5 Ways to Tackle Imposter Syndrome While in College

Note: This post is written for students who are already in college, offering tools and resources regarding how to tackle imposter syndrome. If you are in the process of applying to college (or haven’t even begun yet), click here for a version tailored more to your circumstances.

What is imposter syndrome?

Here’s a nice definition from the Harvard Business Review

Imposter syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. It disproportionately affects high-achieving people, who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments. Many question whether they’re deserving of accolades.

In the more specific context of this post, imposter syndrome is the feeling that you don’t belong at the higher institution you were ADMITTED to, that there must have been a mix up with grades and that they think you’re smarter than you are, that you’re going to be “found out,” that your successes are due to luck, or that you aren’t going to be successful because your more privileged peers have vocabularies that make your lexicon sound like a nursery rhyme. It’s the belief that because your parents didn’t finish high school—and, in some cases, middle school—that you’re somehow inferior to the other students around you. In short, it’s the feeling that you’re a fraud.

You aren’t. 

But it’s understandable why you may feel you are, whether that’s to some small degree, or to something almost overwhelming. Because …

Where does imposter syndrome come from?

Imposter syndrome is very common—some studies have estimated around 70% of people will experience it to at least some degree in their lives. Some of this can stem from things like family expectations. But minority groups—whether by race, gender, sexual orientation, or other status—appear to be especially vulnerable to experiencing imposter syndrome. 

While more research needs to be done, it’s very likely that some of this is cultural in origin. As that Harvard Business Review article puts it: “Imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests.” Think, for example, about media representation. It has historically been far rarer for minorities to be portrayed as leaders or doctors or lawyers or engineers or academic achievers, and while there has been some improvement over the past decade, our society still has a long way to go. Experiences of racism and sexism or conditions that lead someone to question whether they belong also seem to increase the likelihood that someone (especially minority women) will experience imposter syndrome. In short, our culture has a history of telling some groups that they don’t belong. It’s sad but not surprising, then, that people in those groups may feel like imposters.

Ultimately, we need to change our culture. But while we collectively (and unfortunately, probably slowly) work toward those changes, I’m glad you found this page, because understanding what imposter syndrome is and where it comes from can help you tackle it. 

Again, you aren’t an imposter. Think of it this way: Institutions of higher learning have a sophisticated system in which they’ve hired experts to understand the type of student they want admitted—and you think your single acceptance was a mistake?! You aren’t a mistake but an important piece of the puzzle that is the maze of higher education. 

You may not bring the country club experience, or the debit card with a weekly $500 allowance, but you bring a perspective of the world that is unique to you, and is just as worthy of being shared as the trip to Aspen. 

You see, your experiences as someone who’s had to survive circumstances that many of your college classmates will only have seen on television have helped you develop the grit to see your way onto a college campus. Grit is what made you perhaps the first one in your family to attend college, without the help of your parents, who maybe didn’t go to college, but who expect that you’ll succeed and plan to tell all their friends how accomplished you are. 

All of the aforementioned is true, but even more than that is that college is just a stepping stone toward your purpose. If you get off the ride now, you won’t even get to the fun part—using all that you’ve learned to impact the world the way YOU will uniquely change things. 

Now that I’ve reminded you (I hope) of how great you are, let’s break down five active steps you can take starting today!

5 ways to tackle imposter syndrome

1. Affirmations

This one is KEY! Your thoughts are the last messages you internalize each night, and the first in the morning. We speak loudest to ourselves, and unfortunately, we’ve mastered the art of talking ourselves out of opportunities and experiences because we allow fear to be the dominant emotion, letting it overpower our belief in our goals. 

Start each morning (before you grab your phone!) with a simple reminder of your greatness, “I love myself, and I love (fill in the blank) about myself.” You can start with one thing at first, because it’ll feel odd, but that’s because we were taught that talking to ourselves is crazy behavior—it’s not. Learning to understand your own thoughts and to speak kindly to yourself is very sane, and incredibly healthy. 

Throughout the day, when you’re challenged by a situation, repeat to yourself that same affirmation. It doesn’t have to align with the challenge: You’re simply affirming to yourself that the situation that’s occurring is outside of you, and that the belief you have about yourself remains true, regardless of those external circumstances. 

