"Am I Supposed To Be Here?" When You Feel Like An Impostor On Campus…


Everyone here seems smarter than me, and they’re so confident.

Did my university make a mistake?

Maybe they meant to send my acceptance letter to another person with the same name.

Did I just get lucky?

Maybe I’m fulfilling the university’s diversity quota.


Am I really [good / smart / confident] enough to be a student here?

As a college student, thoughts like these are not uncommon, especially in your first couple of years. For students who are the first in their family to go to college or from limited-income backgrounds, thoughts like these can seem particularly alienating. Am I the only one who feels this way? The answer is no!


There’s actually a name for feeling this kind of self-doubt. It’s called the imposter experience, or impostor syndrome, and it’s defined as “a false and sometimes crippling belief that one’s successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill” [1]. About 80 percent of people have the imposter experience at some point in their lives, according to social psychologist Amy Cuddy [2], which means you’re definitely not the only one who feels this way.

In this article, we run through five strategies you can use to get back on your feet.


How to overcome feeling like an impostor on campus:

1. Acknowledge Your Feelings

The first step in working through a challenge like this is to gain a full understanding of your feelings and why you’re experiencing them. It’s easy to dismiss feeling like an imposter as a fact (“I’m not as smart as my classmates”), rather than digging into the details. Take a minute to ask yourself why you feel this way and to reflect on the facts. You might think to yourself, “I’m not as smart as my classmates because [insert explanation here: my high school was terrible, I haven’t studied anthropology before, etc.],” but remember that you were accepted to college based on real measures of your past performance: academic scores, test scores, extracurriculars, community service, and past work experience. The facts don’t lie; you already passed the bar.


2. Remember What You’ve Already Accomplished in Life

Think back to your past performance. How did you get to where you are today? Reflect on your success and own it. Chances are, your greatest achievements were also some of the hardest to overcome. You might have doubted your ability to accomplish a particular task or goal when you first started, but you did it. By the end, you felt on top of the world. What strategies and values helped you get there? These are the same strategies and values that will serve you well as a college student.


3. Don’t Compare, Connect

When you find that little voice inside your head comparing you to that fellow classmate across the room, I hope you remember these three words: don’t compare, connect.
— Dean Michael D. Smith, Harvard College

It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to classmates. You might think to yourself, “WOW, that person… 
...dresses like they just came from a photoshoot.”
...speaks so well.”
....is so well-traveled.”
...already started a nonprofit organization.”
…[insert other amazing feat here].”

Your brain might follow that up with, “MAN, I…
...dress like a slob.”
...speak like a mouse.”
...have never been to another state, let alone another country.”
...didn’t even do all my homework in high school.”
…[insert other potentially embarrassing thing here].”

Comparing yourself to others can cause you to feel bad about yourself and your accomplishments. What many students don’t realize in that moment: often times, the classmate they’re comparing themselves to has had similar thoughts, either in this class or another class. It’s human nature, and it’s not limited to students who are the first in their family to go to college or from limited-income backgrounds.

Comparing yourself to classmates can also make you hesitant to talk to those individuals you put on a pedestal. However, one of the greatest opportunities that college brings is the ability to connect with fellow students from diverse backgrounds. Take time to say hi, connect over something in the class (“Did you see the salad in Professor X’s teeth?!”), ask them what they’re studying or what they like to do for fun. You may be surprised to find you have more in common with them than you thought. In the words of Michael D. Smith, “Don’t compare, connect” [3].

Finally, if you feel like some of your comparisons are directly related to being the first in your family to go to college or from a limited-income background, remember that you’re not the only one with a background like yours and that other first generation college students on campus may feel the same way. It can be beneficial to talk through your feelings with friends on campus who come from backgrounds like yours to know that you’re not alone. 

Don’t know other first generation or limited-income college students on your campus? Join the Propeller Collective Community, a private Facebook group.

4. See the Challenge as an Opportunity

Things on campus that didn’t seem like a big deal before can start to feel threatening when you experience doubt about your abilities. Understand that you might have a harder time asking for help when you need it or experience a stronger desire to strive for perfection. However, this is an opportunity for you to continue improving your skills and understanding of yourself. Recall point #2 above: based on what you’ve already accomplished in life, you already have the tools you need to take this new challenge head on.


5. Be Thankful for Where You’ve Been and Where You’re Going

Expressing gratitude is one of the best ways to overcome negative thoughts like those that come with self-doubt. Take a couple minutes to reflect on what you’re grateful for, write it down, and think about why you’re grateful for that particular thing or experience. You can do this right in the moment when you start to feel negative feelings creep up to keep negative thoughts at bay. Doing it on a regular basis first thing in the morning or right before bed is also a great way to start or end your day on a positive note.


Kori Crockett
CEO, Propeller Collective

Have other tips about how to get over feeling like an impostor on campus?
Share in the comments below.