Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
February 21, 2024

Challenging my perfectionism

By SHELBY YORK | March 27, 2021

COURTESY OF KATY WILNER York discusses adjusting to the workload in her first year at Hopkins.

Like many others at Hopkins, I was the student in high school who was a perfectionist to a fault. I couldn't handle getting a grade below an A, and I tied my worth to how many mistakes I made. Getting into college had always been my end goal. I didn’t know what to do for a career, but I knew that I needed to get into a great school. As a first-generation student, I felt a lot of pressure to excel. 

Entering college last fall, I knew achieving a 4.0 GPA would be difficult, but I was determined to try. As daunting as the virtual semester was, I figured that all I needed to do was push myself hard to maintain the standard of "perfection" that I had set. I quickly realized, though, just how different college was from high school, especially in an online environment. While things seemed manageable at first, all the participation points, papers and quizzes soon took their toll on me. By the time of my second calculus midterm, I had burned out and accepted that I wasn't going to be receiving an A in that class.

Not getting an A was such a foreign concept to me, and yet it was inevitable. Despite all my best attempts, which included getting a tutor, watching practice videos and putting all my effort into my homework, the work wasn’t showing in my scores. I started to question my work ethic and my intelligence, because at no point in my life had hard work not gotten me high grades. I knew my classmates were struggling too, but seeing that their test scores were still much higher than mine made me feel frustrated and out of place. 

As finals approached, I tried to cope with this by putting everything I had into my other classes. I had many presentations to make and papers to write, and it was stressful pushing myself to make them "perfect." I didn't even know what I meant by "perfect," but I strived for it regardless. 

The last few weeks of the semester were tough, but I made it through, awaiting my grades anxiously. Thankfully, I had done well in my classes, including (surprisingly) calculus, though I hadn’t gotten an A in it.

The reaction I had seeing that calculus grade was bittersweet. I was thankful I hadn’t failed the class, but on the other hand, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I hadn’t done enough, that my grade wasn’t good enough. 

It wasn’t until I talked to my friends to discuss how the semester had gone for us that I realized that, while maybe the results I got weren’t “perfect,” they were still worth celebrating. After all, I had made Dean’s List my first semester of college — a virtual semester no less. It seemed weird to dismiss that accomplishment just because I hadn’t gotten an A in an objectively difficult class.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about what it even means for something to be “perfect,” whether it’s the midterm paper I just submitted, my contribution to a class discussion or even this article I’m writing now. 

A perfect score is really only quantifiable in terms of getting a 100% on an assignment, but I have no way of judging whether I’ve done something worthy of that grade. 

It boils down to the fact that I want to be great at the things I do; I don’t want to get into a habit of settling for less than what I know I’m capable of. The problem is that I don’t believe my self-appraisals are accurate. This semester alone, I’ve had multiple instances when someone complimented something they thought I did well that I thought I had done terribly. It makes me consider how I’ll never be able to see myself and my skills through another person’s eyes, so maybe I ought to give more weight to what others believe I do well. 

A quote I have heard a lot throughout my life is “You are your own worst critic,” and I know it’s true. I judge myself far more harshly than anyone else does, and that’s something I’m trying to work on. I’m trying to embrace thinking “It’s finished, and I did my best, so it’s good,” rather than “I didn’t do this perfectly, so it’s bad.” I’m still getting there, but more and more I’m realizing the value of listening to others’ praises of me and trying harder to be nicer to myself. At the end of the day, I’ll never reach where I want to be if I can’t learn to give myself credit where it’s due. 

Shelby York is a freshman from Owenton, Ky. majoring in Writing Seminars. She is a copy reader for The News-Letter.

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