At College Coach, we spend a lot time thinking about your children. Can I help her improve her activities descriptions? How is his freshman year going? Are they frustrated that we sent them back to the drawing board on that last essay? But we’re human, and we also spend a good deal of time thinking about them outside of their college admissions process. Did she seem extra anxious the last time we spoke? Is he getting enough sleep? How could I have helped them better prepare for that disappointment?
Recently, a group of College Coach educators read the book Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives by Rachel Simmons. While the book is aimed at parents of adolescent girls, we hoped that as educators that we, too, would find ideas and strategies for better supporting the young women we work with on a daily basis.
The idea that really struck a chord with me personally as I read the book is what Simmons refers to as “the cult of Effortless Perfectionism.”
Simmons sets the stage by explaining that:
In the so-called age of Girl Power, we have failed to cut loose our most retrograde standards of female success and replace them with something more progressive. Instead, we’ve shoveled more and more expectation onto the already robust pile of qualities we expect girls to possess. “Women today have to succeed by traditionally male standards of education and career, but they also have to succeed by the traditionally female standards of beauty (not to mention motherhood),” Duke University’s Susan Roth has written. Girls have to be superhuman: ambitious, smart and driven, physically fit, pretty and sexy, socially active, athletic, and kind and liked by everyone.” (p. xii)
And as the bounds of social media have expanded, so too have those of “perfection.” After working with young women for more than two decades, Simmons has seen how it’s “no longer enough merely to excel in school. Now […you have to] have every base covered, from looks to activities to grades, while acting as if, in Beyoncé’s words, you ‘woke up like this.’ As if you nailed it all…without help or effort.” (p. 143)
Through her work, Simmons found that girls who strive for Effortless Perfectionism (EP) are more likely to feel isolated from their peers, concerned that they won’t be able to maintain the façade or that there is another girl out there who is even more effortlessly perfect than she is.
What struck me (hard!) were the nagging questions this raised: Does my work with girls in their admissions process increase their façade of effortless perfectionism to others? How many of the young women I work with tell their peers, teachers, and extended family that they’re working with a college coach? Do I provide an outlet for fear and anxiety that allows this young woman to present as calm, cool, and having it “all together” to her equally-anxious peers? Does this, in turn, increase the vicious cycle that causes other young women to feel like they need to “be more together”?
In the past, I’ve told my students that it’s entirely up to them to decide if they want to share that they’re working with a college counselor—but by doing so, am I feeding into the societal idea that “admitting” you have help (or even asking for it in the first place) is negative?
While I won’t change my practice of letting students choose whether or not they share that they’re working with a college counselor, I will more directly address the shortcomings of seeming “effortlessly perfect” and teach that admitting weaknesses or asking for help may actually help more than it hinders.
For example, I will:
- be more vocal about the power in, and importance of, asking for help. Effortless Perfection doesn’t allow for a lowering of the defenses, but seeking help is actually an incredibly valuable and powerful skill possessed by only the strongest of leaders. Additionally, as Simmons writes, “connections formed in vulnerability (in life and work) are often the most real and lasting” (p. 168).
- be more diligent about praising a young woman’s process, rather than her person. This means I will focus more on praising effort than an innate trait (smarts, athleticism, artistry, etc.). Simmons shares that process praise reminds a girl that she can improve through process and that nothing is fixed—she doesn’t need to come across as effortlessly perfect when hard work was involved.
- be more conscientious about actively modeling imperfection, conveying the message that we’re all human and make mistakes. While it may not seem like much, I do know that having just one person in a girl’s life who doesn’t expect perfection can be freeing. I can strive to be the voice of reason when it comes to the admissions process and a buffer from stress, even if it’s for just one 30-minute meeting a week.
The cult of Effortless Perfection isn’t going anywhere, but I do see that a small part of my role as a college admissions counselor is to chip away at it.