6 Effective Ways to Overcome Imposter Syndrome in College


Depressed college student with imposter syndrome

 Oh, wait, she landed an internship at Google? 

 Wow, he got into this club while I didn’t. 

 RIP, everyone did so much better than me on the bio exam. 

Honestly, have these thoughts ever crossed your mind? Do you sometimes feel like you're not doing enough? Or that your college classmates are so much more accomplished than you are? Don't worry, you've come to the right place. You may have what is commonly termed the Imposter Syndrome.

So, what exactly is Imposter Syndrome?

It is not a disease or an abnormality, and doesn’t necessarily lead to depression, anxiety, or lower self-esteem. It is generally defined as a series of feelings of inadequacy, such as self-doubts, that persist despite evidence of success. It is very common in college students, as “imposters” frequently doubt whether they deserve to be admitted to their school.

Having just finished my freshman year at college, I also experienced the same feelings. Numerous times. Whether it’s realizing my hall-mate is a winner of Teen Jeopardy, or that my close friend has already landed great internships, I’ve also felt lost, confused, or frankly, a failure.

However, instead of letting imposter syndrome swallow all my future goals and aspirations, I’ve learned to use it to my own advantage. This is why I’ve compiled 6 simple, effective steps here to help you protect your mental health.

Let’s get started!

1. Understand that it is GOOD to feel this way

Thumbs up emoji and happy faces

Why is it good to realize that other people are more successful? This may seem counterintuitive. However, the first thing you need to understand is that you feel this way because you care. You care about your future, and you want to do better than others. Perhaps you are a perfectionist, or perhaps you are very goal-oriented. Either way, those who suffer from Imposter Syndrome frequently strive to be the best, so congratulations, having these feelings indicate that you are most likely someone who constantly seeks to improve yourself.

In fact, many highly successful people have admitted to experiencing Imposter Syndrome, even at the height of their careers. For instance, multiple well-accomplished CEOs have revealed these feelings during an interview. Similarly, these are the exact words of some of the most famous former imposters:

Albert Einstein: “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” The world famous scientist questioned whether his work is truly deserving of others’ attention.

Maya Angelou: “Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody,” worried the prizewinning author upon writing every one of her books.

If Einstein, Maya Angelou, and so many successful business leaders also felt this way, well, there’s really no reason to beat yourself up for having Imposter Syndrome!

2. Acknowledge its commonality

Groups of people walking in different directions

The truth is, this syndrome is universal, even more so among the college student population. College is one of the biggest transitions in our lives. We leave our comfortable home environment and arrive at this new exciting opportunity for growth. We broaden our perception of the world by meeting people from diverse backgrounds, including seemingly more successful people. As a result, it is very easy to develop these feelings of fraudulence.

In Columbia Confessions, a Columbia facebook group where students can post their feelings and thoughts anonymously, the words “Imposter Syndrome” are frequently included in the posts as a “confession”. Moreover, among the eight most recent posts, as many as five of them received comments from students acknowledging that they felt the same. This means that the same “successful” people that are giving you Imposter Syndrome are also likely experiencing the exact same thing. You are certainly not alone in this.

3. Find out your “why”

Why? Question mark graphic

The next thing to do is to figure out why you have Imposter Syndrome. Obviously this answer varies depending on your situation. But Imposter Syndrome can be caused by both external factors as well as internal factors.

One important external factor is the people around you. In college, friends basically become your family. So if you have toxic friends, college could really feel like hell to you.

What kind of friends can give you imposter syndrome? Well, that can vary! But generally, it is those who are outwardly competitive, those who frequently talk about their own accomplishments, or those who don’t offer sincere compliments when you share aspects of your own life. Instead, try to surround yourself with people who are more collaborative and truly want you to be happy.

Dealing with this type of external factors is pretty straightforward - simply choose a healthier environment and avoid the toxic one. However, coping with internal factors might be more difficult, and they could largely contribute to your anxiety as well.

