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4 Key Ways to Overcome Imposter Syndrome for Students and Young Professionals

Key Questions: What happens when I experience imposter syndrome? How do I progress professionally without feeling like a fraud?

A young women appearing stressed, staring at a laptop with her hands over her head

Photo by Elisa Ventur via Unsplash

How Does Imposter Syndrome Affect Young People?

Imposter syndrome has now become a platitude in mainstream media, with the term mostly being associated with millennials and gen-z’ers. It is true that imposter syndrome affects young adults more than any other group: according to a recent survey from the firm Moneypenny – a UK-based firm who through its US location surveyed 2,000 people in the US – 18-24-year-olds suffer the most from imposter syndrome.

This should be no surprise – many in this age group are college goers, entrepreneurs, and those trying to navigate their careers. However, imposter syndrome should be treated as a serious cultural phenomenon that negatively impacts students and professionals of all ages. Imposter syndrome has been linked to burnout and is often a barrier for those looking to advance their careers. Learning how to overcome imposter syndrome is crucial in order to reach one’s personal and professional goals.

I have first-hand experience with imposter syndrome. At 21 years old, I stepped onto Georgetown University’s campus as the youngest student in my master’s degree program. Many of my classmates were engaged, had homes and families, and were thriving in their professional careers. I was a first-generation college student straight out of undergrad with a ton of loans. My small, lesser-known undergraduate alma mater has less students than Georgetown has teaching professors. To say that I’ve experienced imposer syndrome is an understatement.

On the first day of class at Georgetown, I soon found that I wasn’t the only one experiencing imposter syndrome. My professor picked up on this, and she shared with us a piece of wisdom that’s stayed with me since:

“I know that imposter syndrome is real, and that you may be questioning whether you belong. We’ve told you that you belong already. You were accepted into this program because we know you’ll be successful in this program, so take that off your shoulders so that you can get the most out of your experience.”

Those few lines carried me all through my first semester. I’ve overcome imposter syndrome time and time again, and this was just one instance. I’ve realized that for me, and others, imposter syndrome surfaces during periods of highly-stress and high-stakes in our academic and academic professional careers, and also while undergoing big life changes. De-centering yourself, highlighting your interests, conducting informational interviews, and designing best-case scenarios are all helpful strategies for overcoming imposter syndrome.

4 Key Ways to Overcome Imposter Syndrome:

1. De-center yourself

Shifting your focus from performance to service can be a big help in overcoming imposter syndrome. Stop fixating on how your work is perceived by others, and focus more on the people you serve. You didn't get this opportunity because you were "lucky." Someone other than yourself thought carefully about what you bring to the table, and you earned this opportunity in part because they believe that you can leave a positive impact on someone else. If you develop the habit of learning about your audience and prioritize service over success, your imposter syndrome will start to fade.

Here’s an example: When leading a big project or initiative that’s new and challenging, think less about the fact that others in your field might have more experience than you and focus on the quality of the experiences you’ve had so far. What is the impact that I’ve had on the people I’ve served over the weeks, months, and years of doing my work? How is my experience different from others in my field, and how does this diversity in experience help the audience that’s served in this new initiative? How am I uniquely positioned to solve the problems that they care about most? Focus on the need and the audience. Expect slow, sometimes discomforting progress, focus less on reaching on reaching every success metric, and realize that this one initiative will not make or break your professional identity.

Someone other than yourself thought carefully about what you bring to the table, and you earned this opportunity in part because they believe that you can leave a positive impact on someone else.

2. Highlight your interests and lived experiences, not your accolades

Here’s an example: You’re at a social mixer with in your major, and everyone’s talking about their big-time summer jobs and internships they’ve lined up. You feel out of place and not as accomplished. Instead of overcompensating by performing your personality, talk about the things that genuinely excite you and how those things are preparing you for future opportunities, even if it isn’t specifically tied to your professional career. Yes, your personality is important, but it should shine through naturally! Your best personality will show when you feel good about what you’re talking about. Be an active listener in those conversations and tie what you’ve heard from others into what excites you, instead of pressuring yourself to outshine others. See yourself as an expert through your lived experiences, not through accolades and fancy titles.

3. Conduct informational interviews early and often

Sometimes when entering an environment where you feel inadequate, the last thing you want to do is go out of your way to talk to leaders in that field. But doing so can often humanize the people we admire, while also giving us insight into their journey and the things that they did when they were in our position that has led to their current success. You’ll learn that confident and successful people aren’t confident and successful all the time.

People who are passionate about their work often like to talk about what they do (and how they got there). If you’re feeling underprepared for an opportunity, ask for 30 minutes with a professor or colleague in the field that’s doing the work. Say that you see them as a leader and would love to learn more about the work they’re doing right now. You'll be surprised at what you learn.

4. Paint a vivid picture of your best-case scenario

It’s easy for us to catastrophize the future when we don’t feel like we deserve the present. But what would happen if we acknowledged this negative tendency and made an effort to think about the best-case scenario? Maybe you meet the client that changes your business forever. Or maybe that awkward conversation with that professor isn’t so awkward after all, and they actually end up being your mentor for the rest of your career? We must be just as aware of the possible successes as we are of the potential challenges.


Jordan Davis is a keynote speaker and writer on student success . He earned his BA in Communication at McDaniel College and is completing a MA in Learning, Designing, & Technology at Georgetown University. Need a conference or event speaker? Book Jordan today!


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