In our work as executive function coaches, supporting young people at school and university, one of the issues we most commonly confront is difficulty writing essays. Essay writing requires all of our 11 executive function skills so it is no wonder that young people in our care struggle. In this blog, I want to dig deeper into the issue of writer’s block, a challenge with task initiation skills development and look at the impact of perfectionism on essay writing performance.

The issue of perfectionism in difficulty writing essays is by know means a new one, in 1986 J Phillips wrote “Essay-writing phobia in undergraduates”  and talked of “a fear of preparing written work, which is highly disabling, and can therefore endanger the academic career of able and intelligent undergraduates whose performance is otherwise satisfactory and well-regarded by staff.”1 Other research points to the issue of self-handicapping behaviours, like leaving the essay to the last minute2.

Yet, this issue persists and as the stakes of public examinations and university grades rise so the pressure to perform increases and thus the incidence of cases of essay phobia is on the rise.  The teachers and lecturers we work with are left at a loss, struggling to understand why someone so able might find such a rudimentary academic task so challenging. As recently as 2019 educational psychologists3 have been calling for more research into how to support students with perfectionist tendencies. But what does this perfectionism look like? How are these able students so paralysed by a psychological block?  Let me call on the case of Suzie here to shed some light.

The Case of Suzie

Suzie is a highly able student studying history at A Level – she is diligent, often reading around the subject and contributes excellently to class discussions.  Yet when an essay is set her mother can often find her turning her attention to anything but the task in hand, she will tidy her room, file her notes,  complete all her other homework, but when it comes to writing the essay she will find any excuse not to do it.

When discussing this issue with her coach it transpires that her first essay this year was given a C grade, her GCSE technique of brain dumping everything she knows on the topic just isn’t what her teacher wants at this level. Her teacher wants a concise and clearly structured argument but Suzie doesn’t know how to prioritise some evidence and points over others, she goes round and round in circles.

Above all, she fears that if she continues to hand in C grade essays that her teacher will predict her a C at A Level and her hopes of studying History at a higher tier university will be dashed. Ironically, the fear that she is feeling puts her in a survival brain state which means she will be less likely to access the brain processes she needs to prioritise what to include in the essay and so the vicious cycle continues.

Our work and the research shows that there is a way out of this vicious cycle. We have found that often perfectionists tend to also have a fixed mindset, they see any mistakes not as an integral part of the learning process but evidence of that they are not good enough a student.  This point is reinforced by the work of Besser et al in 20084 which showed that perfectionism can be counteracted by strong self efficacy; confidence in the ability to exert control over one’s own behaviour and academic performance.

How to overcome perfectionism & essay writing blocks

1. Accept failure as part of the process

Work to address perfectionism and essay writing blocks starts with helping young people to truly believe that failure is part of the learning process and dispel the fear of not performing at the highest academic level all the time. This can be an extremely hard job when many schools claim to value a growth mindset but their actions (giving predicted grades early in the academic year, and mistaking essay writing block for laziness) tell a different story to our highly sensitive students.

2. Understand neuroplasticity

We find that teaching young people about neuroplasticity, helping them to understand the science behind growth mindset theory, can be an enlightening way of helping rewire thinking in this regard.

3. Develop strong EF skills

Executive function skills help our overthinkers to hone in on exactly what they want to say in their essay and stick to their plan. When they develop their executive function skills in regard to essay writing they also develop the confidence to know that they have the skills needed to complete the essay to a good enough standard to get the highest grade and thus their fear of starting, in case it is not good enough subsides.

How did these steps help Suzie?

In the case of Suzie; with the help of this approach she went on to achieve the 5A*s at A Level her teachers knew she was capable of. She then started university with a set of essay based executive function skills which mean she can tackle any essay she is asked to write all with the knowledge that any slip in her grades is a learning experience not a reason for despair.


I agree with the educational psychologists referenced here; it is high time that we researched more into not just the impact of perfectionism on essay writing but also how teachers and learning support professionals can effectively unpick the negative thought loops of their students and help them believe that they have all the tools they need to write an essay at the highest expected level.

Don’t miss our upcoming CPD Accredited Essay Writing Webinar!

Join me on the 13th of November at 4.30pm, GMT for a CPD accredited webinar:


Why is essay writing so hard: executive function perspectives and solutions.


I will be sharing my insights into this conundrum and how and executive function skills approach can be invaluable, together with practical tools and worksheets professionals and students can use to scaffold  the development of skills they need to excel at academic writing.

Limited space available. Click the button below to reserve your spot!


Discounts available for students – please email to apply. 


A note from the author:

“I am a teacher and mother of a neurodivergent family.  Some days it all feels too much, but time and again I remind myself to turn to our proven strategies and it makes everything more doable.


I have dedicated my life to our world changing work. It’s such a privilege to have you on this journey with us.”


– Victoria Bagnall,

CiM Co-Founder & Managing Director



1 J.P.N. Phillips,

Essay-writing phobia in undergraduates, Behaviour Research and Therapy,

Volume 24, Issue 5, 1986, Pages 603-604, ISSN 0005-7967,


Marshall, K., Forbes, A., Kearns, H., & Gardiner, M. (2008). When a high distinction isn’t good enough: a review of perfectionism and self-handicapping. Australian Educational Researcher, 35(3), 21–36.


3 Dawn Starley (2019) Perfectionism: a challenging but worthwhile research area for educational psychology, Educational Psychology in Practice, 35:2, 121-146, DOI: 10.1080/02667363.2018.1539949

4 Besser, A., Flett, G.L., Hewitt, P.L. et al. Perfectionism, and Cognitions, Affect, Self-esteem, and Physiological Reactions in a Performance Situation. J Rat-Emo Cognitive-Behav Ther 26, 206–228 (2008).