University can be a very intimidating place for students, sometimes causing us to question our academic ability and wonder if we’re really university material. This is particularly the case at universities which are extremely competitive. Within these environments, some students struggle with feelings that they may not be good enough even after they have been accepted on an academic program and are progressing. Some common experiences include feeling that your intelligence does not measure up to others. Feelings of inadequacy may arise when faced with complex lectures and long lists of readings even though your past history suggests that you are indeed capable of rising to the occasion. It is important to remember that this is par for the course and that you are not alone. If you can identify with these feelings then you may be suffering from ‘Imposter Syndrome.’ It is more common than you might think and people from all walks of life, including students, very successful academics, wealthy business people as well as movie stars, experience it.
Many universities, including Oxford, recognize that this causes a great deal of stress for students and affects their progress. Recognizing the symptoms and developing strategies for how to deal with them are extremely important. Hugh Kearns (Flinders University, Australia) has given workshops at universities around the world, including Oxford, to help students develop strategies to combat imposter syndrome. He has also developed additional resources to help students with research and writing. Kearns’ expertise is in self-management, positive psychology, work-life balance, learning and creativity. His book, The Imposter Syndrome: Why successful people often feel like frauds, describes the imposter cycle, and explains that imposter feelings develop out of our early life experiences. He also talks about how these feeling can manifest themselves as self-sabotaging behaviors. Lastly, he provides what he calls “imposter busting strategies” to help us with our thinking, our language and our actions as a way of working past those imposter feelings.
The imposter syndrome may be even more pronounced for students with dyslexia or other learning difficulties, as many university programs are reading and writing intensive. It is important to note that these difficulties in no way diminish the intelligence of students and, with the appropriate accommodations, they can perform just as well as students who do not have learning difficulties. In addition to the research, writing and organizational resources developed by Kearns, students with learning difficulties should also take advantage of assistive technologies and other available resources that support their learning needs. To learn more about those resources, contact your university disability office.