When regular decisions were released, the spring of my senior year of high school, I remember opening my UChicago portal and being greeted with a burst of animated confetti and a big “congratulations” written across my screen. I was shocked. Excited but shocked. I started thinking that there must have been some mistake. Some admissions officer must have been training an intern on how to hit the rejection button, and they accidentally hit accept instead, and they just decided it would be too much of a PR nightmare to change it back. The University of Chicago is such a prestigious school, and how could I possibly deserve to be one of the applicants admitted that year? Surely there were people with better grades, that participated in more interesting extracurriculars, and were better at writing essays than me. And even worse, everyone that got in deservingly was going to be able to sniff me out immediately. Even after I accepted my offer and filled out my housing forms, I had this constant feeling that I was somehow flying under the radar. After my first quarter, my mom asked me how classes were going and I told her that I was the dumbest person in all of them to which she replied, “Ok, Ella, cool it with the imposter syndrome.”
If you’re like me and don’t know what imposter syndrome is right off the top of your head, don’t worry, I did some Googling. It turns out imposter syndrome is the phenomenon in which a person doubts their own accomplishments and has a constant fear that they will be exposed as a fraud, even though they aren’t one. It’s actually incredibly common, especially for people embarking on a new phase of life, like college for example. When I brought it up to my friends, I realized that they were feeling it too. One of my friends got an internship at a top architecture firm and spent her first week there paralyzed with the fear that the employees would discover she was unqualified and fire her. My other friend didn’t feel like he deserved to get into a highly-selective student organization. Whether it’s getting accepted into college, or making a sports team, or being cast in a production, tons of people are feeling like they shouldn’t be there.
I’m sure it needs no explaining that imposter syndrome is bad for a lot of reasons. For one, it’s not exactly healthy to be constantly getting down on yourself and comparing yourself to everyone around you. It’s important to find a balance between celebrating your accomplishments and motivating yourself to work harder. In a world where we are constantly striving to achieve, it can sometimes feel like even when you do something great it is still not enough. Another downside of imposter syndrome is that it can put you in a standstill, or worse, negatively impact your work. I remember in my freshman year humanities class that I was so afraid of how much smarter all my classmates were. So, I was terrified to raise my hand and contribute to discussion even though participation was 20% of our grade, and I had spent hours doing the reading. Spending all your time worrying about not being good enough can stop you from reaching your full potential.
So how do we deal with it? I’m confident to report that after two full years here, I no longer feel as though I’m unqualified nor do I think I’m the dumbest person on campus. There have been a lot of different things that have helped me overcome the overwhelming feeling that I don’t deserve to be here. One of the most important things I have learned is the value of the diverse knowledge that my peers and I each bring to the table. Maybe I don’t know a lot about computer science, but I know a lot about improv comedy. Instead of constantly noting how many more things my peers know than me, I like to think about how the variety of knowledge on campus gives me an amazing opportunity to learn a lot from the people around me. It’s hard to not compare yourself to the people around you, so when you inevitably do, keep in mind that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. No one is perfect and knows everything, and nobody is bad at everything and knows nothing.
Instead of isolating myself in my inferiority, reaching out to my peers has been extremely beneficial in fighting imposter syndrome. My first year, I was in an elementary statistics course, and as a proud, life-long anti-math woman I was really dreading every homework assignment and test. On top of that, I was afraid to let anyone know how bad I was at math. But one of my friends asked me to study with her and told me that it helps her learn when she re-teaches the material to someone, so she helped me before every exam and big homework assignment. Talk about a symbiotic relationship (thank you biology class!). More than just reaching out to your friends for help, make sure to reach out to congratulate and compliment your friends on big things like winning awards and finishing final exams and little things like getting up for swim practice every day. Help keep imposter syndrome at bay for everyone.
So, if you’re feeling like you don’t deserve or belong in whatever you are doing, take a breath. Remember that everyone feels this way sometimes. Work hard. Ask for help. And most importantly, remember that there is a reason you got where you are and make the most of it.