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Kristin Richey, Courtney Lewellen, & Lauren Henninger, Indiana University School of Medicine

Courtney Lewellen.jpgKristin Richey.jpgImagine all students felt like they belonged and had confidence in their abilities. What would that look like? In order to work toward that ideal, two of the lead advisors and the learning strategist at the Indiana University School of Medicine (IUSM) have developed, implemented, and improved a coaching method to work with students facing Imposter Phenomenon (IP). Clance (1985) describes IP as “internal experiences of intellectual phoniness” (p. 71) in individuals who are highly successful but unable to internalize their success (Bernard et al., 2002; Clance & Imes, 1978). Pauline Clance (1985), a psychologist who explained IP based on her clinical experiences, noted that IP can affect the psychological wellness of an individual.

Lauren Henninger.jpgWhether in high school or college, high-ability students often feel like the largest fighter in their weight class. However, when they enter competitive programs such as an honors college, graduate program, or professional school, they suddenly feel like an average fighter. This transition can create an identity crisis as students lose part of who they thought they were. Students might fear that someone will discover their secret—that they might actually be a failure and have experienced success solely based on luck. If a student experiences failure, questions their career path, or battles pressure from family and peers, those fears can increase. Even medical students, who are often perceived as “having it all together,” sometimes reflect that they were admitted to medical school because of luck and not based on their abilities. They often compare themselves to classmates and find it hard to attribute success to their hard work and capabilities. The comparison with others can also prevent students from appreciating their unique qualities.

Clance (1985) believes that IP is evident through six characteristics (illustrated in Figure 1): superwoman/superman aspects, the Imposter Cycle, the need to be special or the very best, fear of failure, denial of competence or discounting of praise, and fear and guilt about success.   

Figure 1
The Imposter Cycle


How can advisors assist students who express any of the six characteristics related to IP? It can be easy to discount the concerns of high ability students. They are smart. They usually figure things out on their own. They have been accepted into competitive programs, whether that be an honors college, graduate program, or professional school. An advisor might be tempted to point to evidence that a student should not feel like an imposter. Because those feelings run deep and can linger for years or even decades, it is important to help students develop coping strategies. Advisors can use coaching to help students tap into their own stories to find ways to recognize and manage their feelings of imposterism.

According to the Office of Completion and Success at Indiana University,

In academia, Coaching Conversations create opportunities for dynamic, meaningful engagements with students that move beyond transactions related to requirements, policies, and procedures to reinforce empowerment, ownership, and accountability. As you learn how to interact with your students in a coaching way, you will find that you are having the kinds of conversations that you always thought you would have when mentoring or inspiring students. (The Office of Completion and Success, n.d.)

Coaching conversations use powerful questions to discover the student's Current State, Desired State, and Future Plan. Coaching conversations according to the Office of Completion and Student Success typically follow the Arc (see figure 2), where the coach asks powerful questions about the Current State. How does the student perceive the Current State? Once that state is well-defined, the coach moves to the Desired State. What does the students want life to look like? Finally, the coach asks powerful questions to help the student to consider the Future Plan, the steps that will help them reach the Desired State. These types of conversations are particularly helpful when students are managing an internal dialogue such as IP. The conversation can center on the student's perceptions, actions the student has taken in the past, and concrete steps the student can take to move forward. Talking about past experiences can help students tap into their resilience and see their own attributes. Additionally, the use of affirmations, reflective listening, and summarizing by the advisor help the students to hear themselves in their own words.

Figure 2
Coaching Conversations Arc


Processing the Current State helps the student analyze what is happening and distinguish fact from their internal dialogue. In the case of IP, the student can start to see that the characteristics of IP are messages they are giving themselves. Students can consider that these messages do not reflect reality and that the messages are hurting them in the long run. Advisors can recognize Imposter Phenomenon when students say:

  • “Yes—I was admitted to that competitive program, but applications were low that year.” (In other words, the student was admitted due to luck.)
  • In response to receiving positive feedback, “they were just being nice.”
  • “If I fail this exam, I’m worried I won’t get admitted into _______.” (Fill in the blank with a competitive program.)
  • “I stayed up all night, but I managed to complete that project.”

