Even as a rising senior, I still feel anxiety and dread when I sit down for the first day of a math class—despite being a math major. Regardless of my grades, I can’t shake the feeling of incompetency compared to my peers and often feel overexerted, like I’m falling behind while everyone around me succeeds.
While I expected this feeling to fade with time and experience, I continue to dread the day that everyone realizes I’m not nearly smart enough to be where I am. After all this time, I still feel like an imposter at Georgetown.
But over time, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one who doubted my abilities and place at Georgetown. I’ve overheard many self-doubting statements from friends and peers: “I’m pretty sure I got into Georgetown by mistake.” “There probably weren’t as many competitive applicants this year.” “Everyone else here is so much more impressive.”
Imposter syndrome is a specific form of self-doubt where people, especially students, are unable to internalize and accept their successes. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and as a result, fear being exposed as a fraud. While imposter syndrome is commonly associated with academics, the feeling of estrangement extends beyond the classroom, as imposter syndrome permeates clubs and social settings.
However, my observations of the manifestations of imposter syndrome revealed that—while imposter syndrome is a useful umbrella term—the general sense of feeling out of place is not uncommon at Georgetown. One friend doubts whether she belongs here because her uncertainty towards her future plans does not align with the recruitment timelines of coveted consulting or investment banking jobs. Another questions his qualifications after receiving a leadership role in a major student organization.
Additionally, many students who are a part of racial or geographic minority groups experience impostorism as a result of their background and identity. These identities and cultural differences can exacerbate feelings of unbelonging. One of my friends feels like an imposter because her middle-class, rural upbringing in the Mountain West doesn’t match the wealthy, cosmopolitan Hoya stereotype. She feels like she doesn’t belong to the Georgetown community because she doesn’t share a similar background to other students and cannot afford the same lifestyle.
Academically, hearing from others about their imposter syndrome can help assure people that they are not the only one experiencing self-doubt. But this solution fails outside of the classroom because of the lack of representation in higher education. Anyone experiencing cultural isolation on campus can struggle to find relatable role models that they can connect with and learn from.
Just like most other universities around the country, Georgetown lacks racial diversity. The racial breakdown of students (excluding international students) is roughly 48.8 percent white, 10.4 percent Asian, 9.5 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 6.3 percent Black. A recent study on Hoyas’ sense of belonging shows that many students of color and first-generation students struggle to find many people to relate to at Georgetown. Additionally, many such students reported feeling like some classrooms, clubs, and other spaces are not welcoming to them. Because these students don’t feel like they are welcome at a university that is mainly wealthy and white, they can feel as if they don’t belong and develop imposter-like feelings.
Geographically, 2.7 percent of students in the enrolling class of 2024 are from the Mountain West region while 44 percent of students are from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions of the country. In addition, the median family income of Georgetown students is $229,100 and 74 percent of students come from the top 20 percent. As a result, my middle-class friend from the Mountain West had a more isolating experience than many when starting college. Because many students she met were used to navigating expensive cities, splurging on SoulCycle every morning, and eating at restaurants every night, she felt that few others at Georgetown could relate to her more modest upbringing and lifestyle.
This feeling of impostorism seems to be partially fueled by Georgetown’s infamously competitive academic and professional culture. Classes push students to compete with one another in classes by grading on a curve and capping the number of students who can earn certain grades. In addition, students are competitive in the process of joining exclusive clubs on campus and getting the most prestigious internships or jobs. As a result, the environment creates pressure to be constantly achieving. And because many Hoyas are high achievers and have high expectations for themselves, it often feels like many need to put up a front that they are always successful.
This is not to say that such achievements should not be celebrated; as a community, we should be proud when our peers succeed. However, we need to make sure that our measurements for success do not place too much emphasis on what students look like on paper. Struggling, taking risks, and even failing are all opportunities to learn and grow. As individuals, having more open, honest conversations with one another about our failures will make many of our classmates feel less inadequate or alone.
We must also work to combat imposter syndrome by creating a more diverse community since many students feel imposter syndrome as a result of discriminatory behaviors in a white, wealthy, and privileged environment. Ensuring that all students and faculty acknowledge and respect students’ differences in classrooms, clubs, and other student spaces can help many students feel a greater sense of belonging. This includes respectfully hearing all students’ opinions regardless of their upbringing, doing one’s best to correctly pronounce others’ names and pronouns, supporting the specific needs of marginalized students with mental health resources, not presuming someone’s economic, educational, and familial background in conversations, and more.
Creating an environment with more people from various walks of life, or admitting an even more diverse student body, will connect more underrepresented students to role models with similar experiences.
We need to normalize taking time away from competitive environments to practice self-care, valuing quality over quantity of commitments, and accepting that every one of our peers moves at their own pace. If we live in an environment where we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others’ achievements, we’re bound to feel like imposters. Only when we take action to create a more diverse, open, and accepting community will we be able to collectively realize that we are not actually imposters.