Imposter Syndrome for College Students

Open windows looking out to bushes and water.
Image by Kerstin Riemer from Pixabay

Through my teaching at Loyola University Chicago and the alumni network at Colby College, I remain in touch with recent and current college students—itself an extraordinary gift. At the end of most of these conversations, whether over coffee or via Zoom, I walk away thinking (with relief) that the future is in good hands. These young adults are filled with idealism, humanity, and enthusiasm.

A recent conversation about how to position oneself for post-college in the wake of COVID-19 made me reflect on my own transitions from college to “real life” to graduate school and back again. A current Colby student and I had been conducting a mock interview, and I was committed to my role. I leveraged some of the best questions in my interview toolbox, and closed with my standard finale: “What question didn’t I ask that you wish I would have—and what would your answer be?”

He reflected a quick moment before providing a great question to showcase his skills and interests. He then gave another pithy, polished, and persuasive answer. The interview was over, and I felt like I would have hired him on the spot.

We then broke character and started talking about his responses and the way he presented himself in this video interview. I gave him constructive and direct feedback, highlighting answers and ways of answering an interviewer’s question that I thought would serve him well in a “real” job interview. He took notes, absorbed my feedback, and nodded appreciatively. Then he paused a moment and shared, “You know, I’m glad it comes across that way. To be honest, the way you say you see me is not the way I feel inside at all.”

I’ve got to say, I knew exactly what he meant. Suddenly, I was back in my first few years after college, knowing full well how much I didn’t know about the world, and wondering how on earth anyone ever managed to find their way. What he was describing is called imposter syndrome, and I’d had a big run of it myself. 

Imposter Syndrome is Not Just for College Students

My post-college wanderings occurred just a few years after Donald Rumsfeld introduced the non-security and intelligence world to Johari windows with his quote about “known knowns”: 

. . . As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. 

Fresh out of undergrad, I felt that the space occupied by the unknown unknowns was immense, and I was not up to filling in those blanks—or figuring out what those blanks even were! I landed my first full-time position in a family law firm, which exposed me to a whole other world I knew nothing about. I felt like a fraud, and certain that soon all of my efforts to hide how much I didn’t know would soon come to light.

In response to that blank space, I said yes to everything: to moonlight roles as an assistant for a bankruptcy attorney, as a substitute teacher at a language-immersion school, as a tutor of English as a second language and Economics. I also continued to take classes: pottery, black and white photography, Italian language, literature. I didn’t reflect on these feelings of uncertainty. Instead, I stayed busy so I wouldn’t ever have to.

Looking back, I think if I had made a Johari window for myself right after college, it might have looked a lot like this:

How I Felt After CollegeKnown to selfNot known to self
Known to othersAlmost nothing.Everything.
Not known to othersNothing.Almost nothing.

What took me many years to realize—and what I happily said to this Colby  student—was that I had it all wrong. Just because I knew how much I didn’t know, didn’t mean I knew nothing at all. In fact, a fairer and kinder Johari window, then and now, might look something like this:

Known to selfNot known to self
Known to othersA lot!A good amount.
Not known to othersA surprising amount.A wonderfully surprising amount.

We left our conversation happier, lighter, and reminded of the wide, wondrous world still waiting to be discovered, even as we gave ourselves a bit of grace to acknowledge how much we know—and could still learn. 

Need someone to remind you how much you know about writing, nonprofit management, and marketing—or to steer you toward some resources to help you learn what you don’t? 

Feel free to contact me. I’d be happy to help you open a window to the wider world.