Perfectionism and Psychological Adjustment among College Students: Does Educational Context Matter?

Article excerpt

Perfectionism is generally seen as the "striving for flawlessness" (Flett & Hewitt, 2002, p. 5), and although perfectionism exists among individuals of all ages, perfectionism and its influence on psychological adjustment among college students has not been thoroughly researched. At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, students are under increasing pressure to perform at the highest levels to compete. Information about how perfectionism affects college students can help parents, teachers, counselors, and other higher education professionals who assist these students. Moreover, it is possible that the nature and effects of perfectionism may vary for students attending different types of institutions of higher learning. This study attempts to explore these issues.

Although researchers (e.g., Flett & Hewitt, 2002; Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990) disagree on how exactly to define or conceptualize perfectionism, some researchers have found that a multidimensional approach to studying perfectionism is useful in identifying both adaptive and maladaptive aspects of perfectionism (Flett & Hewitt, 2002; Frost et al., 1990). Early work by Hamachek (1978) distinguished between "normal" perfectionists who have high personal standards but allow themselves some flexibility in self-evaluations, and "neurotic" perfectionists who avoid positive self-evaluations unless their performance is always perfect. Frost et al. (1990) contend that perfectionism is made up of several dimensions, including concerns about making mistakes, high personal standards, doubts about one's actions, and organization. Frost et al. (1990) argue that perceived high parental expectations and parental criticism are also important ingredients of a perfectionistic orientation. If, indeed, there are distinct dimensions of perfectionism, it is important to examine how each of these dimensions is associated with typical markers of psychological adjustment among college students such as self-esteem, depression, eating disorders, and loneliness. For example, it would be useful to clarify whether some aspects of perfectionism (e.g., having high personal standards) are associated with good psychological adjustment, whereas other aspects (e.g., excessive concerns about making mistakes) are associated with poorer adjustment.

Another interesting issue is whether the nature of perfectionism differs depending on the type of student and/or the type of university setting. One possibility is that perfectionistic students tend to be drawn to selective private universities, whereas students who are not perfectionistic tend to be attracted to less selective public universities (or simply get lower grades and have to settle for less elite institutions). On the other hand, it may be that private colleges tend to encourage perfectionism in students (perhaps because of the rigid standards common at these institutions). The high pressure context of a selective private school may breed perfectionism where students feel like they must attain perfection just to meet high standards. In contrast--although standards vary from school to school--less selective public colleges may not foster a perfectionistic orientation to the same degree. It is not clear which, or if any of these possibilities is more likely. Although it is difficult to tease apart the effects of type of college setting from the kind of students who attend the colleges, research that explores the relationship and patterns between perfectionism and psychological adjustment in different types of school environments is necessary to provide a good starting point for further longitudinal research.

Although much research has examined the general patterns of association between perfectionism and psychological adjustment factors, very few studies have compared these patterns in different types of learning environments. For example, consistent links have been found between perfectionism and depressive symptomology (e. …