The more you remind yourself you’re worthy of love (self-love being the most important), the more forgiving you’ll be of yourself when you make a misstep or a poor choice (you’ll make them, and they do not make you of less value). The more you learn to love yourself through the ups and downs, the more you realize that we’re all humans on our own journeys and that your focus should always be on bettering yourself for the sake of growth—your own! 

2. Journaling

Remember when maybe your elementary school teachers assigned the class to keep a journal? That was your introduction to writing down your personal feelings and thoughts about a topic. Journaling as a young adult is the same thing. When you’re doubting yourself, talking yourself out of opportunities, or in general, when you have a lot on your mind—WRITE IT DOWN! 

Getting it out of your head and on paper is like talking to yourself, and relieving some of the stress of life. Doing so allows you to reflect and process those doubts. When things stay in your mind, you can easily recycle the feeling over and over, and it becomes a part of your narrative about yourself. The beauty of writing it down is that when you go back and read it, you can gain some perspective, and maybe even realize how ridiculous the thought seems (because your mind is a powerful thing), or figure out a solution to the dilemma standing in your way. 

The most important part of this step is to start with gratitude as you write—reminding yourself that the circumstance you find yourself in is secondary to something you’re grateful for. Acknowledging the good in our lives is a powerful step in shifting our habitual outlook and mind talk.

3. Find your tribe

Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future. These words are truer than you may understand at this point in your life. The people around you should be your  cheerleaders, constructive critics, and aware of their own responsibility to grow alongside you. 

If you surround yourself with people who complain all the time, are never truly happy, and distract themselves with things and don’t truly connect with you—they aren’t your tribe. “Find your tribe” means to find a group of people who share your willingness to be successful, who are genuinely happy for your successes, and who offer comfort in times of distress. Those are your people. 

Often, people we’ve known for a long time but who aren’t progressing the way we are can become envious of what they aren’t doing, and that you are; they sabotage the energy flowing around you—recognize it and step away. Those around you have a strong influence on how you view yourself and what you achieve, and if you’re not careful, you’ll skip class more often because you allowed their self-destructive behavior to become yours.

4. Therapy

This word is so taboo in certain communities of color that if one were to tell their parents that they needed therapy when they were in high school, either a slipper, or another object closest to the parent, would come flying. Or a berating session would commence about one’s being weak, or crazy, and that family problems can always be worked out behind closed doors. 

AHHHHH!! 

That is completely false, and has damaged the relationship of therapy and under-resourced communities for years. The mistrust comes from a lack of education around therapy, that it isn’t and shouldn’t just be a “white” thing, but a human thing. 

The reality is that, as a young adult, you have to understand how to access said therapy (at school or via parent exposure), and in low-income communities, a lot of times the kids who go to therapy have had “really bad things” happen to them, are in foster care, or something catastrophic has happened. 

Think of therapy as maintenance, just like people take their cars to get oil changes. Stuff is blocking the car’s proper function, so the gunky stuff is changed out and replaced with new oil. Your mind is the same—it needs cleaning out because a lot of the baggage that’s the narrative in your mind isn’t even yours to deal with. It’s usually something a parent or peer has gone through and projected onto you, but now you have it, and you’re being affected by it daily. 

Unpack that baggage. You have access to free support you’re already paying for with your tuition fees—so why not use it?! 

5. Use your resources

College is full of resources that are available to you, from counseling and psychological services, to health centers, to food pantries, to career centers … find them! Your advisor/counselor, support program, etc., can direct you to what you need, but if you don’t ask, no one’s going to know how to help you. 

College requires a lot of self-advocacy, so you can be successful. There are way too many students for the college to individually reach out to and ask clarifying questions of … that’s your job. Understand that your concerns and challenges are equally as important as those of your peers. The value in advocating for what you need is immeasurable in persisting through your college journey. 

The road forward

Everyone moves at a different speed on their journey and has different tools in their bag. Use what you have, ask for what you need where you are, and be present in the moment. 

You’ll likely have further moments of doubt. That’s fine. You can continue developing the tools to move through them, and you’ll be stronger on the other side.

The value of your presence on that campus is an asset to that community. You were accepted for a reason—you belong there.

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Written by Lauren Fletcher, College & Guidance Counselor.

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