You got into your dream graduate program, but shortly after unpacking your things, that feeling of excitement leaches out of you. The first week of classes comes and goes, and you look around at a sea of unfamiliar faces, confident students strutting across campus to the library or making great strides on their lab research. By the middle of the second week, you are beginning to feel nervous, even frightened. It dawns on you. There must have been some kind of mistake. You don’t belong here. These classes are way harder than you thought. Everyone else understands what is going on. You are going to fail!

If you are a new graduate student and the above story hits a nerve, don’t panic. There is a name for this feeling: Imposter Syndrome. This term was coined in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, two American psychologists. Imposter Syndrome refers to an overwhelming feeling that despite all of your accomplishments and talents, your success was the result of luck, timing or something else that you had no control of. You compare yourself to the outward appearance of others and assume you are falling behind, or worse, doomed to flounder. You are a fraud.

You are not alone. Clearly, if professional psychologists named the phenomenon decades ago and published an article on the topic, it is a common state of mind for even the most successful people. The good news is that there are ways to climb out of this self-inflicted rabbit hole. Try to remember:

  • Getting into _____ school was not an error. It was a deliberate decision that was made after careful review of your application materials. As long as you were open and honest in the process, you earned your place there.
  • What you see (or perceive) other people are feeling is irrelevant and possibly inaccurate. If you are hiding your feelings from others, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that your peers are hiding their insecurities as well.
  • It’s only been a few weeks and you are still finding your way. In addition to adjusting to graduate school, it may be the first time you are far from your best friends and family, and if you moved from another country, the culture differences can add even more complexity.

There are some concrete actions you can take to help:

  • Talk to mentors, advisors and senior students. You will inevitably find that even your professors had moments of Imposter Syndrome when they were in your place years ago. If you speak with a student who is one year ahead of you, her or his feelings will be fresh and s/he may have some excellent advice or at least empathic support.
  • Resist isolation. Sitting in your apartment and worrying is a very slippery slope. Study in the library or hang out in the quad with your roommate and get to know fellow students. Join a student organization that interests you or sign up for an activity like yoga or tennis.
  • Express your feelings. If you finish an exam that seemed ridiculously challenging, try saying, “That was so hard!” out loud. It may be scary to be the first one to say it, but in a class of 20, 30 or 100 students, the chances are good that others are feeling the same way.
  • Seek out support. If you find yourself unable to manage overwhelming feelings, a visit to the student counseling center may be a good idea.

Your feelings are perfectly natural. Give yourself some time to adjust to your new environment, faces, friendships and challenges. Try not to make any conclusions about your situation until at least a full quarter or semester. By the time winter break rolls around, you may very well feel like a new and confident person.

About the author
Marc Zawel

As author of Untangling the Ivy League, Marc literally wrote the book on gaining admission to highly selective colleges. He earned a BA from Cornell University – where he met AcceptU’s co-founder – and an MBA from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Marc chaired the admissions advisory board; he has also conducted alumni interviews for Cornell for more than fifteen years.

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