By: Maria Pascucci, Founder of Campus Calm
We are the student leaders who routinely skip out on nights with friends because we have too much homework and too many commitments. We are the loveable nerds who answer questions first in class because we’re the only ones who bothered to complete last night’s reading. We strive relentlessly for perfect grades and become irritated when we see an “A-” edged in red ink on the top of our papers instead of an “A.”
We are the valedictorians of the world; the summa cum laude college graduates, the academic stars. Our teachers praise us, our parents can push us and our classmates LOVE to cheat off of us.
We really, really believe that we can be anything, do anything in life if we just ace that test. We want to change the world. We want to “show them all.”
We have a lot to prove … mostly to ourselves.
Summa Cum Laude is Latin for “with highest honors”
I am writing to offer you a counter-culture perspective that even though accomplishments are great, and even though awards feel good and look even better hanging up on the wall, that the price we pay on our pursuit of perfection can be high.
I’m a summa cum laude college graduate who spent four years of my life in pursuit of academic perfection.
The first paper I ever tackled for college was a personal experience essay for my freshmen English class. I earned an “A+” from a professor who considers an “A” top-notch work. He even showed off my essay to his other classes.
I devoured his praise and announced my first achievement to my manager at a past retail job. He congratulated me but warned that college was much harder than high school and that consistently getting straight As and graduating summa cum laude would be impossible.
I took this as a personal challenge. At the end of the semester, I flashed my first report card under his nose: 3.94 GPA out of 4.0. He was speechless, and I was addicted to the high that impressing others by striving to be perfect promises.
In the beginning my quest to graduate summa cum laude was fun, but each semester became more challenging. After a few semesters, writing stopped being fun as I could only equate it with pressure and deadlines. I wrote to make the grade. If that grade was less than an ” A” there was an internal hell to pay.
I wanted to dance. Throw a football. Watch a movie, or get in a car and see the world instead of vicariously traveling through stacks of assigned books. Occasionally, I tossed my pen aside and went out, but these instances were rare, and I usually felt guilty about my abandoned pile of work reproducing with each passing second.
At the time, I didn’t know why I put so much pressure on myself. My parents didn’t push me. My professors tried to tell me to lighten up and go have some fun. I could only respond, “Stop dishing out so much work.” I could only give it my all, or give nothing.
Now I understand that I was a classic perfectionist who had yet to discover how to define my inherent worth without my achievements. Because I didn’t know how to define myself without my perfect grades, I was terrified of failing, and “failure” meant anything less than perfection, causing me years of undo stress.
Everything collided my last semester of my senior year of college. I needed eighteen credit hours to graduate on time, so I overloaded my schedule. At the time, I had a cumulative grade point average (GPA) of 3.9 and my sights were set on (finally) graduating summa cum laude.
Forget being proud of myself for the fact that I was going to be the first woman in my whole extended family to graduate from a four-year college, let alone graduating at the top of my class. That is the tragedy of perfectionism, in that it robs us of our ability to take in our accomplishments and be proud of ourselves in the present moment.
The last week of college was my breaking point. I had polished so many papers and read so many books that I never had the chance to study for all of my exams. I crammed for every one the night before and blew through them all until the last: “History of American Women”. It was my favorite class, but I didn’t even read the book that was to comprise a huge portion of the exam. I crammed all night, drove to school in a daze, and slumped in the nearest seat in the exam room.
I was nervous about this last exam because I was so close to graduating summa cum laude – and I had to have it. Others had their awards for being well-rounded students, but I would possess this title I had made myself sick over for four years. Otherwise, I thought, it would all be for nothing.
Once in the exam room, I heard classmates quizzing each other on their notes and I panicked. I whipped open my notebook and began trying to digest names, quotes, dates, and places until I realized that everything might as well have been written in ancient Greek. It was too late. As my professor began passing out exam books, a lump rose in my throat and my eyes pooled with tears. Too late, it’s just too late.
