What is imposter syndrome and how do you overcome it?

Last updated: 5 Oct 2023, 18:46

How to challenge imposter syndrome when you’re studying at university, applying for graduate jobs and beyond.

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Have you ever had a sneaking feeling that you don’t really deserve your place at university, or your acceptance for a graduate job, or even your invitation to a particular social event? You could be suffering from imposter syndrome. You may think, for example, that others are so much more worthy of a place on your course or the job on offer, or that you’ve only been invited to a party out of a sense of obligation. You may have an additional anxiety that at some point you’re going to be ‘found out’ (eg someone will discover that you’re a fake) and suffer negative consequences.

Why is recognising imposter syndrome important during your search for a graduate job?

Imposter syndrome can strike you during the search and application process for a graduate job . You could fall into the trap of thinking you’re simply not a worthy enough candidate for a role, and hence not apply, or only apply for those roles where you can see you meet every single requirement listed. This feeling of inadequacy could also lead to you not presenting yourself as well as you could on your CV and in applications <link> Hence you could be cutting off some great opportunities.

Further down the line, once you’ve applied for a graduate job, anxiety about not feeling that you deserve your place at an assessment centre or an interview, that you’re faking it, could hurt your chances of success. During an interview, if you downplay your achievements and successes you could end up talking yourself out of a job.

How common is imposter syndrome?

Research reveals that around 82% of people have experienced imposter syndrome at one time or another, in all sorts of contexts, at any time in life. Parents at the school gate have reported feeling that they’re just ‘playing’ at being parents, seeing other mums and dads as legitimate or ‘real’ parents. The actor Robert Pattinson stated in an interview with The Guardian after the huge success of the Twilight films, when he was being offered subsequent roles on the back of that success: ‘In a lot of ways, I’m quite proud that I’m still getting jobs. Because of falling into a job, you always feel like you’re a fraud, that you’re going to be thrown out at any second.' Here he was touching on one of the causes of imposter syndrome: a mistaken belief that your success is just due to luck or chance, not your own effort or ability.

Some studies conclude that women suffer from it slightly more than men – a KPMG study , for example, revealed that 75% of female executives have experienced imposter syndrome in their careers.

The important thing to bear in mind is that there is usually no evidence that feeling like an imposter is based on fact; it is anxiety that causes these negative thoughts, a conviction that we aren’t actually as capable, smart or deserving of praise as others think we are.

Imposter syndrome can vary in its seriousness; it can be a mindset you can overcome through recognising the causes and signs. In some people however, it can develop into a more serious mental health issue.

Signs of imposter syndrome

How do you know if you’re suffering from imposter syndrome during your job search or even in your first job? It can manifest in several ways. Here are some of the most common (how many do you answer ‘yes’ to?):

  • Self-doubt. Do you approach job hunting with an assumption that you won’t be successful because you’re simply not as qualified or talented as the other candidates?
  • Attributing success to outside factors. Do you believe you’ve only achieved your grades due to good luck or the ease of the course, rather than through your own hard work and ability?
  • Shying away from challenges and promotion. At work – either during an internship, part-time role or your first graduate job – do you find yourself not offering to take on new or interesting work because you don’t feel you deserve to do it and would therefore do it badly?
  • …and on the flip side, taking on too many responsibilities. Do you always find yourself taking on extra work, in order to prove how capable you are, but end up feeling burnt out in the process?
  • Inability to accept praise. Do you find yourself not believing praise is genuine, perhaps because you feel you’ve pulled the wool over people’s eyes?
  • Not asking for help. Do you see asking for help as a no-no because it will be admitting your weakness? In fact, asking for help is a way of keeping control.

Causes of imposter syndrome

Sometimes it’s not obvious why you’re suffering from imposter syndrome, but many studies have looked into the possible causes of it, and you may find it helpful to think about why you’re feeling this way. Likely contributing factors could be:

  • family background, eg parents who were/are very focused on achievements and success
  • social anxiety – it is not uncommon at all to suffer from this at university as you’re often in a setting where you have to create a new social circle for yourself
  • circumstances such a starting at a new school or job – doing this in the past could have triggered self-doubt, which rears its head again when you are about to start something else new
  • personality – some people, for example perfectionists, are just more prone to imposter syndrome as they don’t feel anything is good enough unless it’s 100% perfect. There are four other recognised personality types prone to imposter syndrome : the natural genius, the soloist, the expert and the superhero.

Coping with imposter syndrome: how to overcome it

There are several strategies for overcoming imposter syndrome. Give these a try the next time- that ‘I’m a fraud!’ feeling strikes:

Acknowledge it

As Imposter Syndrome is a lot more common than you may think, there’s every chance that someone you know (friends, colleagues, fellow students) is experiencing it or has experienced it as well. It could help to talk about it with a sympathetic friend. Remember, a true imposter wouldn’t have this anxiety!

Challenge your doubts

When you feel the imposter syndrome mindset taking over, be ready to challenge it. Apply for a graduate role you’re interested in, even though you think you don’t fulfil every single requirement. That’s not cockiness – it’s confidence and a belief in yourself, qualities employers are looking for.

Accept praise

Accept praise. If a lecturer/professor at university, or a graduate employer, has found something to praise in your work or application, remember that they are accustomed to seeing the work of many, many students and applicants. Why would they waste their time issuing fake praise?

Ask questions

There’s nothing wrong with asking for help, whether during the graduate application process or once you start a job. It’s proactive and recruiters actively encourage it (most graduate employers provide instruction on how to seek help should you need it during the recruitment process).

Learn a bit more about imposter syndrome

This could help you feel more in control. You could, for example, watch the presentation given by Hashtag me at targetjobs’ recent All about You event .

Seek help if needed

It may be enough to talk to a friend or someone else you trust, or adopt the strategies above, but if it isn’t, don’t be afraid to reach out for some professional help if you think Imposter Syndrome is becoming overwhelming.

targetjobs editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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