At any talk or networking event, there is always an inspirational speaker with admirable confidence stood in front of me. I intuitively ask if they’ve ever experienced feelings of unworthiness and they all say yes. Impostor Syndrome, characterised by low self-esteem, self-doubt, and feelings of inadequacy, plagues too many people in the modern working world. Worse still, these destructive thought-processes are becoming increasingly familiar to students, especially when it comes to uni applications.
The phenomenon is described by the OED as, ‘the inability to believe that one’s success is deserved’; a definition sure to resonate with numerous students.
Ever felt like you can’t shrug off the feeling you’ve walked into uni merely disguised as an academically gifted student, waiting for someone to notice, rip off your disguise, and boot you out? Yeah, me too.
Feeling fraudulent about your academic success is all too common among students
Feeling fraudulent about your academic success is all too common among students. Cambridge’s student paper, Varsity, reported that 89% of students surveyed had experienced symptoms of Impostor Syndrome. But is it any surprise that this feeling is so ubiquitous?
Uni students are under constant pressure to achieve the highest grade possible to land their dream job, undermined by boomers who continuously remind us that a good grade just isn’t enough, that you need a whole host of extra-curricular involvements to add to the CV if you want to stand out to employers. Society really is cracking the whip on students.
As more people attend university and more students leave with first-class degrees, the prevalence of perfectionism has risen dramatically
Generally, Impostor Syndrome appears to be more prevalent in our demographic too. The rise of social media means we surround ourselves with an unrealistic vision of how life should be, whether it’s our body image or career success.
With this constant comparison, it’s no wonder we live in fear of failure. The pressures of perfectionism reach further than our Instagram feeds too. As more people attend university and more students leave with first-class degrees, the prevalence of perfectionism has risen dramatically in recent years.
Even before reaching university, students are feeling the pressure when it comes to predicted grades. The crux of the issue can be pinned down to our university admissions system.
Most countries don’t rely on predicted grades in the same way as the UK. In fact, when you really think about it, it’s pretty ludicrous that a university’s main foundation for accepting students is prophesised by your teacher and an algorithm.
As a state school student from a low-income background, I felt like everyone’s expectations were lower
The problem predictions pose has become especially pertinent in light of Coronavirus. Gauging students’ grades essentially comes down to how much your teacher favours you, and whether you’re male or female.
Research by Gill Wyness for UCU shows that predicted grades are vastly more inaccurate than they are accurate. But fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately…), this tends to work in applicants’ favour.
The study shows that 75% of applicants were actually overpredicted, while only 16% of applicants achieved their predicted A-level grades, leaving only 9% as underpredicted.
However, not only is the system widely inaccurate, but it discriminates. The brunt of underpredictions fall upon disadvantaged yet high-achieving students, that is, students from less privileged backgrounds.
A later report by Wyness for The Sutton Trust, showed that one in four students from underprivileged or minority backgrounds who bagged high grades at A-level (AAB or higher) had been predicted lower grades by their schools. I was one of those.
Nottingham was always my first choice. Although my predicted grades were lower than the entry requirements for my course, I still applied because I was certain I would pull it out of the bag in the run up to our final exams.
But Nottingham weren’t to know that, and I was rejected. Despite actually achieving the results needed for my course, I decided against clearing, and I firmed my choice 50 miles north in Sheffield.
I transferred to Nottingham a year later. I knew where I wanted to be and believed my grades showed I was worthy enough to be there. But I was frustrated that my teachers and the university had underestimated me.
As a state school student from a low-income background, I felt like everyone’s expectations were lower. This hugely influenced my own experiences of Impostor Syndrome when I arrived.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that students from BAME backgrounds are also more likely to suffer with this problem. Black students, particularly at elitist Russell Group universities, are far more likely to suffer a lack of self-confidence in their academic abilities.
Impostor Syndrome is not only isolated to underestimated students, it’s just as common in those who fall a few marks short of that A
Successful Black students are accepted by an institution built upon the foundations of white-supremacy, where the importance of Black history is swept under the rug, excluded from the curriculum. And the BAME attainment gap is still shockingly high.
Universities UK reported that in 2017, 71% of Asian students and just 57% of Black students received a 2:1 or above, compared to 81% of white students. Thanks to institutional racism, it’s no wonder Impostor Syndrome is rife in the Black community.
Underpredictions clearly affect students’ self-confidence before they even reach university, submit an assessment, or sit an exam.
The university admissions process means thousands of students head to university thinking they just aren’t good enough for the path they’re setting out on, since that’s what their predicted grade tells them! Despite over-achieving and proving that prediction wrong, they’re bound to feel like a fake.
But Impostor Syndrome is not only isolated to underestimated students, it’s just as common in those who fall a few marks short of that A. Universities want you as a student, and (to an extent), they’re forgiving, so if you narrowly miss the mark they’re likely to accept you anyway.
This happens to countless students, but for some, it leads them to doubt their ability. The same goes for those who go through clearing. They end up questioning whether they’re academically capable to be on a course they didn’t meet the expectations for, all because an entry requirement said so.
A-levels are very rarely a true indicator of academic ability, and there’s a lot they can’t demonstrate. Your A-levels don’t define you. Nor do they indicate how worthy you are of attending university.
Our admissions system is a recipe for disaster. Combine that with the general pressures of the 21st century and the stress of being a student, and you have the formula for Impostor Syndrome.
However, it’s important that we hold back from constantly comparing ourselves to some arbitrary standard and remind ourselves that these thoughts are not welcome at university – but our authentic selves are.
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