Why do I feel like a fraud? The science behind imposter syndrome

A look at college students' experiences with imposter syndrome and advice from an expert on how to overcome it

Every semester, students engage in the new opportunities that education presents them. Some of them have been preparing for these moments their whole lives. Some of them have just discovered a new passion, or maybe they are continuing their pursuit of a skill they have been practicing their whole life. Either way, many of these students will, at some point, feel like a fraud. 

Gabriella Varela, a junior studying geography, recalled feeling this way when she began working with J Street, a nonprofit that seeks a peaceful end to the Israel-Palestine conflict

Varela was writing a report on J Street when she reached out and emailed the organization. A year later, she is now president and starting up a chapter of J Street at ASU, sending over 50 kids to a J Street conference.

“It’s kind of scary and intimidating. I don’t feel like I necessarily deserve it,” Varela said.

Despite having taken the initiative to start the chapter and receiving support from the organization itself, Varela said she still felt like an imposter. She didn’t feel she was qualified for her position, even though she had clearly put in the work to be an appropriate candidate. 

Varela, along with many other college students, experience what is known as imposter syndrome. 

A 2019 study published by the Journal of Vocational Behavior, found that at least 20% of students will experience imposter syndrome at some point during their college careers, although the researchers feel as though this number is a very low estimation.

Richard Gardner, lead researcher of the study and assistant professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas in the management, entrepreneurship and technology department, defines imposter syndrome as the perception of feeling inadequate or fraudulent despite actually demonstrating capabilities. People experiencing imposter syndrome will feel as though they are underperforming in comparison to their peers. 

“They actually belong. It’s an underconfidence feeling, as opposed to an overconfidence feeling,” Gardner said.

These perceived feelings of imposterism are generally unrelated to the student’s actual performance. 

In the study, the researchers interviewed students in a high stakes accounting program. The researchers found that actual performance didn’t correlate strongly with feelings of imposterism. 

“We had people who ... are performing well but they still feel this way,” Gardner said.

All of the students involved in the program had a GPA of 3.7 or above, Gardner said. In the first portion of the study, 20 individuals were interviewed about their feelings of imposterism. The researchers extrapolated methods for coping with imposterism from these interviews and applied them to over 200 other students to determine their significance in reducing symptoms of imposterism. 

Gardner, who worked alongside Jeffrey Bednar, Bryan Stewart, James Oldroyd and Joseph Moore, said imposter syndrome isn’t a new phenomenon, but the demographics of those thought to be affected by it are. 

Gardner said that in the 1970s, imposter syndrome was thought to be exclusively experienced by women advancing in male-dominated fields. These feelings of imposterism were attributed to the women having an identity different than the majority of their male peers.

While it is true that women and other minorities experience these feelings, research suggests that this isn’t just happening in those types of demographics, Gardner said. Instead, people of all career stages and demographics experience this feeling. 

“I think in terms of how (students) experience it at some point in school, I would say most students feel it,” Gardner said. Whether they are a new freshman or about to enter the workforce, there are many instances when a student may experience imposter syndrome. 

Kelly Fox, a senior studying communication, is heavily involved in the music performance industry, but hers has not always been an easy journey. 

Fox said, “(Imposter syndrome) is something that I felt in the beginning of my career. I’ve kind of learned to deal with it in certain ways, but it definitely creeps up and I definitely see other people dealing with it.” 

Fox attributes her feelings of fraudulence to the way she fits into her industry. She recalled instances in which her credentials were questioned. 

She had the same credentials as her peers, which allow her backstage and into assigned photographer areas at concerts and yet her male peers will often not be questioned while her passes are closely inspected.

“I’ve seen (concert) crews of 70 people and they’re all dudes. That can be really discouraging,” Fox said. “I’ve been really fortunate, especially recently, to work with groups of women and young women who look like me and think like me and have similar backgrounds. That has really helped me to feel like I belong.”

Gardner’s study offers two possible solutions for mitigating perceived imposterism. The first piece of advice is to adjust the comparison reference point. 

He said to “think about who you’re comparing yourself with and try to get a more holistic view of how you kind of fit in to your space.”

Comparisons to strictly in-group peers presents a skewed view of the population’s general abilities. By expanding their reference points to all peers as a whole, individuals can recalibrate their expectations for themselves. 

Secondly, Gardner advises students to “seek social support from people perhaps outside of your program.” 

Seeking social support in this way assists in the recalibration of comparison, as well as a recalibration of one’s sense of self. He said many people get entrenched in their work, and friends and family help ground people and keep them from losing themselves. 

Gardner suggests that in order to decrease imposterism in college, more effort should be put into educating students about how to deal with failure. 

Failure is “inevitably going to happen when they reach college, if it hasn’t already when they’re in high school,” Gardner said. By starting the discussion about these feelings earlier, students may be better equipped to handle imposterism in college.

If socializing isn’t someone’s strong suit, there are other ways to fight off feelings of imposterism.

Gardner touched on the idea of cognitive escapes, or things that can distract someone from what is making them feel like an imposter. This can be a hobby, sport or anything that can be a distraction. 

“It wasn’t like they felt like an imposter in all realms of life or all facets of life, this was very specific to (feeling) like an imposter in their program,” Gardner said. 

Fox has her own ways of handling her feelings of imposterism. She has struggled with mental health issues, and one tactic she uses is to separate herself from her brain.

“‘I’m feeling OK, but my anxiety is telling me that everything is going wrong,’ (or,) ‘I’m doing really well at my job, but my imposter syndrome is telling me that I don’t belong.’ Separating those thoughts away from yourself and your personality can help in my experience,” Fox said. 

In this day of social media, imposterism may be stronger than ever. Research in the field is still fairly new, and the study by Gardner et al. is one of the first to look into modern feelings of imposter syndrome. 

“I have a lot more comparisons going on in my brain than what may have existed 30-40 years ago ... I have 1000 facebook friends, so are those all my reference (points) now?” Gardner said. “I think that is a big reason why it becomes a little bit more popular because it is more prevalent perhaps, or at least perceived as more prevalent.” 

Many people who experience imposter syndrome do their best to hide it, Gardner said. Coping with feelings of imposterism can be incredibly difficult because it seems as though no one else is struggling with the same feelings. 

“People in college just act like their lives are so perfect, especially on social media. That’s kind of frustrating to me,” Varela said. “Nobody is perfect. I think a lot of times we see that faker side of people and I wish we didn’t.”

Fox agrees that talking about these feelings and putting a name to the experience helps everyone feel better. 

“It helps you realize that it’s imposter syndrome, that your feelings of inadequacy aren’t stemming from the fact that you’re inadequate, they’re stemming from the social phenomenon that other people are also experiencing, so it’s not just you,” she said.


 Reach the reporter at gmstanle@asu.edu or follow @garrettstnley on Twitter.

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