Chelsey Taylor

The issue

Many college students experience the impostor phenomenon—a feeling that they got into this university or program through luck rather than ability and effort. Certain student populations are especially vulnerable: first-generation students, ethnic and racial minorities, women in male-dominated fields, and students from high-achieving families.

Why it matters

Feeling like an impostor undermines the development of resilience. It’s a barrier to integrating socially and academically with the campus community (a key to student success). “Impostor” students may see challenges as evidence that they don’t belong in college rather than as opportunities for growth.

How to help students integrate with the campus community

Group of happy students

Help grow students’ sense of belonging

Incorporate “social-belonging” messaging into communications. “The primary message is a message of growth—that over time, everyone comes to feel at home,” writes Dr. Greg Walton, associate professor of psychology at Stanford University.

How to get the message right

Connect students with similar faculty members

For example, create a way for first-generation faculty to share their stories and show that they’re available to meet with first-generation and low-income students. “The UVA web resource [below] is a great example of something that’s really easy,” says Katharine Meyer, a doctoral researcher in education policy at the University of Virginia. “The stories communicate that transitioning to college is difficult, stress and struggle are common, and that, eventually, students will connect and persevere.”

First-generation college graduates on faculty

Proactively bring students to office hours

Office hours can be intimidating. Bringing people there “communicates to students, and especially to first-generation students, that office hour attendance is welcome and something everyone does,” says Meyer.

Normalize and reframe impostor feelings

Acknowledge the impostor experience and demonstrate how to reframe these feelings and accept praise. Incorporate this strategy into RA training. “You have to practice reframing the thoughts in your head,” says Dr. Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It (Crown Business, 2011).

Teacher: “Your feelings are common. You deserve to be here. In fact, I recommend that you take a more advanced class.”

Student: “Whoa, but I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Teacher: “You’re ready. Think about how much you’ll learn and what a great opportunity this is to challenge yourself.”

Recognize the value of failure

Emphasize that asking for support and experiencing failure help move us toward success.

“It’s OK to raise your hand and ask the question or say, ‘I’m not following; please explain again.’”