Impostor Syndrome and Student Success

All of my professional experience is in higher education. I received good grades as an undergraduate student, I did even better in my graduate program, and I recently applied to several doctoral programs. My graduate work in student affairs gave me all sorts of tools to support students in their academic and career pursuits. I know the dangers of stereotype threat and impostor syndrome. There is a persistent worry your peers will discover you are a fraud who does not belong and got in by means beyond merit. Yet when it comes to my own success as a student and a professional, I find myself confronted with the fear of being “found out” on a regular basis.

Woman I certainly cannot speak for all students who experience impostor syndrome, but I can speak from mine. I feel it is important to say that I come from the lens of a biracial, able-bodied, cis-het, woman who is the first in my family to go to college and grew up working class. This is not a scholarly article filled with citations. The research comes from my own life, and I hope I can share some practical tools to break down the barrier of impostor syndrome to increase student success.

1. Your incredulous reaction is not as affirming as you think.

It is a wasted effort, in my opinion, to list off all the reasons why you believe a student should stop feeling like an impostor. Staring at them with a gobsmacked expression and invalidating what they are feeling is not useful. Instead, acknowledge that many people experience a fear of being “found out” by their peers and encourage them to make a list of the accomplishments that led to their current position or status. It is unlikely that this feeling will ever completely go away, so it is more effective to teach them positive self-talk.

2. Avoid the comparison trap.

Do not feed their desire to compare themselves. I am always comparing myself: to my family, my colleagues, classmates, friends, people in the field like Dr. Lori Patton Davis and Dr. Tori Svoboda, Beyoncé, etc. This never ends well. Instead, guide the student to a goal-setting mentality. By setting goals and working to achieve them, you put them in competition with themselves, which is much more productive if you ask me.

3. Remember to ask “Why?”

It may not immediately be apparent that a student is dealing with impostor syndrome. If you notice a lack of confidence or feeling of not being good enough, ask the student why they are feeling that way. Many of us are high achieving students who will usually appear to have it all together until that anxiety of not belonging rears its ugly head. Be patient with us. Asking “why” can go a long way.

4. Connect students to opportunities that build confidence.

This may be the most important of the four tips on this list. Each milestone I have reached has quieted the impostor more and more. Encourage the student to apply for that internship they really want, submit their research for a symposium, take the class with the hard professor, try out for the team, and any other opportunity they need a nudge to pursue. Challenging experiences can produce great outcomes, and I have been grateful to everyone who has nudged me along the way.

As I mentioned before, these tips come from my lived experience. Impostor syndrome is a barrier to student success for many students, especially those who lack guidance and support. I hope that by connecting students, asking why, avoiding comparisons, and validating their experience you can better serve your students.

I invite feedback and further conversation from all readers. Contact me at gjer9938@stthomas.edu or @jessicamarie299 on Twitter.