Uni Matters: Imposter syndrome & misconceptions

This is my fifth year of university studies and despite having obtained one degree, there are still times when I doubt that I actually belong here. It’s a really common feeling and it’s not always logical. If you’re feeling on edge or like other people might start thinking that you don’t belong at university but you can’t find the exact reason why, then you might want to google ‘imposter syndrome’. Yup, this blog post is going to be very different from what my readers are used to seeing.

The thing is, many of us are fed the message that the only thing good enough is perfection. I’ve met students who assume they’ll be a complete failure if they don’t get a GPA of 6.5 in their first semester and that anything below a 6.0 means that you should just give up straight away. As someone who graduated with the good but unimpressive GPA of 5.7 and wasn’t thrown in the bin by my uni, I find that thought quite disturbing. In fact, it would probably be a useful idea for universities to release the average GPA of each degree upon graduation. Or perhaps the average mark on assessments. Something that gives students an idea of what an average performance actually is. There are plenty of amazing students out there who don’t actually realise that they are performing well above average because they assume that the standard is a 6.5.

Firstly, only a tiny minority of students get things right the first time. We all make mistakes and it’s a part of the learning process to do so. In my humble opinion there is too much emphasis put on the GPA students get in their first year, especially by the students themselves. The fear of failure can be truly crippling and can actually stand in the way of good marks. It is my firm opinion that the focus in first year should be on improving, skills development, and learning as opposed to a perfect GPA. Out of all the grades you’ll ever get at uni, the ones from your first year are going to be the ones that are the least representative of your abilities.

Secondly, life happens. Obtaining a degree takes a while and chances are you’ll run into some issues along the way. It is very rare that people go through university without encountering some form of personal issue that impacts their performance.  There are support mechanisms put in place for students who encounter serious personal issues along the way, but that doesn’t always mean that there won’t be consequences. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my half a decade of university studies is that you can’t always perform at your maximum. A few semesters ago, I ended up having to spend six weeks in bed after a terrible encounter with glandular fever. If I’d pushed myself to perform at my maximum, I would have seriously risked endangering my physical and mental health. When things like that happen, it is crucial to recognise them and make a realistic evaluation of your temporarily inhibited abilities. Cut yourself some slack, it will result in a better outcome in the long run.

Thirdly, your GPA isn’t that important. Honestly. Outside of university, employers tend to me more interested in the fact that you have a degree than how you were .2 below a GPA of 6. Academic skills are important, but they are not the only skills that matter. Unless you plan on making academia your career, it’s really not that important. You won’t be expected to write essays or sit exams in the workforce, you’ll be expected to put your knowledge to practical use. Having a well-rounded resume with some nice, relevant work experience and extracurriculars is probably going to make you a more appealing candidate than someone who got a better GPA but never bothered to develop those other skills.


But how do we cope with things like imposter syndrome and self-doubt?
Well, a good first step is to at least consider the possibility that it might be all in your head. I recently fell into the trap of assuming that the rest of the world (or at least the person who marked my essay) had to see things from my perspective. Long story short, after hours of gruelling work, internet issues, strong coffee, and submitting it too close to the deadline for comfort…. I was simply convinced the essay was utter crap and one of the worst things I’d ever written. When I then got a mark of 85% I immediately assumed that it was a mistake. I must have checked the mark and the feedback four times, yet I refused to believe it was right. Perhaps I’d been mixed up with another student? Perhaps they decided to be really lenient with this assignment for some reason?
Every possible explanation was considered and presented to my flatmate.
“Or it could just be a good essay.” She said, rolling her eyes at me. “We had the same discussion the last time you got a 7. Maybe you’re actually decent at essays?”

It took someone else presenting me with the idea that I actually deserved that mark before I even considered the possibility. Despite the fact that the marker did call me out on at least some of the mistakes I knew I’d made, I’d somehow gotten the idea that they’d just missed the flaws. I gave myself no credit for the positive feedback I got and instead went about filling in the blanks with imagined negative feedback that I thought should be there.

Just consider the possibility that you might actually deserve a good mark when you get one. Unless a marker has a personal grudge against you (which is incredibly rare and cause to have it re-evaluated), markers aim to be fair. Listen to the positive and negative feedback, they’re equally important for improving your work.


Something else you might want to consider is talking to others. Self-doubt has a tendency to linger in the darkest corners of our minds where it nitpicks on anything we do. The thing is, the vast majority of people occasionally doubt themselves. It’s a healthy thing to do as long as it doesn’t go too far. Sometimes, it really helps to hear that you’re not the only one struggling. Not to mention that it happens to people at all levels. If you want to see some truly spectacular self-doubt and anxiety, you want to seek out a group of PhD students. Or read Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD), a truly awesome webcomic about the struggles of grad students. Want to find out how grad school is just like kindergarten?

Even if that person doesn’t have the same feeling, they might still be able to offer some support, just like my flatmate did by calling me out on how I was thinking. Sometimes, it’s actually nice to just vent to someone. Just remember to return that favour and listen to them when they need you to be there for them.


Focus on skills development. So you failed an exam. That doesn’t mean that you yourself are a failure or that failure is the only thing you can expect. It just means that you need to work on strengthening your study skills and lean how to do better on exams. Go see your lecturer or tutor if they can think of somewhere to start that process. The two most common reasons for failure when it comes to university assessment seems to be: not answering the question & being underprepared.
Misunderstanding a question or failing to follow instructions are instant pathways to lower marks. It’s also quite an easy mistake to make, especially when you’re stressed. So, find out WHY you’re not performing as well as you want to and work on fixing that.


In summary, don’t let yourself be crippled by self-doubt. Like all things, it’s best in moderation.


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