How to IMSA: The Impostor Syndrome

The little fish, big pond theory is a widely accepted explanation for why gifted students tend to feel like impostors. Source: St. Paul's Episcopal Church.

When you round up Illinois’ best and brightest and throw them all into one school, you inevitably create a very competitive environment full of gifted students who are all accustomed to being the best at everything. Unfortunately, at IMSA, it’s very difficult to be the best at anything.

Upon arriving at IMSA, we meet pseudo-shmens, shmens, and even super-shmens — and we realize that there are people who are just naturally more competent than us. Some kids can afford to play Minecraft during class and still ace the course, while others pay rapt attention to all of the lectures and barely get a passing grade.

For some, the competitive IMSA environment can completely destroy self-esteem. As such, many students experience what’s called impostor syndrome: the belief that they don’t deserve to be here because they’re “too stupid” compared to the other kids.

How do you get through this difficult adjustment period?

In the short term, impostor syndrome can be managed by simply doing something fun. Code web pages. Do some creative writing. Just do something that makes you happy. The purpose of this is to remind yourself that you don’t have to be better than everyone else in order to enjoy the IMSA experience.

Now, how about some long-term cures?

The fallacy in the impostor syndrome is that you mentally classify certain people as “the smart kids” or “the geniuses.” Go talk to said “smart kids” or said “geniuses.” Get to know them. This allows you to match a face and a personality to them, hopefully helping you realize that these people aren’t very different from you after all.

Another option is to keep a journal of some sort. This really helped me through my first semester at IMSA. When I reread my old entries, “I’m not as good as my classmate at boolean algebra” was a really trivial thing to be so depressed about at the time. Writing helps you collect your thoughts so that you don’t feel like everything is coming at you all at once.

Finally, whatever you do, do not blame other people. I’ve seen many cases where students get bad grades and then claim, “The reason I’m not as good as [other student] is because their previous school was better than mine!” or, “The teacher just likes [other student] more than me!”

Of course, it’s okay to complain. But you shouldn’t accept these complaints as excuses, internalizing the belief that if I don’t do well in school, it’s someone else’s fault. This “blame game” mindset will aggravate your impostor syndrome, making you feel helpless to control your own life – which is the opposite of what IMSA is trying to teach its students.

Impostor syndrome is nasty. It makes you feel unworthy, unqualified, incompetent. But rest assured that you’ll get used to the IMSA environment soon enough. There is a major collaborative aspect at IMSA, as well as a competitive one.

In the meantime, branch out. Get to know people who are both above and below your competency level in academics, sports, and clubs. And remember: there will always be someone who’s better than you at something – and that’s okay.

About the Author

Grace Yue
Grace Yue is a senior from Des Plaines. She's the Opinions section editor for the second year running, a resident of 03A-wing for the third year running, and an honorary resident of 06 for the third year running. Outside of Acronym, she participates in a research project at Fermilab, serves as 03 Head Tutor, and writes for the Korea Daily Chicago's Student Reporters Club. If you live in 02 or 03 and ever want to use Grace's mobile hotspot (entitled "apply to Acronym!!"), simply strike up a conversation with her & listen to her ramble for the next hour about awesome the Acronym is. Then ask her for the password.

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