Today’s blog post is about perfectionism and why there is no place for it in exams.

Don’t get me wrong: Perfectionism is natural. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s merely a manifestation of our pursuit for goodness and greatness and beauty. There is a time and place for perfectionism, like in the creation of melodic music, or painting aesthetic art, or writing a short story in the comfort of your home as the rain gently pitters and patters against the window pane.

An exam, however, is not the time nor place for perfectionism to reign.

The ‘Perfect’ Introduction

Countless of my tutoring students have an issue with the introduction of an English commentary or Paper 2 comparative essay. It’s not that they don’t know English, or that they can’t write well. In fact, they can write exceedingly well. The problem is the perfectionist attitude that they take into an exam.

Here’s how it goes.

0 minutes into exam: “I’m going to write the best, perfectest essay this world has ever seen. Out of the way, Dickens! Out of the way, Shakespeare!”

3 minutes into exam: “I need to write an introduction. Hmm. It needs to be really good. Like, perfect. How do I make the first sentence original and creative and perfect??”

10 minutes into exam: “No, let’s cross that word out. The introduction needs to be perfect.”

15 minutes into exam: *looks at the clock* “Wait… what’s the time? 15 minutes!? Already?? I HAVEN’T EVEN FINISHED MY INTRO!”

15 minutes till the end of the exam: “OMG OMG OMG. SCREW PERFECTIONISM. MY ESSAY IS SO BAD NOW. BUT WHO CARES? I NEED TO FINISH.”

Get rid of it at the start

Perfectionism doesn’t survive more than 15 minutes into an exam, because the student quickly realises that it’s simply not a practical approach under extreme time pressure. Frankly, that’s 15 minutes too long.

Stifle your inner perfectionist at minute 0. Cage it up. Sedate it. If perfectionism is going to sabotage your entire essay anyway, why even let it poke its troublesome head out from the deepest recesses of your mind? Why not just ditch it and adopt an imperfect but pragmatic mindset that leaves you trauma-free and tear-free after the exam?

Remember, an exam-and an English introduction-does not need to be perfect. Remember, you are being forced to squeeze out coherent words and insightful arguments under extreme stress and time constraints. That’s not your fault. Your teachers and examiners haven’t provided you with an opportunity to show off your best work, so don’t treat it like it is an opportunity to realise a literary work of art.