The Damage of 'Impossible Perfectionism'

06/05/2013 01:34 pm ET | Updated Aug 05, 2013

Last week, I got an email from a client asking me if it was OK for her son to skip one of his SAT Subject Tests this Saturday because he has been ill from what his doctor diagnosed as "stress-related migraines." His doctor, who treats many private school students in Manhattan, commented that these stress-related medical conditions are increasingly common.

We all know that our high schools are struggling to give all students access to a quality education. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan recently called the high school drop out rate "unsustainably high for a knowledge-based economy." However, what is less reported on is how high schools can fail bright, motivated, high-achieving students.

The problem is best described in two words: impossible perfectionism.

As a college adviser, it is my job to guide students in their journey from high school to college. Like most educators, I am inspired by that twinkle that students get when they dream big and go after their dreams.

Unfortunately, the longer I work with ambitious students, the more I see that twinkle start to diminish by junior year. The media bombards them with the message that they need a perfect GPA or perfect jump shot to get into a decent college. Getting into a good college -- a feat that seems impossible to many frightened teenagers -- becomes an all-consuming pursuit in high-achieving communities. Best friends compete ruthlessly and keep secrets from each other because no one wants to lose her "edge" in the college race. Students start ranking each other by SAT scores.

Of course, competition is a part of life and there's nothing wrong with wanting to achieve excellence. However, in most countries around the world -- places where the competition for higher education is every bit as fierce, if not more so, than in the U.S. -- students are not expected to be "perfect" in everything. For better or for worse, by the time they reach the latter grades of high school, they specialize in their strongest subjects and are judged based on their performance in these areas. Their main job is to study and master this material -- not start charities, or play 20 hours or soccer a week, or put out a weekly school newspaper.

In contrast, high-achieving American students feel that they need to excel in all areas. They take Advanced Placement courses in calculus and history and French. They take SAT Subject Tests in literature and math and chemistry. They do community service, play sports, demonstrate leadership, find interesting summer opportunities, publish scientific research, win academic competitions, and get the lead in the school play. I have a stress headache just thinking about it!

Part of the problem is that most high-achieving students and the media are focused on a handful of selective colleges. The first step to finding a "Dream U" is to understand the truth about the college landscape: this is a land of plenty.

If prestige is a top priority, a well-informed student (who doesn't have "perfect" grades) can still go to an elite college. If learning is more important, she will have even more options. We need to change the tone of conversations around college from panicky desperation to empowered, informed decision-making. And we need to get rid of the impossible perfectionism plaguing our brightest, most ambitious students before they all end up burnt out and unable to learn.