Overcoming Imposter Syndrome to Prepare Winning Applications

Nov 03, 2022

On overhead view of Dr Vicki Johnson writing in a notebook with a latte at a coffee shop

By ProFellow Founder, Dr. Vicki Johnson

Do you ever look at your peers and others who are achieving success and feel you are not accomplished enough? Despite having a strong academic or professional record, do you still feel intimidated by the process of applying to competitive fellowships, graduate schools, and jobs? Do you constantly feel you should be doing more to advance your career, enhance your resume, and achieve higher levels of success?

You are not alone. What you are experiencing is imposter syndrome, and it is very common among high achievers. While we might equate imposter syndrome to positive things like humility, personal drive, or a healthy fear of failure, it’s actually a mindset challenge that may hold you back from achieving your full potential. In this piece, I’d like to address how you can overcome imposter syndrome to prepare a successful application to graduate school, fellowships, and other sought-after opportunities.

What is imposter syndrome?

In this article about imposter syndrome in graduate students, the American Psychological Association writes about Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., the two psychologists who created the term “imposter syndrome” in the 1970s. Imes and Rose describe that imposter syndrome occurs among, “high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.”

Imposter syndrome shows up in many ways. You are experiencing imposter syndrome when you choose not to apply to a dream job or school due to fear of rejection. Or when you downplay your accomplishments with a self-deprecating comment about having good luck. Or when you are afraid of telling friends, families, or mentors that you are striving for a big, aspirational goal because you are afraid you will need to inform them of the potential failure. These actions hurt you in a number of ways. First, you may miss out on a dream opportunity because of an unfounded belief that you don’t have what the selectors are looking for. You also miss out on the opportunity to receive positive support and feedback as you strive for big goals. It’s difficult to be successful in a vacuum. Often we find the keys to success in conversations with those who tried and succeeded (or failed!) before us.

How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

1. Seek a Positive Mentor

High achievers often hide their most aspirational goals from others because they are afraid of what people will think if they fail. Yet, we forget that people admire striving more than accomplishment, particularly when you apply your highest effort to the goal. These feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, and the need for secrecy often are a result of academic “gatekeeping”. Gatekeeping is when a trusted mentor, colleague, family member, or friend tells you your big goal is unrealistic, or when they advise you to aim for less competitive opportunities in order to avoid disappointment. Even the most accomplished among us have experienced gatekeeping at some point during our schooling or careers. While gatekeeping is often done with good intentions, it can leave a scar of doubt in your abilities, a self-doubt that can haunt you throughout the course of your career. You can’t necessarily avoid gatekeeping, but you can proactively seek mentors and advisors who provide positive support. A positive mentor will provide you with useful information on what it will take to achieve your goals and root for your success, no matter how challenging the task ahead. Do you have a mentor like this in your life? If not, seek out a positive mentor who will support you.

2. Ask the Hard Questions of Admissions Staff

The biggest mistake I see applicants make is not asking admissions staff important questions about their eligibility, fit, and competitiveness for a graduate program or fellowship. Many applicants will scour the internet for an answer to an uncomfortable question, or ask professors, advisors, and friends for their opinions. Yet, the only people who can truly answer questions about whether you have the right academic background, test scores, work experience, and skills for entrance are the Admissions staff!

Admissions representatives offer email and phone contacts for questions, hold Info Sessions, and attend career and graduate school fairs to meet with aspiring candidates and answer questions like: “How important are GRE scores to Admissions?”; “Can I be a competitive applicant if my undergraduate degree is from a different discipline?”; “Are there any mid-career applicants who attend this program?”, “If I have a 2.5 undergraduate GPA but have spent the last several years engaged in research, could I still be a strong candidate for this program?” Admissions representatives welcome these questions, and they can provide accurate and honest answers.

Be optimistic that you’ll receive an encouraging response to your questions. If you are discouraged by the answers, the positive side is that you didn’t waste time applying to a program that is a poor fit. With hundreds of graduate programs and fellowships available (listed in the free ProFellow funding database!), you can seek out other programs that will be a better fit. The more you ask hard questions, the most comfortable you will be getting the information you need to find the perfect opportunities for you.

3. Avoid Inflating Your Accomplishments

We are constantly comparing ourselves to others – wondering if we would be considered “successful” by other people, and anxiously viewing the accolades, graduate degrees, and awards received by others. It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others, and these feelings can positively motivate us to work hard to advance our careers. However, when applying to graduate schools and fellowships, it’s not necessary to inflate our accomplishments to “outcompete” other qualified candidates. This is because graduate schools and fellowships are not choosing candidates based solely on who has the highest grades, highest test scores, and most awards and accolades. They are seeking candidates who are a good fit for the program based on a wide variety of factors such as their career goals, their skill sets, the diversity they offer, and their demonstrated commitment to the discipline. The program’s mission is not to be yet another accolade on a candidate’s resume – they seek to invest in candidates who will leverage the program to make an important social impact in their future careers. They choose people who want to solve big social and research challenges and are ready to roll up their sleeves and work hard. Is that you? If so, you ARE the candidate they are looking for!

4. Get Focused on Describing the Social Impact You Want to Make

Building on point #3, it’s important you focus your applications less on detailing your accomplishments and more on detailing your career goals and the contribution you want to make as a future leader or scholar. The more specific you can be about the challenges you want to help solve and the type of role you see yourself doing this work in, the better! Describe why these challenges matter to you, what you hope to contribute, and what skills, expertise, and networks you need to make a bigger impact. You should describe what success looks like to you from the standpoint of paying it forward to society. A focus on the social impact you want to make will help you overcome your imposter syndrome because you’ll see that your pitch is less about helping yourself and more about helping others, which feels good when you are trying to make the case as to why you should be selected for a competitive program.

5. Remember: You’ve Got to Play to Win

It’s not easy to overcome the fear of failure, especially if you are someone who is accomplished and wants to maintain a failure-free record. But, choosing not to aim for big goals is a failure in itself. As they say, you’ve got to play to win! And you need to become comfortable with failure as you advance in your career because failure can reap new knowledge, self-awareness, and personal growth in the best way possible, especially when you use failure as a motivation to try again.

That said, if you find yourself so afraid of failure that you won’t pursue a goal, also consider if your goal is misaligned with your personal values. Sometimes our goals are inherited through family and societal expectations and are not rooted in our true passions and talents. If you find yourself desiring to take a new path unknown to you and others before you, build a positive support system and go for your goals with the optimism that if you fail the first time, you will learn a lot from the process and can try again. The ProFellow community is rooting for you!

If you’d like to learn more about how to successfully apply to Ph.D. and master’s programs, register now for my free online Masterclass: The 5 Step Method to Achieve a Top Graduate Degree Debt-Free.

Dr. Vicki Johnson Headshot Dr. Vicki Johnson is the Founder and CEO of ProFellow, the world’s leading online resource for professional and academic fellowships. She is a four-time fellow, a top Ph.D. scholar, a Fulbright recipient, and an award-winning social entrepreneur. She is the Creator and Director of Fully Funded, an award-winning online course and mentorship program for graduate school applicants seeking to find and win full funding.

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