Perfectionism is the Devil

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As a recovering perfectionist, I’ve had a loooong time to work on dealing with simple human mistakes. (Or, I should say, MY simple human mistakes!) Though I can still recall (and cringe!) at how a simple probability question cost me first place in the Dallas-wide Mathematics Olympiad in 9th grade, breaking my winning streak, or how one cracked C# fouled an opera audition in NYC years ago, I’ve slowly made peace with not being perfect.

And as a test prep and tutoring professional in NYC for the past 8 years, I’ve crossed paths with MANY a teenager who beats herself up over not getting the score (or the timing) she wants on various sections of the ACT.

Because I’ve been there, I can spot the culprit quickly: perfectionism.

Yes, I totally get the irony here. We’re trying to raise your score as high as we think we can get it (often shooting for and achieving improvements of 7 or more points). That requires getting more questions correct—in short, getting closer to perfection. Yet, your “perfectionism” is holding you back. How is that possible?

But stay with me a moment. Let me show you 4 ways perfectionism is ruining your ACT score.


1) How Perfectionism Will Screw Up Your ACT Reading Section

As you know, in the ACT Reading section, you only have 8:45 to read an entire two-column passage and answer the accompanying 10 questions. Then you have to turn the page and do the same crazy sprint three more times.

I often see students get so caught up on the “all the following EXCEPT” question that they allow themselves to spend a whole TWO MINUTES on this single question, intent on having a perfect passage. After doing this for the first three passages, they then have virtually no time left for the last passage.

Yes, they got 3 more questions right, rereading those entire selections and scouring for the details. But the cost is that they skipped or rushed the last 10 questions! (And I know we’re talking reading here, but 10 > 3.)

Let's review: NOT being perfect and skipping (& guessing) on the one time-suck question in each passage = 36 questions correct = score of 32.

Being perfect and not having time for the last passage = 30 questions correct = score of 27.

I know which one I’D choose.


2) How Perfectionism Will Screw Up Your ACT Science Section

Just like the ACT Reading will have a question or two that takes proportionately MUCH longer to answer than the rest, so does the ACT Science Section.

In each Science passage, there are usually 4-5 more straightforward questions to answer, that simply involve locating the data point, following the trends on the table or graph, or finding a fact somewhere in the text (usually in italics).

However, the last question or two in each passage may be beyond you, either requiring outside science-geek information, requiring you to comprehend and draw connections between several of the data trends, or requiring you to read all of the text in the passage.

In short, one (or two) question(s) could take just as much time as the easy 4-5 together, sucking up your 5-5:50 per passage and forcing you to leave the last passage or two blank. Not fun! And not good for your score.

If you are a student who simply does not have time to answer everything, here are your choices:

Either try to be perfect and not get to answer the last two passages because you ran out of time = score of 22-24, OR

Guess on the time-suck questions and move on, getting all the easier questions in all passages = score of 28ish.

While I’d personally aim for higher than a 28, and know a few tricks for getting there, if you are in a bind and these are your only two options, I’d go for the latter.

Not, I don’t think, a controversial decision.


3) How Perfectionism Will Screw Up Your ACT Math Section

Here’s a funny thing about the ACT math section: every question is worth the same number of points (one question, one point), regardless of whether the question is a simple PEMDAS “evaluate the expression” question, or a complicated word problem involving rate and work, that takes up half the page in scratchwork.

Another funny thing about the ACT math section: while the questions DO generally start from easier to medium to harder, those last 15 “harder” questions don’t always take much time. Several of them are just “harder” math topics, because they’re from Trig or Algebra II, but if you know them, they take 15 seconds. And they’re each still worth the same 1 point that the longer head-scratching problems are worth.

So let’s review our options:

Get hung up on time-consuming questions, taking 4 minutes to grab your 1 point and then leaving the last 11 questions blank; OR mark it for later and manage to get to the end of the section, answering several 1-step questions instead?

I’m sure you know my preference by now…



4) How Perfectionism Will Screw Up Your ACT Essay

Since the September 2015 change to the ACT essay, this is less of a problem, but it still needs mentioning: trying to be perfect—and in doing so, squandering time on word choice and then NOT finishing up your final body paragraph or conclusion—will not get you the ACT essay score you need. Pouring out your ideas, even with a few misspellings or grammar errors, will. 

Luckily, the new essay prompt breaks down the assignment into three smaller parts, which most of my students find more manageable than the previous, more big-picture (and vague) essay assignment. Also, you get 40 minutes instead of 30.

That said, you still need to convey all your ideas and get them down on the page—otherwise the reader can’t grade them! If you suffer from analysis-paralysis and leave your best-turned phrases in your head, try this technique.


If you’re scared about laying your perfectionistic tendencies to rest, I totally get it.

I’m right there with you. I’ve lived it and I’ve coached many, many students who have trouble wrapping their minds around the damaging effects of perfectionism.

But unless you actually are at the very top of the bell curve and really are only a couple questions away from a perfect score, you should learn this life lesson now and save yourself years of misery: sometimes DONE is better than PERFECT. And learning to bench that compulsion to be perfect and be smart about how you spend your time and energy can actually get you a lot further than beating yourself up—in life, and on the ACT.