We are here to support your program.

Am I supposed to be here? When you feel like an impostor on campus

Everyone here seems smarter than me, and they’re so confident.

Did my university make a mistake?

Maybe they meant to send my acceptance letter to another person with the same name.Did I just get lucky? 

As a college student, thoughts like these are not uncommon, especially in your first couple of years. For students who are the first in their family to go to college or from limited-income backgrounds, thoughts like these can seem particularly alienating. You might think, am I the only one who feels this way? The answer is no!

There’s actually a name for feeling this kind of self-doubt. It’s called the imposter experience, or impostor syndrome, and it’s defined as “a false and sometimes crippling belief that one’s successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill.” About 80 percent of people have the imposter experience at some point in their lives, according to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, which means you’re definitely not the only one who feels this way.

In this article, we run through a few strategies you can use to get back on your feet.

1. Remember What You’ve Already Accomplished in Life

Think back to your past performance. How did you get to where you are today? Reflect on your success and own it. Chances are, your greatest achievements also required overcoming some very difficult obstacles. You might have doubted your ability to accomplish a particular task or goal when you first started, but you did it. By the end, you felt on top of the world. What strategies and values helped you get there? These are the same strategies and values that will serve you well as a college student.

2. Document your Successes 

Sometimes, our negative self-talk can prevent us from seeing and remembering our actual accomplishments. If this may be the case for you, try keeping a daily diary and recording every instance in which you do something well, or receive positive feedback, no matter how small. 

If you keep track for a week or a month, you can go back and re-read your success diary whenever the impostor feelings take over, and you'll be able to remind yourself of all the incredible things that you do.  

3. Don't Compare, Connect 

“When you find that little voice inside your head comparing you to that fellow classmate across the room, I hope you remember these three words: don’t compare, connect.”
— Dean Michael D. Smith, Harvard College

It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to classmates. You might think to yourself, “WOW, that person…
...dresses like they just came from a photoshoot.”
...speaks so well.”
....is so well-traveled.”
...already started a nonprofit organization.”
…[insert other amazing feat here].”

Your brain might follow that up with, “MAN, I…
...dress like a slob.”
...speak like a mouse.”
...have never been to another state, let alone another country.”
...didn’t even do all my homework in high school.”
…[insert other potentially embarrassing thing here].”

Comparing yourself to others can cause you to feel bad about yourself and your accomplishments. What many students don’t realize in that moment: often times, the classmate they’re comparing themselves to has had similar thoughts, either in this class or another class. It’s human nature, and it’s not limited to students who are the first in their family to go to college or from limited-income backgrounds.

Comparing yourself to classmates can also make you hesitant to talk to those individuals you put on a pedestal. However, one of the greatest opportunities that college brings is the ability to connect with fellow students from diverse backgrounds. Take time to say hi, connect over something in the class, ask them what they’re studying or what they like to do for fun. You may be surprised to find you have more in common with them than you thought. In the words of Michael D. Smith, “Don’t compare, connect."

4. Join an Affinity Group 

“People high in impostorism typically struggle alone, silently,” says Dr. Cokley, a professor of educational psychology and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “If you’re feeling that way, you are most certainly not the only person feeling that way.” He recommends joining or creating an affinity network, “a group of people who are similar to you, based on gender or ethnicity, and you can talk about your vulnerabilities and insecurities.”

Many campuses have affinity groups in the form of student organizations, such as a Black or Chicano student association, or groups for first-generation college students.  These organizations offer the support of peers with shared experiences, and it can really help to talk through your feelings with friends on campus who come from a similar background.

Adapted from the Propeller Collective and the New York Times