Imposter Syndrome: The Student Edition

Earlier today I met with a few of my old professors to talk to them about letters of recommendation for law school. It went really well, but that didn’t stop me from stressing out about it before hand. It was stressful for me for two reasons. One, I absolutely hate asking people for help. If I haven’t already established this, I may have some minor pride issues and think I can do everything by myself. And when I literally can’t do something alone and it is a completely legitimate thing to ask of someone (because I can’t write my own letters of recommendation) it is difficult for me to reach out to other people. Two, because when it comes to my academic career, I have this weird combination of pride and imposter syndrome.

Throughout my life, I have done fairly well academically. In high school I was in the top ten percent of my class and my overall college GPA is nothing to be ashamed of. Academics are one area in which I get a little competitive. Not with everyone, just with family. And with myself. Because of this, I tend to push myself and get good grades. Which, as I mentioned, I am a bit proud of.

On the flipside, whenever my professors (or anyone really) talk about me being a good student, I feel like I have really only tricked them into thinking that. I’m not actually a good student, I have just fooled them into believing I am.

How do I fool them? By doing the work. Pretty tricky, hu?

I especially felt this way when I was taking my Romanian History & Literature class. Before every class, we had to read a handout about some aspect of Romanian culture. The handout was always in Romanian so after I read it, I would be sure to look up any words I didn’t know and then I would google whatever the handout was about and read the Wikipedia page on it in English. Then, if there were words on the Wikipedia page I didn’t know how to say in Romanian, I would look them up so I was prepared to talk about it (we could only speak in Romanian during class).

Clearly, my deception knows no bounds.

Class would roll around and during the first twenty or so minutes as we discussed the reading assignment, I would be able to express my ideas and ask clarifying questions about things I didn’t understand or wanted to know more about.

Half way through the semester, we had one-on-one interviews with our professor, just to talk about grades and how the class was going overall. During my interview, my professor told me how pleased she was with my performance in class, that she felt like I understood the material so well and contributed significantly to the class discussions.

I died a little inside.

First off, there were only four of us in class. We all had to contribute to class discussions. And if it seemed like I contributed more, it was only because I hate it when a class is sitting in silence and feel compelled to answer the question, or at least say something. Surely, that weird compulsion shouldn’t be a reflection on how good of a student I was.

Second, it wasn’t like I understood the material that well, it was just that I was really good at faking it. I was faked it by researching the topic beyond the information she gave us to read. Also not a “good student” move, just another trick to get people to think that I was a good student.

Objectively, I know this sounds a bit silly. All those things I did are also things good students do. And I was doing them because I wanted to understand and do well. Like a good student. That doesn’t stop me from feeling like I’ve somehow pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes.

Let me clarify – this isn’t “I’m not good enough” imposter syndrome, it is just “wow, I can’t believe I got so lucky that my faking it through this class (i.e. doing all the work so I feel like I can keep up with my peers) got me one of the top grades in this class!” imposter syndrome.

Anyway, I felt this way again today when I was meeting with one of my professors. It was great to catch up and after exchanging the normal pleasantries, he got down to business.

“I’ve already written a draft of my letter for you. It was easy to do, you were the best student in the class. You had the highest grade on your paper, the second highest grade on your oral presentation and the top grade in the class over all.”

I was a bit stunned. I knew I had done well in the class, but I didn’t realize I had done that well. It was a Senior Thesis course and we had a lot of smart kids in there. It was also a really tough semester for me and I had a lot going on in my personal life. I even asked for an extension on an assignment in that class, the first and only time I ever did that in my college career.

After talking with him, I dropped in on a different professor who had also agreed to write me a LOR. I didn’t have an appointment so I didn’t want to stay long, I just wanted to thank him for agreeing to write me a letter. He asked a few more questions to help him write the letter and I mentioned that I have actually taken two classes from him but he probably only remembers me from the more recent class (additionally, I usually just assume that people, professors in particular, won’t remember me. Besides only being an average student at best, I know they have a lot of people they meet every semester). He assured me that he remembers me from both classes and that he will write a letter soon. Again, I was a bit stunned that he remembered me from both but simultaneously appreciative for his help.

As I drove home and thought about my interactions with my two professors, I felt that familiar guilt. That feeling that I had tricked these two educated, decent human beings into thinking that I was a good student.

Now as I think about it, I realize that the ironic thing is that even after all these years, the only person I haven’t been able to “fool” into thinking I’m a good student is myself. Perhaps I’ll finally be able to pull the wool over my own eyes during law school. That seems like a solid plan.

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