How Imposter Syndrome Affects Students—and Instructors

Career Readiness
Mental HealthStudent Success

Article Summary

  • Imposter syndrome, anxiety or self-doubt that results from persistently undervaluing one’s competence and active role in achieving success, can impact both students and instructors.|Students may experience academic and social struggles during school, while instructors can experience doubt of their accomplishments.|There are tactics you can implement to overcome imposter syndrome and also help your students address it.
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Imposter Syndrome: it’s a buzzword often heard in conversations around career inadequacy or the pursuits of creative types trying to make it in competitive fields. But it doesn’t just affect young professionals after graduation—imposter syndrome can hold back students simply trying to succeed in college.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

The first substantial mention of the term appears in research from 1978, where psychologists first described it as “imposter phenomenon.” Today, it’s more commonly referred to as imposter syndrome.

Known also as fraud syndrome or the impostor experience, Imposter Syndrome is officially defined as the anxiety or self-doubt that results from persistently undervaluing one’s competence and active role in achieving success, while falsely attributing one’s accomplishments to luck or other external forces.

Based on this definition, it’s easy to see how this type of anxiety can have dramatic repercussions on academia, affecting students and instructors in the classroom and out.

How Imposter Syndrome Affects Students

Here are just three examples of imposter syndrome’s effect on students:

  • Both academic and social struggles can occur while in school: Students suffering from imposter syndrome not only struggle in class but can become socially isolated too.
  • There’s potential for long-term effects beyond graduation: Students with imposter syndrome are likely to make ill-fitting career choices—and experience burnout both in college and career.
  • Millennials are highly prone to imposter syndrome: As one of the biggest groups entering and navigating the current workforce, millennials are susceptible to career-related anxiety—and today’s digital-focused world might be partially to blame.

As one article states, “millennials might feel imposter syndrome more as they’ve entered the workforce at a time of outrageous technological advancements and constant comparison on social media.” 

How Imposter Syndrome Affects Instructors

Dealing with students who suffer from imposter syndrome in college can be difficult for instructors, as can ensuring these students are equipped to combat it in the workforce.

However, it’s important to remember that imposter syndrome doesn’t just affect students—higher education instructors and other members of the academic realm experience it as well.

One example comes from educator Valerie Sheares Ashby, who despite numerous accolades and a successful academic career, battled imposter syndrome and doubts about her accomplishments.

But by employing techniques to keep negative thoughts at bay—techniques she says she continues to use daily—Ashby learned how to deal with imposter syndrome. Now, she serves as dean of Duke University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“The tape in my mind had changed to: Everybody has different talents. I’m equally as qualified to be here as anybody else. They want me to be me, or else they wouldn’t have hired me.”

Quick Tips for Combating Imposter Syndrome

The good news: there’s a variety of tips and techniques students, instructors and anyone else battling imposter syndrome can use to manage the anxiety.

If students are struggling in school, helping them overcome imposter syndrome now can build confidence and foster success once they enter the workforce.

Author Valerie Young, Ed.D., is an internationally recognized expert on impostor syndrome. Her top tips for fighting imposter syndrome can be utilized by both students and instructors.

Young’s tips include the act of separating feelings from fact; “There are times you’ll feel stupid…realize that just because you may feel stupid, doesn’t mean you are.”

Young also suggests rewriting your “script,” or that “automatic mental tape that starts playing in situations that trigger your imposter feelings.” For example, instead of starting a new project or job with a script that says, “I have no idea what I’m doing,” try thinking, “I may not know all the answers now, but I’m smart enough to find them out.”

Biane Arias, a student at the University of California-Riverside offers fellow students a simple but effective exercise to use when struggling with feelings of inadequacy.

When Arias was experiencing imposter syndrome, she wrote a letter to herself that listed reasons why she was worthy and qualified—regardless of what others thought. For two weeks straight, Arias read the letter before entering the elementary school where she worked; “After those two weeks, I finally began to feel what I was reading—I was worthy and qualified.”

Interested in additional ways to boost student confidence? Check out our checklist!