Exploring the Desired State with a student helps them process what they would like the world to look like. How do they want to feel? What does it look like to be confident or accomplished?

In considering the Future Plan, the student lays out steps that will pave the way to the Desired State. Articulating steps puts control in the student's hands. When students come up with their own action plan, they are more likely to follow it. They typically list steps that they feel they can manage.

When a student is facing a transition such as matriculating into college or beginning a graduate or professional school, identifying the transition as one of the six characteristics, and using the coaching arc (figure 2) can help them to reflect on transitions they have dealt with in the past to see the skills they used to ease the transition and become part of the community. Students might reflect that they got involved in co-curricular activities, used services offered by the school, or connected with teachers. They can then apply those skills to the new situation.

Examples of powerful questions that we use in our first meetings with our students include:

  • What are you enjoying about medical school?
  • Tell me about your last exam.
  • What challenges you as a student?
  • Tell me about a time when you faced a similar transition.
  • How will you know if this strategy is successful?
  • What would be at risk if you tried X? What might be the benefit of trying X?
  • On a scale of one to ten, how confident are you that you will be successful? How could you raise that by one?
  • What does success look like to you?
  • What are challenges or roadblocks that might come up?
  • How can you celebrate the successes you have?

When advisors help students process their responses to questions and validate their success, students can build a foundation to see their resilience and factors that facilitate their success.

Advisors and administrators can additionally adapt practices and programming to help students better transition and address IP early on. At IUSM, matriculating students are added to a Canvas site in June. The site includes class-specific information and tasks to help students prepare for the start of classes in the fall. To begin our coaching conversations with the students, we ask them to complete a journal entry asking, “Why do you belong at IUSM?” While the question assumes that students belong at the school, some students question whether they in fact belong. If students indicate that they were admitted due to luck, that response helps advisors identify which students might feel IP.

Examples of student journal entries:

  • “I don’t necessarily believe that I belong at the IU School of Medicine. Nothing from my past experiences has, no matter how superficially prestigious or well perceived, made this path an inevitability for me.”
  • “I am really concerned about my success in med school, as I feel it was really lucky that I was accepted on my second attempt.”

The lead advisors and learning strategist at IUSM have also adapted Clance’s IP scale and are using it with students each year to measure student levels of imposterism. The scale helps students reflect on the factors that lead students to feel like imposters.

In addition, students who are on the Indianapolis campus are assigned a peer mentor. The training for mentors includes segments on IP and motivational interviewing. Some students may not admit feelings of IP to their advisor and may feel more comfortable indicating their concerns to another student. If peer mentors can identify characteristics of IP, they can use powerful questions to help students see their resilience. The peer mentors have the practice and ability to assist students in seeing their resilience. Additionally, as physicians in training, students are learning skills they will use with patients.

By providing academic and peer support, and through the use of powerful questions, advisors can relieve the burden of Imposter Syndrome and help students internalize their success.

Kristin Richey
Learning Strategist
Indiana University School of Medicine

Courtney Lewellen
Lead Advisor
Indiana University School of Medicine

Lauren Henninger
Lead Advisor
Indiana University School of Medicine


Bernard, N. S., Dollinger, S. J., & Ramaniah, N. V. (2002). Applying the big five personality factors to the impostor phenomenon. Journal of Personality Assessment, 78(2), 321–333. doi:10.1207/S15327752JPA7802_07

Clance, P. R. (1985). The impostor phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success. Peachtree.

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006

Office of Completion and Success. (n.d.). Coaching conversations at Indiana University. https://ocss.iu.edu/coaching/index.html

Cite this article using APA style as: Richey, K., Lewellen, C., & Henninger, L. (2021, March). Going toe-to-toe with imposter phenomenon. Academic Advising Today, 44(1). [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2021 March 44:1


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