I bolted from my chair, flung open the door, ran down the hallway to the nearest bathroom and locked myself in a stall. After years, I completely broke down. Choking tears poured down my face, soaking my shirt, my neck, my hair. My heartbeat pulsated, and I began gasping for air. I was terrified because I had never before experienced a full-blown panic attack. I curled up on that white and blue checkered linoleum bathroom floor, and I didn’t know if I would ever have the strength to get up.
Eventually, I managed to pull myself off that bathroom floor and rose to wash my face. I stood before the mirror and watched a pale young woman stare back, accusing me for the hollow look in her eyes. I whispered, “I’m so sorry I did this to you.” I went back to class and finished that exam. I was done. FINALLY done.
While other college seniors celebrated the upcoming graduation weekend, I drove home and locked myself in my bedroom. Without any homework, there was nothing left to do. For three days, I watched movies and stared at the ceiling.
When I stood at graduation, the speaker announced, “Maria L. Pascucci – summa cum laude.”
I felt that diploma mocking me with its tiny inscription publicly acknowledging my perfection. I worked so hard to graduate summa cum laude and it destroyed my confidence and my health; now I didn’t even want it. I wasn’t perfect, and I let my own unrealistic standards rob me of enjoying my full college experience.
I didn’t pick up a book or write a word for nearly a year after graduation. When I began searching for a job in my field, I realized that my college diploma with the summa cum laude notation didn’t impress employers much and my lack of experience killed me. I was furious. I had worked myself to the breaking point, and now I felt like society was telling me it still wasn’t good enough.
A psychologist once told me that a perfectionist might have to hit a wall in order to make a personal choice to cut herself some slack. I hit mine curled up on the bathroom floor during my last exam, and then again walking across that stage. FINALLY. Plowed right into it with my little perfect existence. I decided that perhaps it was time I get to know the young woman I’d become instead of chastising myself for the woman I wasn’t.
I started working through my rigid expectations with the help of a counselor. Eventually, I wandered into libraries and checked out books I had come across in college but had never had the time to read. I began keeping a journal and recorded my triumphs and defeats–ie, learning opportunities. 🙂 I landed a writing internship with an online teen magazine. I started to believe in my dreams.
Many years later, I remember a favorite professor’s words: “Maria,” she said, “you’ve got to calm down. Girl, you are going to burn out before your career even begins.”
She was right. I initially lived in the past after graduation, pointing fingers at anything that had ever let me down. Then, I got sick of being angry and chose to move on.
Today, I’m proud to say that I’m a certified professional life coach, author, speaker, leader and change-maker. I’m even more proud to say that if you strip my accomplishments away, I would still stand proud knowing who I am at my core. That took years of counseling, coaching, prayer, soul-searching and personal leadership development. Perfectionism will always be a part of me, but never again will I allow it to usurp my life.
I wish I could take that frantic college girl who suffocated her world in perfection, hug her and say, “CALM DOWN. You don’t need to strive for perfection because you are good enough at your core. Besides, there is no such thing as perfection! Make friends, take classes outside your comfort zone, try an internship in a field you enjoy, and experience the world outside the school’s walls.”
I can’t go back and help that overextended and overwhelmed young perfectionist, but I can help you! Enjoy life, excel at what you feel passionate about, but don’t always demand of yourself the absolute best in everything.
Be proud of your accomplishments, and gift yourself with the realization that you are more than the measure of your GPA or GRE scores, the title on your business cards or the size of your jeans. You are enough!
Graduating summa cum laude, magna cum laude or with any honors is great but not if you lose yourself in the process. If you’re engaged in the classroom, driven by a love of learning and you end up graduating summa cum laude, that’s AWESOME! Just make the journey the main goal, not the resulting grade.
When you stand at graduation, I wish for you to accept your diploma with joy in your heart and be proud of all your accomplishments, knowing that you’ve succeeded and are ready to embrace the future.
*The Campus Calm website was just redesigned and unfortunatley, we couldn’t carry over the Facebook comments from the original website. So they were pasted as images below so you could see what students have had to say about the pressures of academic perfectionism.