One common internal factor is associated with your identity and background. For instance, first generation students are at higher risk of experiencing Imposter Syndrome. Research explains that this is because first-generation students are often raised with communal values, relying on other people rather than seeing them as rivals. Entering to a competitive college environment is therefore a drastic change for them.

The same applies to women, racial minorities, and anyone who’s seeking to accomplish the “firsts”. In other words, because there are currently less successful people of similar backgrounds, minorities have a more difficult time to have confidence in their futures.

Aside from these reasons, author Valerie Young’s The Secret Thoughts of Women also details many other causes, including personality factors such as perfectionism mentioned earlier. To best manage Imposter Syndrome caused by these internal factors, try following steps 4, 5, and 6 listed below.

4. Break the silence

Male and female college student talking to each other

Since Imposter Syndrome is so common, one of the simplest ways to combat it is to just talk about it. Though there are multiple people you could go to, including your parents and your school’s psychological services, I find approaching your friends and mentors to be the easiest and most effective method.

People tend to show off their accomplishments and hide their insecurities. Because of this, it is difficult to gauge how difficult your peers find certain tasks, as well as how much they doubt themselves. For instance, up to 50% of Harvard students experience symptoms of depression, yet few ever share their true feelings. By initiating this difficult conversation, you and your peers can both find incredible relief through each others’ company.

Similarly, talking to a mentor also helps tremendously. Krystal Wu, HubSpot’s Social Media Community Manager, mentioned that having a mentor really benefited her when she first started in her social community role.

As Wu reflects, "when I put myself out there to find people in roles similar to mine, attended events to learn more about my industry and learned from my mentor it helped me gain confidence in my career. The more confidence and education I had the more the imposter syndrome started to fade."

All in all, make sure to talk to someone who has gone through this, or who is currently going through the same thing. This can boost your confidence and help you get over this negativity.

5. Internalize your achievements

Student feeling accomplished and successful

We often feel inadequate because we attribute our successes to external factors such as luck, when in fact our own diligence and effort are the largest contributors. To develop your confidence, it is essential to remember what your accomplishments are and own them.

There’s a lot of ways to keep track of your accomplishments. I find using a bullet journal helpful and fun. I included sections to list out my achievements, goals I’ve reached for myself, and sometimes even memorable compliments I’ve got from others. There are certainly a lot of other platforms where you can compile your accomplishments, digitally or by having hardcopies.

When thinking about your past successes, you should also attribute them to your own capabilities. This can also be done through various manners. For instance, research has shown that taking a positive affirmation (“ I accomplished this because I am smart and hardworking) and adding your name to it ( “Lydia accomplished this because she is smart and hardworking) can help you own your achievements. I know this may sound a little bit cringey, but even Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai did it when facing the difficult decision of whether to speak out against the Taliban. If a Nobel Peace Prize winner finds it helpful, why not give it a try?

6. Value growth rather than perfection

Growth Line Chart

Last but not least, try measuring your success in a different way. Instead of viewing it in terms of bullet points on a resume, or your grade compared to the class average, try to think of it as how much YOU have improved.

The purpose of college is to learn and explore. As one student perfectly summarizes, “I kind’ve accepted that I’m always growing and testing out new things, and sculpting who I am.” In other words, the goal here is not to be the perfect A student, but rather become a better you.

In a decade from today, getting a B in that calculus class will not matter, getting rejected by an internship will not matter, but rather the people you’ve met, and the skills you’ve learned will. Perfectionism isn't sustainable, but a mindset of lifelong learning and making progress is.

The Bottom Line is:

It’s important to realize that you are not alone in this, that other people do not define who you are, and that you truly deserve all your achievements. It is okay to have imposter syndrome, but don’t let your doubts control your actions. College is an exciting opportunity for exploration and growth. Follow these tips to cope with your feelings, learn from them, and embrace what will become the best four years of your life!