Op-ed: More must be done to prevent imposter syndrome in college students

Emma Klekotka, contributor

Upon starting college this past September, I experienced the typical emotions a freshman might feel. I was excited about new experiences, nervous about making new friends and hopeful about my academic success. What I didn’t expect was the crippling anxiety from imposter syndrome. 

Imposter syndrome, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved… as a result of one’s own efforts or skills”.  This is all too common among college students. In fact, according to a 2019 study from Brigham Young University, about 20% of students surveyed felt a sense of imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome also negatively impacts mental health, leading to feelings of anxiety and disconnection from peers. Although many students feel the effects of imposter syndrome, the phenomenon is often excluded from conversations regarding mental health or challenges in an academic setting. 

As a Northeastern student, I fell victim to imposter syndrome due to the culture of competition and excellence created by the university. Northeastern is a rapidly growing university, ranking 44th in the U.S. News report this past year. I felt as if my peers were leaders with unmatched professionalism and drive while I was confused and unprofessional. However, I quickly discovered this depiction was unrealistic, as students come from a variety of cultural, economic and academic backgrounds, which provide them varying levels of experience in professional fields. Northeastern regularly boasts the achievements of exceptionally performing students, such as the 6 students and alumni who made BostInno’s 25 Under 25 List, which celebrates the accomplishments of “elite young founders, nonprofit leaders, startup employees and students” in the Boston area. While highlighting such high-performing students is likely meant to celebrate their achievements rather than deflate others, the constant praise of high-achieving students made me feel as if I was behind my peers professionally. 

Additionally, the focus on co-op often creates unnecessary stress and anxiety for students, furthering feelings of imposter syndrome. Recently, I attended a panel on co-ops intended for first-year students in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences. While the panelists did a fantastic job answering questions and calming the concerns of first-year students worried about co-op, the event further exemplified the fabricated images Northeastern creates of students. A majority of the questions focused on resume building and obtaining work experience prior to going on co-op. In focusing on the advantages of industry experience rather than focusing on the personal strengths of those applying to co-ops, students face unnecessary pressure to search for internships or work-intensive clubs, which can often be difficult to find. As a result, those who cannot obtain experience are made to feel like the minority and may lose out on experiences they feel they do not deserve. 

I myself experienced imposter syndrome upon arriving at Northeastern. Coming from a small town, I regularly placed at the top of my class academically, outperforming my peers in classroom assignments and state testing. I was the valedictorian of my graduating class, though it was a small achievement as my graduating class only had 63 students. Therefore, it was a shock to me when I realized my skills were minimal in comparison to students from larger areas with greater access to academic resources.

My feelings of inadequacy only grew upon arriving at my first computer science lecture where I realized most students were more skilled than I was. Though my computer science classes in high school introduced me to many of the ideas behind computing, my small public high school lacked the resources to provide a solid background in established coding languages. In turn, I was overwhelmed by the syntax of Racket, a language-oriented programming language used for Fundamentals of Computer Science, and didn’t know who to ask for help. Growing up in such a small town, I had rarely been in a class of over 20 students, never mind a lecture of a hundred. I felt exposed when asking questions in class and often did not have time to attend office hours with my teaching assistants, which often had queues that lasted upward of an hour. 

Fundamentals of Computer Science, or “Fundies,” as students like to call it, is a course for beginners that supposedly requires no prior experience. However, instructors brush over the basic fundamentals of programming, leaving many students with little to no experience feeling unprepared to tackle tougher assignments. Though I had some prior experience with pseudocode, I was shaken not only by the pace of the course, but also the level of knowledge my classmates held. Many held years of experience with practical coding languages such as Java and Python, greatly overshadowing my skills gained through basic learner languages like Scratch. 

After weeks of wallowing in my self-doubt and inadequacy, I quickly learned that imposter syndrome had become a detriment to my success rather than a motivation to work harder. I was beginning to withdraw and even avoided applying for clubs and attending events that I was interested in because I feared I wasn’t good enough or deserving of the opportunity. Finally, I realized I needed to overcome my feelings of inadequacy, or I would have a miserable college experience, filled with what-ifs and unfulfilled goals. 

Overcoming imposter syndrome isn’t easy. To affirm your abilities, you must reach deep inside yourself to not only discover your skills but actively acknowledge them, which goes against most social teachings of what it means to be humble and modest. While initial growth may seem foreign or arrogant, the ability to see your strengths allows you to determine your place in the Northeastern community.

It is also helpful to remember how your academic journey has unraveled. Though others may appear to be smarter, more experienced or more deserving of their place at Northeastern, all students are ultimately here because an admissions officer felt they fit into the mold of what a Northeastern student is. This is no easy feat, considering the acceptance rate of the college was 18.38 percent in 2021 and 6.7 percent in 2022. 

Finally, finding clubs or hobbies that fit outside of your academic and professional life can aid in finding a community of like-minded individuals without feeling the pressure of competition. I joined NU Stage, Northeastern’s student-run musical theater company, at the beginning of this semester, and the experience helped immensely to affirm my place at Northeastern. Because NU Stage members exist across all academic disciplines and years, I was able to find like-minded individuals who not only focused on more than just the best path to reach their desired career but felt similar feelings of imposter syndrome. Knowing I wasn’t alone in my struggles was what ultimately helped me feel connected to my Northeastern community, and I now hold the confidence to go after opportunities I want, knowing that I am just as competent as my peers. 

Emma Klekotka is a first-year computer science and journalism combined major. She can be reached at [email protected]