Perfectionism is the Voice of the Oppressed

In Test Prep General by Peter PengLeave a Comment

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a perfectionist. This is not a good trait.

My friend likes to say I have an “extreme reach barrier,” which simply means I become paralyzed, unable to act, because I have all these lofty goals. Reaching or aiming so high actually causes inaction because the greater the ambition, the greater the intimidation. I get overwhelmed.

The lesson is, the vast majority of students (except the ones who have a realistic shot at 34+ on the ACT or above 2300 on the SAT) need to let go of perfection.

This may sound counterintuitive, but hear me out. When you feel like you need to get every question correct or that you need to attempt all the questions, you’re shooting for perfection. Let it go.

Imagine you’re working through the math section. You’re about halfway through and everything so far has been a breeze. You feel good. The questions were easy peasie. But suddenly, now you’re stuck. It’s only halfway through the test and you didn’t expect to be stumped so early. You feel you MUST get this question right because you’ve never stumbled so early on in any of your practice tests. This is when the perfectionist attitude gets dangerous.

Instead of skipping the question and moving on to the next one like you know you should, you twist and turn, spinning your gears on this particular problem. Now two or three minutes have passed. It should have been a one-minute question, so you’ve virtually guaranteed yourself that you won’t have enough time on some of those hard questions later, unless you move really fast.

The problem with needing to get any particular question right is that it robs you of opportunities to pick up all the easy questions (for you). My heart breaks when my students tell me they didn’t get to the last 5 questions, but when I ask them to do them in front of me, they get most of them correct. Those were 3 or 4, maybe even 5, questions they could have gotten if they hadn’t let perfectionism get the best of them back on question #10! It’s never worth trading one question for multiple questions down the line.

Furthermore, even if you DO eventually figure out that tricky question, you know you spent way too long. Now you’re stressed because your pacing is behind. You go on tilt, speeding through the rest of the section, making careless mistakes because you aren’t thinking calmly anymore.

The worst case is when you hit a question that you know you know. But for some reason, it’s just not coming to you at that moment. Because your ego tells you that you should be able to solve this question, it refuses to acknowledge that you just can’t right now. It refuses to let you move on even when you’ve already spent way too much time. You spiral out of control, growing increasingly frazzled. You can’t think straight when you’re frazzled. Please, you have to let this one go, even if you know you would have gotten it right in any other situation. Come back at the end, if you have time.

Don’t dig in your heels right now just because you want that satisfaction of getting a question you feel like you should be able to get. There will be plenty of “should have” questions—expect them, accept them, then let them go. Truth be told, perhaps the last question (usually the hardest) of the section will be easier for you than this medium-level problem.

This is basic test strategy, but you need to follow it:

  1. Go through the test and do all the super easy (for you) questions first. Remember, question #1 is statistically easy, meaning it’s easy for MOST students, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy for you. If, for some reason, #1 stumps you, then whatever, move on immediately. Similarly, while the last question is statistically hard, if it’s easy for you because you just reviewed that concept last night, then make sure to pick up that easy point.
  2. After you’ve confidently moved through the ENTIRE section and solved all the easy for you questions, move onto the medium questions. These are the ones you feel like you can get, but they’re going to take some time. You’re not 100% sure if you try out an approach, it’ll work, but you have a feeling it probably will. Or maybe you do know it’ll work, but it’s a bit more involved and will take some tedious calculations. Now is the time to do these questions. Make sure to skip over any truly hard for you questions still.
  3. With any remaining time, go back and tackle these extreme reach problems. Remember, NEVER GIVE UP. These are questions that make your head swirl, that make you mutter expletives under your breath. But breathe. If you recognize that you’re going to run into a few of these hard ones that you fully expect to be stumped on, when you see them, you won’t freak out. You’ve expected them to appear, so now that they have, you can calmly try your best. If you still don’t get them, that’s okay because you picked up all the questions you deserve to get right (the easy and medium ones).

Following that strategy will allow you to forego perfectionism. You’ll pick up more points because every question is worth the same.

Here’s one more last secret: you don’t have to try every question to get a good score, especially in math. Trying to finish the test by moving at a pace that’s too fast for you (meaning, you can’t accurately solve things that fast) is a surefire way to bombing. It’s more important to be accurate on the questions you do attempt than to get through all the questions but miss a bunch.

Remember, on the ACT, you can always guess with no penalty on the ones you couldn’t figure out. On the SAT, you can use educated guessing or simply leave it blank if you truly have no clue.

And get this—skipping all the hard questions in math, but correctly solving all the easy and medium questions will get you around a 600. That’s pretty good for not doing a single hard question, wouldn’t you say?

As you figure yourself out or work with a tutor who can give you guidance on which questions to attempt or leave blank, you can rest easy knowing you don’t have to get everything right. I’m all about realistic, proven approaches that will maximize your score, so remember this:

Perfectionism is for the dreamers; pragmatism is for winners.

I’ll leave you with a quote by author Anne Lamott: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”

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