My first few weeks of college have been a whirlwind of emotions: awe at the beautiful campus, excitement to meet my suitemates, nerves to leave my family for the first time. And of course, buried underneath everything, doubt that I would be able to handle the transition.
Unlike the rest of my emotions, this was the one I refused to acknowledge. Sure, I was aware of the telltale signs of imposter syndrome poking through the surface and sure, I felt oddly called out every time a speaker at Convocation repeated that sickly sweet reassurance, “You belong.” But I convinced myself that the incessant voice in my head replying “Do I?” would quiet down once I started classes and slipped back into my pre-Covid rhythm.
My rhythm, however, is off-beat in this new environment. Instead of magically disappearing, my imposter syndrome skyrocketed the moment I stepped into my first class. As is customary at the beginning of any new school year, when hopes are still high and self-motivation still exists, I poured myself into pre-class preparation — skimming through the lecture notes, reading the textbook chapters, attempting the psets early — determined to start the year off on the right foot.
I think it would be appropriate to describe the jump from high school to college as a culture shock because I was anything but prepared for my classmates’ pace.
Despite my study marathon the night before, I found myself struggling to contribute to peer discussions. I anticipated being confused in class — it’s that fear that pushed me to put in the extra hours. But what I didn’t expect was to know the answer and still be afraid to raise my hand. My insights no longer feel unique as all my classmates are able to come to similar conclusions on their own, except faster and more articulately. I’d gone from barely studying and being at the top of my class to rereading and still falling short on the curve. Coming straight off the high school assembly line which discourages anything average, that means I feel like I don’t belong on the curve at all.
This mentality isn’t novel. When I began looking into Ivy League colleges, my sister recommended I read former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep.” Deresiewicz dissects elite students’ tendencies to overexert themselves to simply feel like they fit in or deserve their accomplishments, while simultaneously trying to keep up a pretense of effortlessness. In short, students who have spent their entire high school career being defined by their achievements struggle to step off the treadmill; it is a constant race to the next milestone for self-validation. This imposter syndrome doesn’t have to be something that develops after setting foot on campus — it seems to breed much earlier on.
More importantly, however, Deresiewicz discusses how students feel alone in this phenomenon: Not only do we think that we don’t belong, but we also think that we are the only ones who don’t belong. It’s easy during class to feel disoriented when that one student continuously raises their hand and somehow knows all the answers. All of a sudden, it doesn’t seem like the notorious imposter syndrome affects everyone — just you.
But isolating imposter syndrome is not all I’ve found in these first weeks. I’ve also found that every individual I have been brave enough to vocalize my concerns to has experienced these same fears. Because most of what we hear in classes are correct answers, we begin to assume ourselves outnumbered for needing an extra minute to catch on.
I hope I’m correct in assuming that we are not the few, even if we feel like it. That it is okay to doubt yourself every once in a while as long as you acknowledge that everyone is in the same boat. Rather than feeling like you don’t belong, realize that your friends and classmates probably are right there with you.
There are bits of this imposter syndrome that I’ve found healthy: the adrenaline that pushes me to actually look over material before the lectures, the comforting community it can create if we acknowledge it. In a roundabout way, imposter syndrome can be one of the things that makes us feel more connected. We’re fortunate to attend an institution where everyone is brilliant, but that does not mean we are perfect. No matter how far we go, there will always be more to discover and people to learn from.
I want to adopt the College’s mission and expose myself to “new ideas, new ways of understanding, and new ways of knowing.” I may not be the smartest person in the room and that’s okay. Instead, I’m aiming to train myself to step away from the constant desire to outrun everyone else and simply focus on sharpening myself.
Perhaps if we can internalize this new goal, we can come to realize that we all belong among this crowd of imposters.
Labiba Uddin ’25 lives in Canaday Hall. Her column “BeLonging” appears on alternate Tuesdays.