Ambitions and striving for perfection

This page offers help and advice on working on the expectations you have of yourself and the demands you place on yourself. We recommend that you read the sections in order, but you are of course also welcome to choose the specific section that is most relevant for you. You can also find good advice from the psychologists at the Student Counselling Service, which can help you to focus on what is important in your student life.

What demands do I place on myself?

At the Student Counsellors' Office, we often meet students who:

  • place high demands on themselves
  • postpone their exams because they don't feel ready
  • find it difficult to prioritise between their studies, student job, social events, family, sports training and voluntary work
  • find they do not have enough time to do ‘everything’
  • are worried about their career, because they have not received top grades in all subjects

Of course, having ambitions and objectives in your student life often involves setting particular standards for yourself and your level of input. This applies to your academic and personal approach to your studies, but it also applies to your private life in relation to your leisure activities, student job, family, friends and much more. On this page, you will find exercises to help you learn more about your ambitions and standards.

Ambition or perfection?

It is good to have ambitions and expectations of yourself, and, if you perform well on your degree programme and thrive on meeting these expectations, then all is well. However, if you you find that your expectations are beginning to negatively affect your wellbeing and your ability to study, it is time to stop, reflect and do something about it.

Below, we have gathered some of the questions we would normally ask if you visited us at the Student Counsellors’ Office. Answer the questions and consider noting down your answers.

  • What led you to visit this page on ambitions and striving for perfection?
  • How much time each week do you spend: studying, at your student job, on leisure activities, with family and friends?
  • How do you decide when you have finished studying for the day?
  • When did you last submit something that you were not completely satisfied with? How did you feel about it?
  • What expectations do you have of yourself as a student in relation to, for example:
    • grades
    • preparation (number of hours)
    • arrangements with friends
    • reading everything in the syllabus
    • participating in every lecture?
  • When are you satisfied with your level of input?
  • When do you find that the demands you make on yourself become a problem?

If you have realised that your expectations of yourself or your desire for perfection are starting to negatively affect your student life, you can now continue to explore your motivation and your options for changing your pattern.

What motivates you?

At the Student Counsellors' Office, we use the following questions to clarify the obstacles students face when their high expectations or their desire for perfection overshadow their wellbeing or a well-functioning student life. The questions give you the chance to reflect on your motivation and your options for changing your situation/perfectionism.

Ask yourself (or get a good friend to ask you) the following questions. Some people find it helpful to write down their answers.

  • In which situations do you find that the expectations you have of yourself become a problem for you?
  • What makes the problem a problem?
  • What makes it difficult? What do your high expectations prevent you from doing?
  • What are the pros and cons of having high expectations of yourself? What would happen if you didn’t change your current pattern?

Consider completing this table.

My current pattern - prosMy current pattern - cons

Changing my current pattern - prosChanging my current pattern - cons

What did you learn from this exercise? How ready are you to change your current pattern? Spend some time writing down your thoughts on a piece of paper.

  • What is preventing you changing your current pattern?
  • What experiences can you draw on (both good and bad)?
  • What would you suggest if your best friend were in the same situation?
  • What can motivate you to change your pattern?
  • What will happen if you change your pattern?
  • What will it take for you to successfully change your pattern?
  • How will you benefit?

Once you have answered these reflection questions, you can continue to the next section, where you can work on potential solutions or make an action plan.

What can I do?

It may be an advantage to make an action plan that includes specific activities and a time plan. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What will you do now?
  • How will you do it?
  • When will you do it?
  • What challenges can you foresee?
  • Who can help you (e.g. your study group, your roomie, your parents, your best friend, your girlfriend, your neighbour, your student counsellor)?

You can also find inspiration in the next section on this page.

General advice from the Student Counselling Service

The Student Counselling Service has produced a leaflet with lots of good advice on how you can manage your standards and your desire for perfection. We have listed some of the advice here, but, if you would like to read more, you can follow the link at the bottom of the page.

Set realistic and achievable goals
Base your goals on your current situation and resources. It makes a difference whether you have three days or three weeks for an assignment, just as it makes a difference if there is illness in your immediate family. The fact that you scored 12 in a previous exam or at school does not mean you always need 12 across all your courses.

Stress, nerves and depression – what are they telling you?
Take the signals your body gives you seriously. If you are sleeping badly, have stomach aches, are restless, or feel the need to isolate or over-work, it is usually a sign that the goals you have set yourself are unrealistic and are not relevant to your actual life.

What do others expect of you?
Check out what your supervisor or study group expect of your work – and their own. Compare this with your own expectations. If you, for example, are happy to say that you “just need to pass the next exam”, you can stop studying to the extent required to achieve a two-digit grade.

Remember that you will continue to learn once you enter the workplace
The labour market does not expect perfect graduates but people who are engaged and prepared to learn from the mistakes they will inevitably make.