The graduate school application process, no doubt, involves a lot of physical, mental, and emotional energy. It’s also fair to assume that a great number of the people already at the school as well as those applying is of a relatively high caliber. To compare yourself to others is only natural, but doing so excessively could be harmful. Maybe some of the questions running through your head are, “Am I good enough?” or “Will I be a good fit with this school?”
Why am I bringing this up? Well, I’m here to talk to you about an issue that has affected many (including myself): Impostor Syndrome. This can be quite common among individuals applying for graduate school programs. The good news is that you likely aren’t a fraud, and as someone who has faced the feelings that accompany impostor syndrome, I am here to provide some tips and let you know that it will be okay.
1. The first step is to recognize and acknowledge the feelings that you are experiencing. Don’t try to fight or ignore them, but begin by being mindful and accepting their presence.
I have a distinct memory of sitting in the VLSB library (my favorite library at Berkeley) on a weekday night, watching the minute hand move closer to midnight and compiling a list of the programs that interested me. I remember questioning whether I was enough to be accepted. I had been doing well in classes and possessed enough club and internship experiences but had trouble envisioning myself as a “grad student.” The next day, I chatted with my major advisor about these concerns and was told that these feelings were common among other students she had advised (many of whom were later accepted into graduate programs).
Just hearing that I was not alone made it easier for me to accept what I was experiencing and feeling. It may help to remind yourself that thinking these thoughts does not necessarily make them true.
2. Another item to keep in mind is your past successes. Whether it was getting that coveted internship or job after several rounds of interviews, managing to wake up every day without pressing the snooze button on your alarm, or getting a great score on an exam, you have succeeded in something professional and/or personal. Remember that despite maybe doubting yourself to an extent (as any one does), you persevered and succeeded in the end.
It might help to write your accomplishments down and properly visualize the progress you have made over the past year, months, and days. In my case, I wrote down anything and everything I could think of in a notepad early on, and I would periodically return to my bullet points during the application process. Almost every time, I felt a boost of energy and confidence as well as a more determined mindset, which helped me press forward. Again, try to see that you have overcome challenges and obstacles in the past and still come out on top.
3. Comparison can also be particularly troublesome when you’re pitting yourself against a “perfect” applicant. There is no such thing, and we hope that you don’t compare yourself to that standard, as you may begin to diminish your own value and accomplishments. What’s important is that you strive for authenticity and ensure that the various components of your application come together well, as your application will be considered holistically. And if there are parts of your application that you feel deserve an explanation, make sure to use the optional essay to your advantage.
4. Sometimes, just speaking with someone close to us can help us express our feelings while serving as an opportunity to hear new perspectives. Consider the option of turning to mentors, family, spouses, and friends—or really anyone in your support system—to share what you are going through. Talking about what you are facing might change your point of view regarding your situation while serving as a self-care strategy.
For me, I spoke to my mom, who shared her experiences of applying to a US graduate school in her 20s. As a student who had completed her undergraduate studies in Korea, she had been anxious about her English-speaking abilities and whether she would fit in with American culture. Even so, she took a shot and is now a professor in the US. Hearing her story had reminded me of the importance of acknowledging your worries but still taking action. Trust in your network, as some may be able to provide specific advice or strategies on addressing impostor syndrome or just advice in general.
We all want to succeed and be recognized for our accomplishments. It’s also normal to reflect and experience doubts from time to time, but no good can come from diminishing our value and hard work. Put your best foot forward and remember to be kind to yourself. You are more than capable.