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Niche Resources

How I’m Dealing with Imposter Syndrome in College

I’ve been in college for just over four months now, but I’ve spent a great deal of that time wondering if I’m actually supposed to be here. My classes have been rewarding and my peers equally amazing—but that’s exactly it, the reason why I question my deservedness of Emory. My peers are amazing.

This was mentioned at the beginning of the school year, at convocation and in classes. We were reminded so many times that we were joining a community of scholars, that our peers were accomplished researchers and published writers and dedicated athletes.
For a minute, I felt comfortable with this. Emory is a very selective school, so acceptance requires excellence. I had, however, not yet gotten to understand the full extent of this excellence. And when I did, I was no longer comfortable. In a way, that’s a good thing—I want to be pushed by my peers; I’m not here to stay in my comfort zone. But entering an environment inhabited by the most incredible people you’ll ever meet is enough to make you think you were never even comfortable to begin with.

I want to be pushed by my peers; I’m not here to stay in my comfort zone. But entering an environment inhabited by the most incredible people you’ll ever meet is enough to make you think you were never even comfortable to begin with.

Imposter syndrome is defined as “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.” College students are likely to struggle with this, and I don’t feel like an exception.

I remember the conversations that led me to this conclusion. There was a lot of talk about where else people had applied, and my peers casually rattled off acceptances to some of the nation’s best schools. At times, it felt like I was the only person who hadn’t gotten into an Ivy and decided to merely settle for Emory.

There was a lot of talk about where else people had applied, and my peers casually rattled off acceptances to some of the nation’s best schools. At times, it felt like I was the only person who hadn’t gotten into an Ivy and decided to merely settle for Emory.

And Emory is competitive, but not cutthroat. That somehow makes it worse, though. People downplay their accomplishments, but the offhandedness with which they speak about them makes it so much worse—as if they are things one can easily do with little thought. Many people I met at the beginning of the year had founded their own businesses or worked for Congresspeople, and these experiences came up in early conversations the same way a summer vacation would: Well, when I was interning in D.C. last year…

I began to feel like a fluke. I had worked hard to get in, but suddenly, none of the things I had done felt valid. The things of which I was once proud started to feel small and unimportant in comparison to the grand accomplishments of my peers. They had done every possible thing, and I had done, well, nothing at all. Worse, the few things I did manage to hold on to—mainly things related to my career passions, like writing—started to feel like they hadn’t been deserved in the first place. For example, I won a national award for my poetry in high school. But after my first month at Emory, where I became friends with the best young writers I’d ever met, I convinced myself that this award of which I was originally so proud had been won not out of hard work or talent, but out of pure luck. I became convinced that everything that had led me to college was chance, and that I had done absolutely nothing to deserve this place.

I became convinced that everything that had led me to college was chance, and that I had done absolutely nothing to deserve this place.

This began to affect how I behaved in class as well. I’ve never really struggled with verbalizing my thoughts, and I’m outspoken about my opinions. In high school, I raised my hands to answer questions and frequently participated in discussions. During the first few months of college, though, I did this less and less. I was in awe of what my peers were saying. In a poetry class, a freshman seminar on film, the comments my peers made about the readings were things I could never have come up with. While my peers pulled deep meanings out of nothing, using words I had never even heard before, I could only manage what felt like surface-level observations. I couldn’t seem to harness the large vocabulary everyone else had, which meant I couldn’t discuss the material, which meant I simply stopped trying to.

I kept quiet when the professor asked for our thoughts. At times, a classmate would say something and I would think to myself, I was just about to say the same thing! Clearly, I wasn’t as behind as I thought, but it still felt like it.

Luckily, this isn’t as much the case anymore. I am still insecure, incredibly so; this is something I feel is necessary to admit. It will take a while to overcome this, and it’s an ongoing process. But I’m working on it.

I am still insecure, incredibly so. It will take a while to overcome this, and it’s an ongoing process. But I’m working on it.

There is no one way to deal with imposter syndrome—everyone is different and has varying needs. For me, I’ve found it useful to remember the fact that so many other people are thinking the same way as me; they’re just not showing it. As first-year college students, we often put up facades. Everyone sounds a lot more prepared than they may feel on the inside.

As first-year college students, we often put up facades. Everyone sounds a lot more prepared than they may feel on the inside.

I also think it’s important to note that I’m in college for a reason, which is to learn. The shame I had about not understanding the words my friends use—that’s why I’m here, to learn those very words! Everyone must start from somewhere. I’ve noticed myself coming out of my shell a bit, becoming a more confident and articulate communicator. I still am not constantly raising my hand, but I’m contributing to discussions more and more.

And finally, I’m trying to accept that my accomplishments are well-deserved. It has been good for me to examine what I’ve done and remember the processes I went through for them. My poems could not possibly have happened by pure luck; I sat down and wrote them. My college application process, too, is much the same thing. The admissions officers dedicated time and careful attention to their selection process. I put in the work for this. I was accepted, legitimately accepted, as a result of my own efforts and skills. So right now, if nothing else, I can say: I’m in college, and I deserve to be here.

Author: Julianna Chen

Julianna Chen is currently in her first year at Emory University, where she studies creative writing and film. She is the managing editor of Lithium Magazine and a contributing writer for Adolescent.net. When not writing, she is watching a movie or eating a stroopwafel, sometimes both at the same time.