How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome in College

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How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome in College
portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
By Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published on June 25, 2021

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In my graduate program, every student experienced impostor syndrome at some point. Sitting in a seminar room surrounded by brilliant-sounding grad students, I remember thinking "I shouldn't be here. Somehow the university accidentally admitted me to the program when I don't know anything. And soon everyone's going to realize I'm an impostor."

The feeling of not belonging, not measuring up, or faking it at school hits a lot of college students.

That feeling — of not belonging, not measuring up, or faking it at school — hits a lot of college students. In a 2019 study, 20% of college students experienced impostor syndrome. And a 2020 review of medical studies found that up to 82% of people may face the syndrome at some point in their lives.

Impostor syndrome doesn't hit every student equally, however. First-generation students report a higher incidence of feeling like an impostor at school. So do overachievers.

How can college students overcome impostor syndrome? Fortunately, some simple strategies can help students banish their negative feelings and doubts.

What Is Impostor Syndrome?

First identified in a 1978 study, impostor syndrome describes the feeling of being a fraud. Students who experience the symptoms often suspect that they don't deserve their successes or that their good grades might be an accident. They also worry about someone "finding out" that they aren't smart enough.

Examples of impostor syndrome in college include assuming that your academic work doesn't measure up, even when you're doing well in class. College students might also avoid taking risks or speaking up in class because they worry about failing.

Students who experience imposter syndrome often suspect that they don't deserve their successes or that their good grades might be an accident.

In response to stress, students experiencing impostor thoughts may either procrastinate or over prepare. Yet when they receive positive feedback, they ignore it or assume it was a fluke.

And impostor syndrome isn't only a problem in academic settings. A feeling of not belonging can permeate social settings as well, leading to students withdrawing and not making connections with other students.

Impostor syndrome rattles people's self-confidence. It can also contribute to anxiety and depression. And many of the coping mechanisms students develop to manage their feelings end up hurting their mental health and academic performance.

How to Deal With Impostor Syndrome in Class

As a professor, I noticed a common response to impostor syndrome in class. Some very bright students simply never participated in discussions. They turned in insightful papers and exams but contributed very little in front of other students.

That pattern stood out to me because it felt familiar — I did the same thing as a student. I'd come to class prepared to discuss the material. Then, I would second-guess my observations and wonder if I was way off base. Rather than risk sounding foolish, I'd keep my thoughts to myself.

Instead of bottling up feelings of inadequacy, students should confront them.

But that's not an effective strategy to manage impostor thoughts. First, not participating often affects your grade. And second, it doesn't treat the root cause — the invasive thoughts of being a fraud.

Instead of bottling up feelings of inadequacy, students should confront them. Rather than worrying about how they measure up, students should try to refocus their mental energy on doing their best.

How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome

Overcoming impostor syndrome takes time. In part, students have to rewire their thinking to challenge their thoughts. For example, rather than thinking "I'm not smart enough for this class," rephrase your thoughts of doubt as "I'm learning and figuring things out."

It also helps to confide in friends and classmates. Simply knowing that other students experience similar feelings helps many people manage impostor syndrome.

Adopt the mantra “fake it ‘til you make it.”

For college students who found high school easy, college can sometimes be a rude awakening. With higher expectations, overachievers and perfectionists may find themselves floundering. In these cases, actively combat perfectionist impulses. No one has to be perfect all the time, and cutting yourself some slack can ease feelings of not belonging.

Finally, adopt the mantra "fake it 'til you make it." Even professors get nervous about giving lectures or leading discussion sessions. Learning to manage unhelpful feelings is an important part of maturing and growing.

If impostor syndrome causes anxiety, test anxiety, or depression, consider reaching out to a campus mental health professional for support.

I didn't realize how many of my fellow students felt like impostors until graduate school. And simply recognizing the signs in my own thoughts helped me combat the unhelpful pattern of anxiety and worry.

For some people, impostor syndrome never completely vanishes. But by learning how to manage it, students can overcome feeling like an impostor and more fully enjoy their time in college.


Feature Image: Klaus Vedfelt / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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