There are parts of the human experience that can be inherent. For example, feeling “lesser” in relation to another, questioning whether our standards have been fulfilled to its entirety, and simply feeling undeserving of what we’re granted. At one point in our lives, we may have downplayed our own achievements and questioned the caliber at which we performed by comparing ourselves with others’ achievements. After all, how could we not compare ourselves to others and doubt our own abilities when we have quantified our success through grades, class rankings, and the rigor of our courses?
Imposter syndrome is a common psychological tendency that is characterized by the unjustified, internalized notion that one’s efforts and endeavors are fraudulent despite evidence of success. Those experiencing imposter syndrome often develop the idea that one has to strive towards perfectionism in their work. For students who typically display higher performance in the classroom, imposter syndrome is prevalent in about one-third of this population. However, it is thought that a 70 percent majority of adults experience impostorism sometime during their life.
With recent studies and claims, it is shown that first-generation students, those who are the first in their family to attend college or college in America, can feel more subjected to these feelings associated with imposter syndrome. Notably, first-generation students in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) were observed in a questionnaire-based study conducted by Social Psychological and Personality Science which asked them about their viewpoints of competition in their STEM courses. They completed this questionnaire in class during a course of two weeks and completed the same questionnaire again at the end of their semester. Commonalities in students’ answers included statements such as “Students tend to be very competitive with each other in this class… in class, I felt like people might find out that I am not as capable as they think I am” (Dolan, 2020). With STEM being a competitive, interdisciplinary field on the rise, there is a likelihood that many members of this field feel obliged to live up to its reputation.
One’s idea that their worth is secondary to others in spite of their productivity and success can be accounted for by extensive pressure associated with their name. First-generation college students are already thought to have achieved new levels of success, performance, and accomplishments just by pursuance of higher education. Being designated as the first to proceed with postsecondary education may instill unwarranted and uncomfortable expectations for success from the family. This perspective can become mental barriers for a student being held to high standards and doubting their own efforts.
As a result of failing to give precedence to their achievements, first generation students may back out from the primary source of their imposter syndrome: academics and education. This can look like allocating less time and effort to course work, lowered or inconsistent attendance, and less engagement in classes which can result in lowered grades or even the intent of dropping out of their competitive classes.
An emotionally and mentally draining experience, imposter syndrome can potentially exacerbate into further thoughts of anxiety and depression if not addressed appropriately. To approach the issue, students have been encouraged to validate vulnerability by expressing their concerns, praising their efforts before focusing on outcomes, and setting attainable goals. Tangible and concrete steps in acknowledging imposter syndrome have been effective in battling these thoughts.