Thrive on Campus//

Impostor Syndrome at Elite Universities

"I’m figuring out how to spend less time comparing myself to my peers and feeling like I’ll never quite measure up, and more time learning from their strengths and successes."

Christopher Drost/Getty Images
Christopher Drost/Getty Images

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

When I was touring colleges, I was careful not to get too attached to any single institution. I was well aware that the deck was stacked against me — the single-digit admittance rates of many of the universities I was interested in were an effective deterrent, and I tried my best to put my energy into applying to a variety of schools, some “reaches” and some more accessible. Yet when I visited Pomona for the first time, I felt something different — a gut feeling of sorts that this school was exactly where I needed to end up. Though I applied to many other schools, I had a hard time visualizing myself anywhere else, and I was elated when I got in. Pomona seemed to have everything I’d looked for in a school — small class sizes, accessible professors, an institutional commitment to diversity and inclusion, and the California sunshine. I’m about to finish my first semester here after traveling in Asia and South America on a gap year, and Pomona has met and exceeded my expectations. The people are kind and interesting, the professors are engaging and passionate, and it really is sunny most of the time! But I’ve experienced something at Pomona that I didn’t really consider when I was applying — an intense case of impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome is a colloquialism for the feeling of not belonging in a new environment, of constantly questioning if your intellect is up to the standard of the institution you’re enrolled in. On a concrete, logical level, I know I belong at Pomona — I was consciously admitted alongside my classmates, and barring some sort of crazy administrative error, Pomona did indeed want Olivia Kay Varones from Highland Park, Illinois to matriculate as a part of their incoming freshman class. But I still experience this nagging feeling that I am not interesting enough, not smart enough, and not accomplished enough when I compare myself to my peers. It is that voice that pushes me to take a backseat in classroom discussion, or to stay quiet when I’m not sure if my answer to a problem set is correct. It’s not that Pomona students are judgmental or pretentious; rather, it can be hard to feel like you belong somewhere that is so full of high-achieving and impressive students.

But I’m beginning to realize that it is the amazing stories and experiences my peers have to offer that make Pomona so unique and exceptional — it is true that I’m one of many accomplished young people, a small fish in a big(ger) pond, but I am trying to remind myself that I, too, have interesting qualities and insights to add to my academic circles and the campus culture as a whole. I’m figuring out how to spend less time comparing myself to my peers and feeling like I’ll never quite measure up, and more time learning from their strengths and successes.

It is crucial that colleges offer programs to helps students bridge this gap to ensure a successful transition into what can be an overwhelming new environment. I have often felt like an impostor at Pomona, and I possess privilege as a result of my race, socioeconomic background, and educational background. Impostor syndrome can manifest itself in far more intense ways for students who are not similarly privileged, and it is these students to whom the college should be dedicating the most resources (monetary and otherwise) to support their transition and ensure their success and mental health at Pomona. I am inspired by my peers at Pomona, and so grateful to go to a school that fosters such a supportive and collaborative environment, but I still feel Pomona as an institution can do a better job of reminding students of all backgrounds and experiences that they are worthy, valued, and occupy an important and unique place on campus.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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