When sophomore Melissa Tomczak first came to UNC, she remembers being told every student at UNC had a straight-A average in high school and once they get to UNC, the average became a C.
“That’s a scary thing to hear, especially first getting into the school,” Tomczak said. “It’s like, is that the first thing you want to hear when you come in? Oh, you got straight A’s your whole life? Now you’re going to get C's, which is like, great, kind of throws you for a loop.”
These types of experiences at UNC create a common affliction in students, one that causes the sense of being an impostor. These students feel their accomplishments aren’t enough, and feelings of being a fraud and a fear of being exposed persist. Sometimes, they question if they even deserve to be at UNC.
There’s a name for this psychological pattern: impostor syndrome.
Valerie Young, an internationally-known impostor syndrome expert who has spoken at 90 colleges and many major corporations, describes it as the “belief that deep down we’re really not as intelligent or capable or talented as people think we are.”
Sophomore Spencer Tackett first identified her feelings of not feeling as smart as everyone else at UNC after speaking to a friend who attends an Ivy League university who discussed the phenomenon. After coming in as a double major in English and pre-public health and not getting into the Gillings School of Global Public Health, Tackett still compares herself to her friends majoring in STEM fields.
“Because a lot of the majors here are kind of cutthroat, especially when you look at the sciences, like the biology department and the chemistry department, people are fighting for spaces to be in classes, and then there’s this idea that, well, I got the seat in the class over someone who might have needed it more,” Tackett said. “I need to be better. And then if you’re not succeeding in a class that you tried really hard to get into, then it’s 'am I even worthy of being here?'”
Impostor syndrome can be even more pervasive among minorities, who are not often represented in the media or in certain industries as successful professionals, as a study from the University of Texas at Austin suggests. Young said some fields are more likely to foster impostor syndrome in students, such as creative industries, medicine or computer science. Her goal is first to normalize impostor syndrome so students and professionals know what to do when they experience impostor feelings.
“Whenever you belong to a group for whom there are stereotypes about competence or intellect, you’re going to be more susceptible to impostor feelings,” Young said. “But even if students say, 'Of course they feel like an impostor, I’m a student, right? I’m here to learn. I’m supposed to feel stupid.' So if they can normalize the feeling, then the goal is not about ending it forever. It’s more when you’re having normal impostor moments, you have the tools and the insight and the information to talk yourself down faster.”