Brianna L.R. Harvie, Mount Royal University
Imposter Syndrome, also known as Imposter Phenomenon, Imposterism, Fraud Syndrome, and Imposter Experience, is the feeling that somehow one hasn’t earned their academic, personal, or professional accolades, rather that they have somehow fooled their colleagues and peers into seeing them in a certain light. Individuals who suffer from Imposter Syndrome are incapable of internalizing their own accomplishments and tend to find external reasons for them. Imposters will point out that they are aware that others view their accomplishments as such, but they maintain that these accolades have been falsely bestowed upon them (Parkman, 2016). It stands to reason that when a student is developing a sense of personal and academic identity, they may begin to suffer from Imposterism, and given that most of these changes happen during a students’ time at post-secondary institutions, it is critical that these feelings be addressed before they paralyze development. As a common point of contact, academic advisors are uniquely positioned to help identify Imposterism and help students see it in themselves so it can be managed effectively.
There has been significant research done into the relationships between elder millennial/Generation Y students and their education, but trends with the younger iterations of this generation and older Generation Z students are just beginning to emerge in the post-secondary world. The systems colleges and universities created to help previous generations of students are still being used and may be hindering students of both generations’ abilities to develop their own identity in post-secondary. As a result, students either tend to study too hard in order to try and prove themselves or are so paralyzed by fear of inadequacy that they are incapable of taking risks (McAllum, 2016). There are pedagogical prescriptions for how to teach and work with the current demographic of students that may be exacerbating these tendencies as well. Instructors and administrators are expected to give clear and structured assignment instructions; set specific, measurable goals and outcomes; distribute grades among many small assignments instead of fewer large ones in order to alleviate stress; and provide constant micro-level feedback (McAllum, 2016). These systems have nourished students’ need for continual external affirmation and reduced their resilience when faced with challenges or failures. What this means for the student is that helicopter parents have been replaced with helicopter faculty and administrators.
Learning to recognize and identify Imposter Syndrome in advising appointments is key to understanding how, when, and why some students fall prey to its influences. Individuals who are suffering from Imposter Syndrome lack the ability to internalize their accomplishments, instead crediting a lowering of standards or their charm and people skills (Brown & Ramsey, 2018). They tend to deflect compliments and praise and respond with humor, usually in the form of self-deprecation. These habits are a detriment to students’ abilities to achieve academic success. They can either stymie momentum and force students into procrastination or can make students so crippled by anxiety that they are no longer able to meet even the minimum standards for graduation.
There are myriad ways to work with students suffering from Imposterism, but the most important step is to acknowledge its existence. If advisors are able to address the issues being seen early enough in the students’ educational journey, they may be able to work with other campus resources to move beyond their feelings of Imposterism before it has too negative of an impact on their mental health and academic performance. One way to screen for Imposterism is to do activities around identifying strengths and weaknesses with students. If an individual is struggling to identify strengths but lists many weaknesses despite proof to the contrary (i.e., high grades, certificates, praise from instructors, etc.), they may be suffering from Imposter Syndrome. Advisors can provide lists of strengths and weaknesses that the student can work with, or students can free-write their own lists, but having them listed in different ways (single words vs. short sentences) may also help them with the identification process.
Journaling is another effective way of working with Imposter Syndrome. A simple three-step process can help students shape their journal entries and identify where Imposterism may be impacting their wellness. The three steps are: write, reflect, and examine. It’s most important that students understand that this process must be done for an extended period of time (at least a week) and from a place of honesty and self-awareness. They should not be required to share their results with anyone, though they may find it helpful if they are struggling to realign their goals or see their potential and value in certain situations. The writing step of the process is a simple task of identifying what activities the student participates in throughout the week. They can list things they do the most frequently or enjoy the most, and then rank each activity in terms of feelings of enjoyment or fulfillment. This portion of the journaling work is most effective if it is completed daily while memories of activities and the feelings around them are fresh. After a week or two of writing down these daily activities, students can move into the reflection step. This is the most difficult part of the process for many is it involves clarifying core values; core values are what shape our worldview and how we perceive those around us. If a student is having trouble identifying or naming their core values, it can help to have them think about other individuals they admire and list the traits that they possess that are admirable. Another way to help identify values is to think about what changes they would make to their community. What would they change and why? What does that change say about them? Some probing questions to help students think about the reasoning behind their thoughts and feelings can help clarify and name their values if they are struggling to do so. The final step in the journaling activity is to examine the activities and the reflection. Have the students look at what most of their time is spent doing. Are they activities the student is successful in or enjoys, or not? If not, why? What could be done differently? Often by having conversations about what went well during a significant period of time (even a week or two), students will be able to see their contributions and skills, which can help identify the source of feeling inadequate.
The most important part of working with students with Imposter Syndrome is normalizing their feelings. Helping them understand that while this is common in post-secondary students, they have their strengths and skills and that focusing on them is important, especially if they’re feeling burdened with self-doubt. Finding the balance between giving constant feedback and helping students see their value is challenging but important work that needs to be done in academic advising. Giving students a brave space to identify and work through feelings of Imposterism can be crucial in determining their success in their post-secondary education. By developing a list of core values, strengths, and weaknesses, students can learn to identify the source of their feelings of inadequacy and internalize and take credit for their accomplishments. Through this self-awareness, advisors can help students navigate a crucial period in their personal and academic development, which in turn, can impact the rest of their lives.
Brianna Harvie, BA
Manager, Academic Advising
Student Affairs Division
Mount Royal University
Bernard, N. S., Dollinger, S. J., Ramaniah, NV. (2002). Applying the big five personality factors to the imposter phenomenon. Journal of Personality Assessment, 78(2), 321–333. https://doi.org/ 10.1207/S15327752JPA7802_07
Brown, D., & Ramsey, E. (2018.) Feeling like a fraud: Helping students renegotiate their academic identities. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 25: 86-90
Cook-Sather, A. (2016). Creating brave spaces within and through student-faculty pedagogical partnerships. Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education, 18(2016), 1–5.
Cooley, E. L., King, J. E. (1995). Achievement orientation and the impostor phenomenon among college students. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 20(3), 304–312. https://doi.org/10.1006/ceps.1995.1019
Krukowski, R. A., & Ross, S. R. (2003). The imposter phenomenon and maladaptive personality: Type and trait characteristics. Personality and Individual Differences, 34(3), 477–484. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0191-8869(02)00067-3
McAllum, K. (2016). Managing imposter syndrome among the “trophy kids”: Creating teaching practices that develop independence in millennial students. Communication Education, 65(3), 363–365. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634523.2016.1177848
Parkman, A. (2016). The imposter phenomenon in higher education: Incidence and impact. The Journal of Higher Education Research and Practice, 16(1), 51–59. https://doi.org/10.1177/0892020620959745
Cite this article using APA style as: Harvie, B.L.R. (2022, June). Who do you think you are?: Dealing with imposter syndrome in academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 45(2). [insert url here]