Advice from a First Generation Student Navigating Imposter Syndrome

By Kassandra Lopez, Global Strategic Communications graduate student at the University of Florida

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Recently, I stumbled on a psychological journal that has made me aware of imposter syndrome. Written by Canning, E. A., LaCosse, J., Kroeper, K. M., & Murphy, M. C. (2019). The piece “Feeling Like an Imposter: The Effect of Perceived Classroom Competition on the Daily Psychological Experiences of First-Generation College Students.” Now that I’ve identified the feelings that have plagued me for the last 5 or so years, I’d like to share.

It’s not a syndrome in the traditional medical sense. It’s more of a “feeling out of place”. I grew up relatively poor. There is a certain way that affluent and upper-middle-class people conduct themselves and raise their ilk up. Those kids entering college tend to be better prepared, better read, and well ahead of the curve in many cases. Their parents push them towards educational endeavors; talk to them about how the world works and how to work the world in their favor; and encourage them to explore, be curious, lead, and venture out on their own. I was lucky if my parent had the budget for me to go on a $10 school-sponsored field trip.

So, as the poor kid growing up being surrounded by all these kids at an elite academic institution, you start to feel like you don’t belong with these people. They seem (from an outsider) so much smarter, well-rounded, experienced, etc., than you do. Maybe they’re not all those things and maybe they have lots of insecurities, but that’s how they appear.

So the feelings of ineptitude start creeping into my psyche. Why am I here? What do I have to offer? Am I dragging the rest of these guys down? I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t know what I don’t know. I’m just going to sit here, be quiet, and pretend that I know what I’m doing and hope nobody picks on me until I figure this out.

As time goes on and you grow older, you realize most people are bullshitting their ways through life. A lot of people are in the same boat, some just have less awareness of it (Dunning-Kruger effect). The latter group is the most dangerous because a lot of those types will try to pick apart everybody else’s vulnerabilities and sabotage them. At 23 years old, I am getting my Master’s degree (with an additional certificate). At 23 years old I have been working full time for 7 years, and have a real career path laid out for me. At 23 years old, I have tucked away every possible penny to buy myself a home. I am propelled by the feelings of not being good enough, to prove myself even more.

If you’re feeling similar to me, this is what I have to say to you: You got in. Congratulations!

Everyone is clapping you on the back and beaming with pride for you, but somehow you feel…uneasy. You can’t shake the voice inside saying there’s no way you deserved this. Other people who had better stats got rejected, so this must have been a mistake. Maybe they gave you way too much credit for your essays, or your URM status, or something. Whatever the reason, you didn’t earn this, and you’re way over your head in a place you don’t belong. How will you cope with the guilt, cratered self-esteem, and nagging doubt?

  1. If you’re feeling out of place or like you have major imposter syndrome, first recognize that this is a good thing. It means you’re doing so well for yourself that you feel out of place being so awesome and successful. Success is what you make it, not how you feel compared to your peers. So don’t let it bother you. Instead, you should feel good about having achieved so much and attained something great, regardless of whether you “deserved” it.
  2. This may shock you, but there’s really only one reason you got in — they wanted you there. And that alone means you deserve it. Admission is holistic, so even if your GPA/SAT/ECs or whatever weren’t the best in their admitted class, you had other things they loved. Top schools receive tens of thousands of applicants and deny ~90% of them. Many of those 90% were probably “more academically qualified” than you. But they wanted you.
  3. There are some 50 people fully engaged in the admissions process at most top schools. These people are the world’s foremost experts on their admissions, what they look for, how they decide who “deserves” it, etc. And they chose you. If JK Rowling tells you how to interpret a certain passage of Harry Potter, do you question her and instead trust your friend who just read it for the first time last week? If Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier, and Feng Zhang explain something about CRISPR to you, do you instead trust your peers who “totally aced” AP Biology? If Katie Bouman tells you how to take a picture of a black hole, do you instead trust some people in your class who just got an SLR and telescope and are now experts on astronomical photography? That would be asinine, worthless, lame, anti-vax, flat-earth BS. Those people are not only the top experts on those subjects, but they also own them. Every nuance and detail is meticulously shepherded and it’s all entirely under their purview. I’m struggling to even express how ridiculous it is for someone to second guess this or say they know better than the admission’s office when it comes to their own admissions process.
  4. One of the lesser-known facts about college admissions is that a few points on your GPA or SAT aren’t really that big of a deal. Colleges will often take an applicant with lower stats because of something else interesting or compelling in their application. Maybe they have a unique and valuable skill. Maybe they just seem like a really incredible person. Maybe their achievements are indicative of a much higher ceiling. Sure, a 1500 is going to be viewed very differently from a 1200, but it’s not that different from a 1550 and many colleges even use SAT bands instead of actual scores in their rubrics because they don’t want to use a microscope on it or overemphasize a few meaningless multiple-choice questions.
  5. Your job is not to justify getting in, it’s to make the most of it now that you’ve earned this amazing opportunity. You don’t need to justify it to anyone not even yourself. So stop trying. Instead, just focus on being the best you. I’m going to say that again a little louder for the folks in the back: You do not need to justify this to anyone, not even yourself.
  6. Recognize that imposter syndrome never really goes away. You will probably feel it at your first job out of college, after every promotion, after you start your own company after you get elected, or whatever else you achieve. Research indicates that even the very best people in the world at what they do still feel imposter syndrome, regardless of how accomplished they are. So recognize that you’re not alone. Part of this comes from being the world’s foremost expert on your own weaknesses, but it’s not your incompetence or inadequacy or even your insecurity driving this — it’s your humanity. So don’t feel like this sensation is bad or wrong or indicative of a problem. It just means you’re a real person just like everyone else. Embrace it, lean into it, and let that nervous energy empower you. Learn to live with being a better person than you think you have any right to be — it just means you’re awesome.