Imposter syndrome at an elite university: A personal perspective

Imposter syndrome at an elite university: A personal perspective

Jade Burroughes tackles the rife but largely unspoken phenomena of ‘imposter syndrome’, with a personal take on why class still has a hand in feelings of alienation at an elite university

As a student ambassador for my home department at UCL, a core part of my job is pedalling the department’s central philosophy to prospective students. A well-intentioned yet misleading mantra which forms a core part of this, is the idea that whilst UCL is an elite university, home to elite staff and cutting-edge elite research, ‘we are not elitist’. The overkill of ‘elite’ in that sentence serves a purpose. That sentence reflects the reality for many UCL students, particularly those from low socio-economic and/or state school backgrounds, who are all too aware of the elite status of their university. This status is one of the many things believed to contribute towards the development of ‘imposter syndrome’, impacting an estimated 1/3 of students across the UK. 

But surely feeling out of your depth at university is normal? Any fresher’s account of their first year is likely to include, alongside heady tales of the wondrous new freedoms of adulthood, feelings of being out of their depth and an intimidating newness. However, when these feelings intensify into an all-consuming and isolating feeling of incompetence, generating questions such as ‘How did I manage to bluff my way into this university?’ and ‘When will my inner imposter be exposed for my more capable peers to see?’, Pauline Clance would diagnose you with a bad case of imposter syndrome. 

Clance coined the term imposter syndrome following a 1978 study on the psychological dispositions of high achieving women. The term is used as a summative description of the feelings of intellectual fraudulence found to be rife in high pressure work environments – in the context of this piece, Russell Group universities. Such imposter feelings will persist in the face of concrete evidence to the contrary, with Clance explaining ‘Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief’. Thus students who have successfully gained admittance into prestigious universities may still feel intense feelings of alienation and un-belonging, despite having secured the necessary grades and proving themselves capable of such an achievement. The detrimental repercussions of this lack of self-assuredness is the belief that ‘unless they go to gargantuan efforts to do so, [such] success cannot be repeated’. These students consider their admission into such a university as a fluke incident, a stroke of luck or a mistake for which they will soon be exposed. 

My awareness of my own imposter feelings kickstarted in freshers week. Being one among very few in my sixth form to make it into university at all, let alone a Russell Group, made me acutely aware that people like me didn’t go to places like this. I didn’t feel I fitted in and generic freshers ‘getting to know you’ discourse only consolidated this hypothesis in my mind. Seemingly harmless questions such as ‘where are you from’ and ‘what do your parents do’ quickly brought into stark focus that I was different from most of my peers – coming from a small town of low socio-economic prospects with unemployed parents was not the norm within the UCL student pool. I begin to notice myself going as far as monitoring my mannerisms and speech in front of my peers, growing increasingly anxious not to allow any ‘chavvy’ mispronunciations to escape that might expose my roots as a low income student from a state school in special measures. Life at a Russell Group university in the capital city would soon prove to follow an almost step-by-step blueprint of Clance’s recipe for the development of imposter feelings – with social comparisons, fear of failure and constant striving for perfection as unavoidable facets of the student experience. From the designer-clothing-clad students and the sea of MacBooks in lecture theatres, to the streams of social media accounts boasting perfectly curated and colourful visions of an idyllic London student life, social comparisons formed an unavoidable part of everyday life and the awareness of being different was inescapable no matter how well you harnessed the ability to filter it out. Similarly, a pervasive fear of failure was only reinforced by the plastering of UCL’s world class ranking across campus. Even sources of positive affirmation, purposed to elevate and fill me with pride, such as receiving praise from my peers for achieving good GCSE grades without the aid of tutoring, still managed to make me feel like an outsider in my own environment.  

But wait, don’t we live in an age where the de-privatisation of higher education is a cornerstone of education policy?  How can this imposter phenomena be so rife in an educational environment pivoted around ‘hundreds of millions of pounds being pumped into schemes to widen access’? In a 2017 Independent article, Jeff Farrell concludes that the gap between state and privately educated students still very much exists in spite of widening participation initiatives. He cites the misallocation of university spending and the failure to start schemes early enough to explain the ineffectiveness of access schemes. This gap unsurprisingly does nothing but exacerbate feelings of imposter syndrome among students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds. Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, Professor Les Ebdon, is quoted by Farrell expressing the view that higher education prospects remain guided by the mantra that “Where you come from still has a disproportionate impact on where you will end up in life.” Awareness of this fact is enough to start an imposter spiral in any disadvantaged student embarking on higher education. 

Now, as someone who has benefitted from UCL’s access schemes, this comment is in no way an attempt to dismiss UCL’s efforts at widening participation nor blame it for the development of imposter feelings among its student population. Their initiatives, a prominent example being the annual summer school programme, are massively beneficial in providing information about university life and the application process, which may otherwise be unavailable. This is especially the case among first generation and state school educated students who in many instances will lack a direct contact in higher education to ask for advice and whose schools are likely ill-equipped to prepare them for university life. This information has the ability to boost confidence and ease some of the anxieties and uncertainties surrounding starting university.

Ultimately, the humble anti-elitist mantra that UCL preaches, much like the wider educational climate, fails to fully grasp the psychological reality of attending a prestigious university for these students. Since I am no expert in psychology nor someone who has completely kicked imposter syndrome in the back, this article does not attempt to offer solutions to imposter syndrome. This article instead aspires to bring awareness to this widely unspoken problem which plagues much of the student population, especially (but by no means exclusively) those underrepresented pools of students referenced above. Perhaps in an increasingly competitive world, negative mental health culture is an accepted and standard by-product of higher educational pursuits. None the less, imposter feelings can be eased to a great degree by acknowledging these struggles of self-perception as normal and starting a dialogue to bring them into the open. Mere dismissal of these flaws in self-perception, offhand comments such as ‘you got into this university therefore you belong here’ should be avoided. For individuals struggling with these imposter feelings, no logic is that clear cut and these feelings persist in face of concrete evidence to the contrary. Instead, discussion should be not only encouraged, but insisted upon as imperative to safeguarding not just our own mental health, but that of fellow students – at least one person you know at UCL is preventably suffering in silence.

Disclaimer: While conversation about negative mental health is a vital part of coping with and diluting imposter feelings, if you are in crisis or struggling with extreme feelings of isolation or unhappiness please contact the relevant resources on offer at UCL. Transition mentors and personal tutors are available as channels of support and advice. In cases where mental health is beginning to severely impact your everyday life e.g. making work, socialising or taking care of yourself a difficulty then, get in contact with Student Psychological Services (02076791487) who offer short term counselling and phone support free of charge.

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thewikiman/15354365629

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