Male student sits alone at desk with study materials, with the blurred image of a female student walking past

Imposter syndrome: what is it and how to overcome it?

28 September 2021
How imposter syndrome can affect students and ways to avoid it
Studying at university can sometimes incite feelings of inadequacy in students. Combine that with remote learning and the stresses of lockdown, it's no surprise that some students may suffer from what's known as imposter syndrome.
Open notebook with handwritten text 'Am I good enough?' written on the page

Have you ever had the feeling that you’re a fraud and you don’t deserve to be here? That feeling is commonly referred to as 'imposter syndrome'.

Studying at uni has the potential to incite feelings of inadequacy in students. Combined with remote learning and missed connections with peers, these feelings might lead students to engage in academic dishonesty to overcome the challenges they're experiencing. 

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a fear that your outward character is a fraud and that your successes are attributed to luck or happenstance. This is common in environments where there are defined expectations, like studying at uni where being assessed is part of daily life. Imposter syndrome magnifies these expectations with an irrational lens – ultimately making us feel convinced of our ‘inevitable’ failure and unworthiness.

Imposter syndrome has been recognised as a state of negative self-perception. This belief in our imposter status is often unfounded, yet is universally experienced and allows for debilitating insecurity. This can cause people to seek out ways to prevent the ‘exposure’ of their supposed inadequacy. 

How does it affect students?

Research supports claims that imposter syndrome is increasingly common in academic environments. The recent pandemic has understandably exacerbated insecurity in university students and remote learning has decreased the ease of forming community connections. The feeling of belonging to a community is key to warding off imposter syndrome.

In an attempt to avoid feelings of inadequacy, students with imposter tendencies may turn to solutions that may be considered academic dishonesty. This could involve re-using an earlier assignment or relying too heavily on a friend’s paper, or even worse, engaging someone else to contribute to their assignment. These all have serious consequences.

Academic dishonesty is often discussed in a manner that suggests any deviation from academic integrity is automatically immoral and corrupt. This can neglect the context which frames instances such as these. Imposter syndrome may play a role in making academic dishonesty appear the only option to protect not only yourself, but your friends.

Below are some examples of imposter syndrome interacting with academic dishonesty:

  1. Emma is struggling to write an assignment for her unit of study. The task has a weighting which requires her to achieve a high mark to do the honours component of the degree. She feels that failure to do honours would make her inferior and a disappointment. Thinking she could not achieve the desired mark, Emma decides to pay for someone to complete the essay for her. This is contract cheating.
  2. Tom’s first year of university proved more difficult due to the COVID pandemic. He is convinced that everyone in his unit is smarter than him and that the university made a mistake in accepting him into the degree. Tom’s main unit of study has an essay which he doesn’t think he can pass. He decides to copy and paste from a journal article to write the essay and hopes that the markers won’t notice. This is plagiarism.
  3. Katy is having a difficult time at university, thinking everyone in her classes is more organised than her and handling commitments well. She has not started her assignment but realises it resembles an essay she completed in a previous unit for which she received a Distinction grade. She recycles substantial sections of the paper with only minor adjustments. This is known as recycling.
  4. A group of friends are feeling as though they do not deserve to be in their degree. They cannot fail their unit as it is a prerequisite for a future unit of study. For their online quiz, they choose to share their answers in a Facebook chat. This is collusion.

In the effort to escape being exposed as inadequate, students who choose to engage in academic dishonesty legitimise imposter syndrome instead of disproving it. It’s important to remember that the University is there to support students in their academic endeavours and provides many services that assist students in pursuing academic honesty.

How to overcome imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome can be overcome by engaging with the experience itself rather than the feelings of inferiority. Here are some quick tips to help you overcome these feelings:

  • Talk to someone about your concerns. Try messaging a friend or family member, or speak with your tutor about your concerns.
  • Connect with the University and immerse yourself in the community. Feeling a sense of belonging is beneficial in soothing fears of inadequacy. Explore the opportunities offered by student organisations.
  • Video chat or message a Peer Learning Advisor via PeerConnect
  • Identify negative feelings and separate them from fact. Look at the evidence to rebut unhelpful thoughts. Revisiting successes or positive feedback is a helpful way to do this.
  • GIve yourself grace and celebrate the positives however they may come.
  • Confront fears head on. This may be difficult, but faking confidence can help to overpower the negative ruminations.
  • Try to understand that challenges are a natural part of studying and life itself. Failure to meet your own expectations does not equate to failure. You are not alone in experiencing these feelings.
  • Do not hesitate to seek support from the many services offered at the University that help support your online study.

Imposter syndrome has the potential to drain your confidence and impact student wellbeing. The inward thinking and irrational nature of this experience can make it hard to challenge the inadequate self-perception that it causes. If you're experiencing any of the symptoms of imposter syndrome, it's important to seek help early and ensure you're following academic honesty guidelines in your studies. 

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