Why do so many college freshmen at our nation’s top universities think they’re imposters?
Let me say right away that this is not some new phenomenon; nor is this state of mind sweeping all college freshmen. However, for high achieving students—especially those who gain entrance to the top rung of colleges and universities in the country—this fear of internalizing and accepting their great achievements is all too real.
Imposter syndrome is marked by an aching feeling of self-doubt—the belief that one is an academic fraud, unworthy of being on a campus with all those great minds. Students begin to believe that Admissions made a mistake.
How is Imposter Syndrome manifested?
- Students begin to belittle what they’ve accomplished during high school by saying they must have been accepted to their university by sheer luck or by error.
- Students become worried that they will be “found out”—that professors or classmates will eventually see that they don’t measure up and, therefore, don’t belong there.
- Students begin to find excuses for not working hard to achieve good grades, when they notice that the accomplishments they’re used to seeing in the classroom don’t come as easily in this place where everyone is accomplished and competitive.
- Students spend an inordinate amount of time comparing themselves to others they find more worthy on campus. This, ultimately, destroys their focus on all the possible leadership opportunities that exist on campus—ones that could truly use their talents.
- When friends or relatives compliment the student on his or her grade in a course—all he or she can do is deflect: “Well, I took a course just like this in high school.” OR “It’s not me; it’s that I had great mentors.” OR “Yeah, I did well in that subject, but I really had to study harder than everyone else in the class.”
- Where Imposter Syndrome used to be more frequent among female students, both male and female students suffer equally now.
Undoubtedly, with the great celebration of attending a fine college, comes great fear of failure. “What if I don’t continue to do as well as I did in high school? What if I don’t make a name for myself in my chosen major or field?” All those “what ifs” can become dangerous snags in a student’s future.
Look, it’s a basic truth that our young people are exhausted. The education system in our country is exhausted. Parents are exhausted. Good students fight to be anything but the “flat” candidates who study, take tests, and make it in on their numbers alone. Good students have the spirit and the will to do so much more. Perhaps our system of teaching to tests is removing the will to explore the creative, scientific, and entrepreneurial pursuits that would demonstrate to our students that they are far more than their GPAs and standardized scores. Perhaps more focus on creativity and development of character, leadership, and humanities during high school would better prepare students to see their authentic sparks, respect their own impact and engagement in fields and causes they come to care about, and enable them to hold their heads high on campuses with others who have also begun such exploration.
Now, allow me to speak directly to the students: I don’t have the right to tell you to feel on equal footing when placed on a campus with thousands of others who may seem far above your level in one way or another—intellectually or competitively. Different strengths and different strokes make the world go ‘round. I do have the years of experience, however, to tell you that, for the most part, a university accepts students who have the ability to learn, grow, and excel on its campus. You have been selected—not necessarily because you’re the most extraordinary student (top universities could fill their halls with high school valedictorians if they want. The fact that they don’t should tell you something)—but because you will help create the most extraordinary class. You have something that the university wants. Is it your gift of gab in the classroom? Is it your international travel experience? Is it your passion for politics, the spark that flew off the page of your personal statement, the way you quote Shakespeare every time someone asks you for advice, or the fact that you’re a “serial” coder who spends all of his or her down time learning new languages? If you can think about these quirky, wonderful elements of your personality—these things, beside your grades—that have conspired in the most serendipitous and wonderful ways to bring you acceptance to this university of your choice, then, dear students, you may understand that those qualities keep you forever from being an imposter. You are fascinating. You are strong. You are college students on campuses full of possibilities, and you get four years to breathe in big ideas and evaluate their promise. Then, you get to go out into the world and do things that only you can do. Imposters?—Not you 🙂