I had never heard of imposter syndrome when this photo was taken. I had just arrived at Princeton Preview to see what my future campus would be like and I was so excited. I didn’t hear the phrase imposter syndrome until I attended freshman orientation and heard the term repeated over and over. Said by distinguished professors, and impressive staff, and university presidents. “We chose you to be here,” they said, “don’t believe your imposter syndrome.”
Imposter syndrome can be defined as a successful person refusing to believe that their accomplishments are real. Rather, they live in constant fear of being exposed as a “fraud,” of faking it. It’s very common at Ivy League schools, holding the belief that admissions made a mistake letting you in. That one misstep on your part will get you kicked out of the school you never belonged in in the first place. It’s especially common amongst first generation/low income students. It’s something that I’ve experienced myself.
It’s a shocking thing to experience. I had never felt as though my intelligence or work needed defending at the public high school that I attended. All through high school I had internalized that I was intelligent and a hard worker – a belief that had been built up by good teachers and better peers.
And then I met my first friend that came to Princeton from a private school. She spoke eloquently on all subjects, could read the Homer I was struggling through with ease, and had a manner of confidence about her that I couldn’t match. By the time the professors got to me with their well-crafter imposter syndrome speeches it was too late. I had already realized how far behind I was, how much I didn’t deserve to be at Princeton. Their words seemed hollow coming from such successful people; how could they understand where I had come from or how I felt?
My first essays for my classics class did nothing to help the situation. My grading professor left harsh comments on how I had missed the point of the Aeneid, a book he had spent most of his career at Cambridge studying. His comments made me feel worthless, unintelligent, incapable of catching up. How could I ever become successful when I couldn’t even write a paper correctly? At one of the best schools in the country, I had never felt more like a failure.
Frankly, I wish I had a clear turn around point in this story. A single moment where it occurred to me that I do belong at Princeton, that I won’t be exposed as a fraud because I’m not. But there hasn’t been that moment. It’s in the making, being formed step by step.
Formed by professors and grad students who are willing to sit with me and speak to me like a peer. By progressively better grades built by constructive feedback. By hearing my peers tell me that they feel the same way. By sharing and realizing that, even though I may feel like I’m faking it right now, that everyone was there once.
Imposter syndrome never leaves from what I’ve heard. It’s worked on, and held at bay by slowly earned and built confidence. Until then, we fake it until we make it.