Most university students are aware that student life is very detached from modern media’s fantastical representations of it. There is no doubt that the university experience involves its fair share of hardships — isolation, burnout, deteriorating mental health, and impostor syndrome being some of them. How does one possibly deal with the transitions to adulthood, alongside everything else?
Feeling like you’re ‘faking it’ doesn’t help. Imposter syndrome — feeling undeserving, out of place, and like a fraud — is something that appears to be way too common amongst Warwick students. I recently learnt that I was not alone in feeling like I did not deserve to be at Warwick. My first year was particularly difficult in this context. I had just turned 18 when I moved to the UK for university. I hadn’t even visited the UK prior to this, so the move was a shock to my system, to say the least. I had received a scholarship, and that made it a lot easier for me to decide to choose Warwick. My first term made me question whether I’d made the right choice. It was difficult and I spent half of it wanting to quit, and the other half wondering if I deserved to be here, whether I deserved my scholarship, and if I was ‘doing enough’.
Some fellow students kindly agreed to speak to me about their respective experiences with impostor syndrome. I got four responses after I reached out to members of a society group chat. All the respondents studied different courses, with two being in second year, one in first year, and the last being a finalist. I asked all four the same two questions, the first being: “Imposter syndrome often involves feeling ‘undeserving’; was there anything in particular that made you feel that way?”. Each respondent had a different answer to this. The finalist I spoke to said that the move from school to university was a root cause of this: “I was one of the top students during sixth form and then found myself achieving the same as everyone around me and so it made me feel like I wasn’t good enough anymore.” The second question I asked was: “Are you doing better now? If yes, what helped?” The response to this from the finalist was: “Yes, because I started getting firsts a bit more this year so I had that academic validation. I’ve also been in therapy for controlling OCD thoughts so just learning to deal with those is [part] … of it.”
I was one of the top students during sixth form and then found myself achieving the same as everyone around me and so it made me feel like I wasn’t good enough anymore.
Although adjusting to a different grading system did play into my own psyche, there is another aspect that I wish was discussed more often: the pressure to do more. The Students’ Union (SU) boasts over 300 societies: a brilliant way to ‘get involved!’. If, like me, you have approached Wellbeing Services and told them that you were feeling isolated due to impostor syndrome, you have likely received their standard reply: “Why don’t you try and get involved with a society?” There is nothing like the social effect of watching everyone ‘get involved’ in multiple societies to make you feel inadequate and absurdly out of place for not doing the same. Throughout the past year, I did ‘get involved’. I was on the executive of three societies. This did not solve my problems. Instead of simply feeling like I did not belong and like a fraud, I was now also burnt out and just as isolated as before. Was this how it was supposed to be? Was I the only one who felt utterly exhausted? Everybody else seemed so put together — so I had to look like I did too.
During what are supposed to be the “best years of my life”, I am expected to be involved in multiple societies; maintain a stellar academic record; work, if possible; do all the things that keep me alive; and figure out what I want to do after I graduate. Again, it becomes a matter of expectations and appearances; one of the second-year students I spoke to told me that not knowing what they wanted to do after university hugely contributed to their impostor syndrome: “Sometimes, it felt like I had taken up the space someone else deserved because they knew what they were working towards while I felt like I was … floundering. I was treating university like an entire chapter on its own in my life, but other people were only viewing it as a transitional period.” When asked if they felt more ‘at home’ now, they responded that they did: “I finally had my epiphany moment and realised that I am doing all the things that are right for me even if it doesn’t make sense to everybody else. That’s not to say I don’t still feel imposter syndrome creep back up, but I’ve become better at thinking of the bigger picture.”
However, impostor syndrome can also be related to your own obligations and background. For first-year international students, much of their imposter syndrome resulted from feeling both burdened and like a burden. Speaking of their decision to go to Warwick, one said: “I didn’t do well in an exam back home after which we considered Warwick. It didn’t help that I got good grades at Warwick because the fact that I failed the exam was and is always on my mind, so even if I get 90s it doesn’t matter, I still feel undeserving and fraudulent.” Second-year Biomedical Science student Debbie, who began at Warwick in 2020 before changing courses, spoke of feeling undeserving of her place at university as she did not do her A-Levels due to the pandemic.
Impostor syndrome is frighteningly widespread at Warwick. In a survey I conducted of Warwick students, I found that 54 (94.7%) of the 57 respondents said that they had in fact experienced impostor syndrome during their time at university. I subsequently asked them what they thought had caused this — I provided four options alongside giving them the ability to provide alternative responses. 44 peopled noted that seeing others involved in multiple societies and activities contributed to their impostor syndrome, with 41 highlighting the difficulty associated with adjusting to a new grading system, and a sense of not feeling as smart as those around them. Moreover, 28 said that their financial position was a driving factor, and 25 suggested that their identity contributed to their impostor syndrome experience. Some said that pressure to get an internship and having to commute to campus played a role too. Most respondents (64.9%) said that they were most impacted by impostor syndrome in their first year, followed by 28.1% (16) saying their second year was most impacted, and 7% (4) suggesting they were worst affected in their final year.
Impostor syndrome can also be related to your own obligations and background.
About half of the respondents said that, although they are doing better than they used to, they feel their impostor syndrome is creeping back. If, as evidenced above, there is no universal cause of impostor syndrome, is it possible to tackle such an issue on a university-wide level? 86% (49) of those surveyed felt that they did not receive enough support to deal with impostor syndrome. With the causes of impostor syndrome varying from person to person, how can the university better support people that experience it? Respondents offered some good ideas, such as support groups, raising awareness about it, better welfare services, and more academic support for students.
Some, however felt that it was not possible for the university to help with impostor syndrome, saying it partly comes down to confidence and security. A quick Google search on how to tackle imposter syndrome delivered bleak results, suggesting that the only way get rid of imposter syndrome was for people suffering from it to take initiative themselves. This can be very difficult to do, considering just how debilitating it can be. Its effect on both mental and physical health can be greatly inhibiting, resulting in a loss of motivation, and leading people to isolate themselves from others because they feel undeserving.
Whilst I felt like my entire university experience wasn’t something I ‘deserved’ despite earning my place here, realising that I wasn’t alone in feeling that way helped me. Though it can be hard to believe, no one is ‘undeserving’, and everyone deserves to be understood in the same respect. While it is daunting if you are feeling ‘fraudulent’ and ‘undeserving’, reaching out to someone might be beneficial. Meanwhile, I am considering starting an impostor syndrome society — as always, I encourage you to get involved!