Ask an Expert: Imposter Syndrome in College

We talked to a psychologist who specializes in outreach for first-generation college students about imposter syndrome in school and how to combat it.

March 15, 2022 · 1 Min Read

Ask an Expert: Imposter Syndrome in College

If you're the first in your family to go to college and wondering if you belong there, Dr. Marti Trummer-Cabrera, a psychologist and Assistant Director for Outreach at the University of Houston Counseling and Psychological Services, assures you that you do:

"You belong in the highest levels of every industry," said Dr. Trummer-Cabrera.

What is imposter syndrome?

The persistent belief that you don't deserve your success, your accomplishments are a fluke, and the people around you are more qualified or competent than you.

In previous posts, we asked readers about their experiences with imposter syndrome, both at work and in college. And boy, did they have a lot to say –– especially the first-generation college students, who tend to feel like outsiders when they embark on higher education for the first time.

We wanted to hear directly from an expert battling this phenomenon on the ground, so we interviewed Dr. Trummer-Cabrera for more insight.

At the University of Houston, 47.5% of undergraduates are first-generation students. Dr. Trummer-Cabrera helps them cope with imposter syndrome every day.

Interview answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What do you consider the biggest contributing factors to imposter syndrome?

I think a lot has to do with cultural factors. Education culture in the United States uses competition to motivate people to “get to the top” by being better than others.

Ethnicity and socioeconomic status are also cultural factors at play when it comes to imposter syndrome. We know that it’s impactful for students to see people who look like them in high-status positions. Otherwise, they might feel like they don’t belong.

Something else that can really trigger imposter syndrome symptoms is receiving direct or indirect messages that you do not belong or are not worthy of success.

In what ways have you witnessed imposter syndrome affect students personally and academically?

One of the main impacts of imposter syndrome we worry about is that students tend to hide any failures for fear of being “caught” in a place where they “don’t belong.” This prevents them from accessing support.

What would you tell students to do, on their own, to overcome imposter syndrome?

Reflect on your goals often. Look for other goal-driven individuals, supporters, and mentors. Having people in your life who you can talk with about your goals can be incredibly empowering.

What small shifts in mindset are most effective for combating the feeling that you’re a fraud, you don’t belong, or your achievements are accidents?

I think a mindset shift has to start with acknowledging the cultural factors that have created those messages in our minds, in addition to making intentional efforts to create new messages.

What resources would you point students to if they need outside help?

Most colleges, universities, and high schools have counseling centers where students can go to discuss their experiences related to imposter syndrome. It may not mean starting therapy, but asking for a consultation might be helpful.

I’m biased because I’m a psychologist. But I know students also have mentorship programs, student groups, religious leaders, coaches, impactful teachers, and other trusted individuals who they can go to for similar support.

Is there anything else you think students should know?

First: Ask questions! Don’t be afraid to ask questions or find someone who will ask questions on your behalf.

Second: You belong! In the highest levels of all industries, you belong there!