“How did you get into Cornell?” Outwardly I laugh and shrug, but inside I die a little. After I received my acceptance letter in November, the pressure was on to avoid doing anything appearing mildly stupid. The thing is, that’s who I am. Unless I’m cracking the books, I am an eccentric conglomeration of Moe, Larry and Curly. And the incessant clamoring of “Big Cornell” or “Ivy Guy” when I spoke up in class or even passed a friend in the hallway seemed to preclude me from acting in that manner. When I inevitably did, the Question came up, and my heart dropped.
I began to question my intelligence. How did I get into Cornell? If someone understood a concept in class quicker than I did or performed better on a test, I beat myself up. The Cornell admissions committee didn’t understand me — maybe my exhaustive participation in clubs prevented them from considering if I could actually hack it in a competitive academic environment. Maybe my first ACT score, much lower than the 34 I achieved on my third attempt, was the true indicator of my academic abilities. Maybe my abysmal grades in freshman year were more indicative of my base intelligence than the straight A’s of junior and senior year, which I felt were eked out by hard work rather than undiluted smarts.
It was too personal a dilemma to talk about with my parents or friends. I also held a sneaking suspicion that if I did mention it to anybody, the blindfold would come off their eyes and they would realize that I was, in fact, a fraud. So I turned to my rock: Google. One night I turned on private browsing and typed, “I feel like I got into college by mistake” and then “everyone thinks I’m smart but I’m not.” I scrolled through the results and came across an explanation of a phenomenon known as imposter syndrome.
Apparently, almost 70 percent of all people believe themselves at some point to be fraudulent, or not worthy of their position. They feel, as the name suggests, as though they are a phony or a sham. Predictably, imposter syndrome is most common among high-achieving people, and more specifically, high-achieving college students. According to the highly reputable source of College Xpress, even persons of great repute who have attained demonstrable success, like acclaimed writer Mary Angelou and Emma Watson, fear they will be “found out” each time they publish a new book or act in a movie.
Learning this, it was easy to diagnose myself with imposter syndrome, but difficult to rid myself completely of the vestiges of self-doubt. I try to come across as learned and articulate, but each time I do, I feel as though my composure is a facade that will come crashing down when the people with whom I’m interacting get to truly know me.
Even with friends, I’m impelled to “not try” in situations that could be telling of my true intelligence. I went to an escape house over the summer with my friends and girlfriend. The whole experience, although enjoyable, was vitiated by a constant worry that I couldn’t figure out the puzzles quicker than my friends. So, I hung back and let my buddies take the lead. We ended up getting nowhere close to escaping the room, and I was left with a nagging idea that had I devoted my full mental faculties to the riddles, we might — might — have been able to escape.
I don’t like being in this position. Maybe I’m overthinking my dilemma, and maybe I’m one of but a few who think this way. But I don’t think so. It’s easy to label yourself as just book-smart, not street-smart, or pass off your achievements as due to luck. It’s hard to accept that you deserve your seat, whether it is at a prestigious college or a position of import in a company.
So let’s cut the crap, people. According to the statistics, a majority of people at Cornell walk around boasting blue-chip accolades and believing they don’t deserve them. You didn’t get to where you are now by luck. You don’t have to wave off your accomplishments; humility and insecurity are distinct. If you think you have to fake it, fake it, but know that faking it is synonymous with practice, and practice is not a habit of a fraud.
I’m not going to end by writing about my resounding victory over my imposter syndrome. I have made little progress in vanquishing it beyond my diagnosis. But I’m taking a leap towards beating it. I took eight of the hardest courses available in my senior year of high school, just to show that I could do it. I carried the same attitude into college, where I am currently a biology major, despite my true proclivity toward ILR. From all reports Cornelians view ILR as the “easy” major, and I didn’t want people nodding knowingly at my course of study when they inevitably discover my fraudulence. Still, I’m planning on transferring after my first semester.
Don’t look at discovery with fear, but with relish. You did it, whatever the accomplishment, so Mr. Accomplished, tear down that wall, and revel in genuineness.
Christian Baran is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. Honestly runs every other Friday this semester. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.