening to the perfectionist’s sense of self.
- low self esteem: The perfectionist bases his/her self-worth on external achievements, feedback, and praise rather than on an inner sense of value, worthiness, and being-loved-ness.
How can perfectionism ruin your application process?
- all or nothing thinking: “I have to get into Harvard / Stanford / Wharton or I won’t go to business school at all.” If earning an MBA really matters to you, you sabotage yourself with this rigid, short list of schools you will consider. When people have these super-short lists of schools, I always point out to them that this is a valid strategy (same one I took), but you may end up not getting into any of them—and they need to be okay with that possibility.
- critical eye: “I can’t believe I missed that geometry question on the GRE. How could I be so stupid?” The GRE/GMAT is not a measure of your intelligence or your worth as a human being; it’s a test that measures your ability to do well on a standardized test. Beating yourself up over mistakes won’t leave you with sufficient energy or motivation to keep studying and retake the test with optimism and confidence.
- push vs. pull: “I’m 32 now and I still haven’t gone to graduate school. I have to get in to a top policy school. If I don’t, I’ll get left behind by people younger than me, and everyone at work will think I’m a failure.” You should be applying to graduate school because you are enthusiastic about the coursework and the experiences you’ll have in and outside of the classroom—not because you are pushing yourself along some sort of invisible “right path” to success.
- unrealistic standards: “I have to get a full scholarship to Harvard Kennedy School,” or “I have to get into every school I apply to.” Your unrealistic standards can set you up for extreme disappointment if, and likely when, your expectations aren’t met. Perhaps you get into HKS with no scholarship or you get into half the schools you applied to. This is not failure.
- focus on results: “I only want to work with an admissions consultant if I know she can get me in. Otherwise, it’s all a waste of time.” No admissions consultant can guarantee your admission to a school. However, staying present throughout the journey rather than overly focusing on, “Yes, but what will this get me in?” will allow you to take the many crucial steps that come together to make for an outstanding application. Of course, I want you to get in and am helping you put together the best possible application to get in, but I need you to put your best effort forward each step of the way rather than trying to forecast if each and every action is going to “get you in.”
- depressed by unmet goals: I’ve had a small number of clients who I was seriously worried about when they didn’t get into their dream schools. They were devastated, beyond disappointed. I wondered how they would possibly go on working at their jobs under such a shadow of despair. Remember that you can always reapply to the same schools as well as apply to a different set of schools. Don’t let a setback knock you on your back.
- fear of failure: “I will be humiliated if I apply to business school and don’t get in, so I’m just not even going to apply.” This is madness! If you want something, don’t be the first person to tell yourself no. Do your best, be realistically optimistic, and see what happens.
- procrastination: “I’m not ready to start on my essays because I don’t have a perfect (i.e. above 700) GMAT score.” The essays are the most important part of the application. Getting competitive test scores are an important hurdle to overcome, but they can never make up for a sub-par “empty” set of essays.
- defensiveness: “That editor doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I wrote a great essay, and she just wants me to write about something that she likes more. How could she not love what I wrote? I spent so much time on it!” A good editor wants to make your work as concise, compelling, and convincing as it can be; she’s not out to hurt your feelings or turn you into a mini-version of herself. Trust those you have reached out to help you, while also trusting yourself to incorporate feedback for an even better second draft.
- low self esteem: “If I get into an Ivy League graduate program, that will really mean that I’m smart and capable, and going to live a life of meaning. I won’t just be one of those ‘average’ people. I will leave behind a legacy. I will be somebody.” You don’t have to have an Ivy League degree to “be somebody.” You already are somebody.
Now that I’ve gotten you sufficiently aware of the many ways perfectionism can hinder your success and happiness, I’ll follow up in a later post with some affirmations you can keep in mind throughout the application process to develop mental and spiritual resilience for the very challenging process of applying to a top graduate school. Remember: high achievers have fun while they’re moving toward their goals; perfectionists torture themselves as they move toward their goals. Let’s be high achievers rather than overachievers or perfectionists.