Is Your New College Student a Victim of “Impostor Syndrome?”

Poet Maya Angelou once said, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, – uh-oh, they’re going to find out now.  I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”

It is not unusual for successful people to doubt the legitimacy of their success. Many college students are no different.  Your student worries that she doesn’t belong at the college, she’s a fraud, the college made a mistake by admitting her.  She’s a victim of “Impostor Syndrome.”

One psychologist found that as many as 70% of people admit to feeling, at some point in their lives, that they are inadequate and don’t deserve their success.  So if the feeling rings true for your student, she’s in good company.  If your student secretly worries about her abilities, it may help her to know that she’s not alone.

What does your student feel?

It is important to realize that, even though you know that your student’s admission was deserved and you know that your student will do well, the fear and concern that your student feels is real. Logic may tell her that she deserves to be where she is and that she is just as qualified as her classmates, but the belief that it is all a mistake is not based on logic.

Your student may feel as though she somehow tricked the college and her admission was just a case of luck and timing. She feels as though everyone is smarter than her and somehow, sometime, the college will find out that she is just pretending to be qualified.

Your student’s insecurity about her abilities does not necessarily come from low self-esteem.  Impostor Syndrome for students is often specific to school, academics, or later to work or career.  It is difficult for your student to internalize her accomplishments (just lucky?) and believe that they are deserved.  For many students, this means that they either procrastinate doing their work (if they do it, they’ll be found out) or become workaholics (they need to work harder than everyone else).

What can you do to help your student?

It is difficult to help your student who may feel inadequate since she may not share her feelings with you.  Be proactive and help her think about what to do to address or prevent possible feelings. Here are some messages you might share with your student.

  • Accept that these feelings are normal. Many other students probably also feel inadequate but never admit it.
  • Do what you need to do, do your best work, but don’t compare yourself to others. Easier said than done, but give it a try.
  • It’s OK to mess-up once in a while as you are learning. Know that occasional failures are inevitable and are OK, sometimes they are even good.
  • Work to improve not to be perfect. Competence is not the same thing as perfection. It’s important to do your best work and to improve and get better as you learn, but no one is perfect all of the time.
  • Don’t give up. Keep working, keep learning, keep growing.
  • Get help when you need it. You are in college because you don’t know everything yet. Use your resources and get better.  You will build confidence as you keep working and have small successes.
  • Take some advice from social psychologist Amy Cuddy in her TED talk and “fake it till you become it.” The more you act confident, the more you will become confident.

It is inevitable that your student will have moments (and moments, and moments) of doubt throughout her college years – and beyond.  You may or may not be aware of them.  But help your student understand that it may happen, and that it is normal.  If she is prepared and armed with some strategies to move through those times, she will be ready to succeed – and to believe in her success.

Related articles:

Is Your College Student Academically At Risk?

How Parents Can Help College Students Value Their Mistakes

College Is a Next Step – That’s All

Is Your Student Getting Cold Feet About Going to College?


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