‘Admissions doesn’t make mistakes’: Coping with imposter syndrome in the transition to Washington University

| Staff Reporter
Sun shines from the right on a green and yellow bush as a green metal chair faces outward on the left side.

A chair sits lonely under a bush on the Danforth Campus. (Photo by Curran Neenan | Student Life)

Editor’s Note: This story can also be found in Starting Line, StudLife’s annual orientation issue. You can find some other Starting Line stories here and here.

In the fall of 2020, students at Washington University were confined to their dorms, Zoom pods and isolated sections of dining halls. The restrictions made it difficult to carry out many of the social activities that make the University’s workload more bearable, not least among them the ability to seek in-person help with classes, whether from professors or from other students in study groups. 

The University’s student body was no stranger to imposter syndrome—the term used to describe a person who believes they are somehow inadequate, incompetent or unqualified, despite evidence to the contrary—when COVID-19 struck. But the intensely isolating conditions engendered by the virus only amplified this issue.   

“Imposter syndrome is so prevalent at Wash. U.,” Miri Goodman, former president of the Sophomore Class Council, said. “COVID made it so much more difficult for students to get resources, or to see where they compared with other students, or even to just collaborate with other students, which Wash. U. really likes to emphasize. [Wash. U. is] a lot less competitive and a lot more helpful, and students weren’t able to get that outlet because they couldn’t really work together.”

While the incoming freshmen will thankfully arrive at a significantly more open version of the University, imposter syndrome will undoubtedly remain relevant. Studies suggest that roughly 70% of the population has struggled with imposter syndrome, including 20% of college students.

Psychology professor Tim Bono, whose work focuses on positive psychology and college student development, said that imposter syndrome often arises when an initial attempt at a task does not produce the desired result.

“Sometimes the conclusion that we draw from that is, ‘I’m not good enough to be here or I’m not talented in this area in the way that other people are,’” Bono said.

For incoming freshmen and transfer students preparing for their first semester at Washington University, these doubts and anxieties may be especially prevalent. Imposter syndrome is “very common amongst first-years especially, because a lot of us who are here at Wash. U. were most likely one of the top in our class in high school, got good grades [and] tried really hard,” said former First-Year Class Council VP of Public Relations Jo Palisoc, who joined Goodman in organizing a panel on imposter syndrome last semester.

“We come to Wash. U. and all of a sudden everyone’s just as smart as we are,” Palisoc said. “We start thinking to ourselves: ‘Everyone else is so much smarter than me. I’ve never met so many people who are so smart. It must have been a fluke that I got in here.’ You might think, ‘I hope no one finds out how stupid I am. I don’t know what I’m doing here.’ It’s very, very common.”

These kinds of anxious thoughts, inherent to imposter syndrome, are common in new situations. Initially coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, the term imposter syndrome was used to describe the difficulties women were facing as they permeated the male-dominated workforce of the 1970s, particularly self-doubt and self-comparison.

“There’s no doubt that having that kind of set of thoughts can lead to anxiety on the job, or in other situations where you’re trying to be confident,” said Tom Rodebaugh, a psychology professor who studies social anxiety disorder in adults..

While the phrase “imposter syndrome” has come to be used in broader contexts since then, anxiety—specifically social anxiety—remains a central part of it. 

“You feel social anxiety if you’re wanting to present yourself a certain way, and you don’t think you can do it,” Rodebaugh said. “So I see imposter syndrome largely as something that can be absorbed into the general idea of social anxiety, but it is specific in that it tends to come up in people’s jobs, or for students, in school, at a place where they’re trying to show that they’re competent or want to present that they’re competent.”

Although “imposter syndrome” refers to insecurities that reflect imagined rather than real shortcomings, the phenomenon may be amplified by external conditions. For example, studies suggest first generation college students are more likely to grapple with imposter syndrome. Others suggest that members of marginalized groups may be most at risk.

“People with social anxiety disorder have a distorted idea of other people’s tendency to reject or criticize them. That’s mostly true,” Rodebaugh said. “But one should not forget that some people in this world are more likely to get criticism and rejection unfairly, and due to things they can’t control themselves. Imposter syndrome really kind of highlights that part of it.”

Imposter syndrome manifests in different ways, and not all of them center around social anxiety and the fear of not belonging or being unqualified. For Goodman, imposter syndrome had not even been a concern before her arrival at the University. 

“For me, it was never a question of whether or not I belonged,” Goodman said. Rather, she worried asking for help would alter others’ perceptions of her, as well as her own. 

“I definitely am afraid that people are going to find out, maybe I’m not as prepared, maybe I don’t know the answer always; people are going to see, if I asked for help, that I’m weak,” she continued. “We’re all bright students, we’re all here for a reason, and needing help on something for—not maybe the first time—but truly absolutely needing help and being afraid of getting a failing grade was really hard for me to admit to myself. I’m still working through that.”

Last semester, Goodman made a point of going to office hours for every one of her classes at least once, at the behest of her advisor. And although, she admitted, this direct confrontation of her anxieties was difficult for her, it is exactly the sort of head-on confrontation many psychologists recommend for combating social anxiety and imposter syndrome. 

“Nobody knows you, and that can feel pretty uncomfortable,” said Susan Rosse, a staff psychologist at the Habif Health and Wellness Center.  “But try to step outside of your comfort zone. Don’t stay in your room. Take people up on opportunities. If they say, ‘Hey we’re going to go grab dinner,’ say yes, even if you already ate. Go along and just have a drink and talk to people.” 

Rosse also emphasized the importance of reminding students they are not alone in feeling this way. So did Palisoc, who will be a WUSA this fall and plans to use her experience to help incoming freshmen in her cohort. 

“I think that the biggest thing is sharing my experience and validating their feelings,” Palisoc said. “I’m going to make sure they know that I understand the way they feel, because I felt that, so many of my friends felt that, and most likely a lot of their peers are feeling that too.” 

Bono, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of viewing setbacks as “a way to reflect,” rather than “a way to reinforce that idea that we’re an imposter, that we’re not good enough.”

“I think that it’s important to use those opportunities of adversity and failure, not as a way that, you’ve jumped to the conclusion that you’ve done something terrible, or that you’re not a good person or that you’re not qualified in certain ways, but instead to use it as a learning experience to say, well, ‘What did this teach me, if I apply for an internship and I didn’t get it?” Bono said. “Instead of drawing the conclusion, ‘I’m not good enough to work for this company,’ saying, ‘what could I have done differently or what experiences can I accumulate so that the next time I will be more competitive,’ or, ‘how might I have responded to interview questions?’”

Of course, this is easier said than done. But Palisoc emphasized that all incoming students should know that they belong at the University.

“Everyone knows that you earned your place here. Admissions doesn’t make mistakes,” Palisoc said. “It’s a culture shock when you first get in, but once you get past that, Wash. U. is just the best place to be and probably going to be a few of the happiest years of your life.”

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Speaking of some of the happiest years of your life, here are profiles of some of the individuals you might get to meet during your time at Wash. U.:

Yes, WU junior Jordan Nagai played Russell in Disney-Pixar’s ‘Up.’ And no, he doesn’t mind talking about it.

From behind the plexiglass: The people who make up the Bear’s Den

WU sophomore Roy Antoine bakes everything from donuts to caramel cake. And then he gives it all away.

 

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