The reality behind the myth of Oxford’s imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is an idea spoken about a lot in Oxford, especially during the start of the academic year. It’s the feeling that you don’t quite belong here – that your offer was a result of a mistake and someone else should have been accepted instead. Imposter syndrome is not unique to Oxford, but the intense and elite environment exacerbates the feeling within some students that we can’t possibly deserve a place in this world-renowned institution.

I didn’t feel like I deserved my place here until well after my first-year exams. I thought that I had somehow duped my tutors into letting me in and constantly felt like I was on the verge of being ‘found out’ as someone who was less intelligent than the others here. On reflection, it was possibly slightly over-the-top to think that I had swindled my way onto an Oxford law degree in a mission-impossible style escapade when I knew that I had worked just as hard, if not harder, than some of my course mates to get here.

But, it was never about hard work. It was my accent, where I was from, the school that I went to, that made me feel like I wasn’t good enough to be here. My lack of confidence in my first tutes, my reluctance to talk much about home, even attempting to switch to long ‘a’s instead of short ‘a’s – all symptoms of this sense of unease with myself being here.

If you’re reading this article and feel like this, then first of all, know that you are not alone and the chances are that many of your friends feel the same way. Talk to them and you will realise that tutors here couldn’t have made that many mistakes (most of them are quite intelligent people after all). Also, please know that you absolutely deserve to be here – you really do.

But I would also like you to think deeper about your imposter syndrome. I did, and I soon realised that there as more to it than meets the eye.

But I would also like you to think deeper about your imposter syndrome. I did, and I soon realised that there as more to it than meets the eye. A well-being document published by the University set out that “people with a propensity for perfectionism often suffer from imposter syndrome, as they are in constant need to prove themselves and can never achieve the impossible task of achieving perfection.” This is then followed by a cheery reminder that “being perfect is mutually exclusive from being human!” This sends out the message that it is our fault for being too perfectionistic and expecting too much of ourselves. And it is easy to see why this is sometimes the case – the environment at Oxford takes kids who are already prone to perfectionism and throws them all into an academic pressure cooker.

However, this view is far too superficial and the University knows it. Look around you – is it any surprise that some students feel out of place when Oxford is made up of predominantly white, middle-class, privileged – and often privately-educated – individuals? By claiming that it is us and our psychology that needs to change, Oxford is side-stepping responsibility for this epidemic of imposter syndrome. It is not good enough to just say that students should ‘stop being such perfectionists’ and then they would stop feeling like they don’t belong here. This invalidates our very legitimate complaints that many of us don’t actually “belong here” in the traditional sense.

I don’t feel like I belong here because I don’t see my experiences reflected in the people around me, whether they are students or academic staff. There is nothing within my power that I can do to change that. In order to truly get to the root why students feel this way, we must stop this idea that we are to blame. Oxford is a mentally tough environment and this can be made worse by feelings of social exclusion and self-doubt. It is imperative that the University does not make this worse by shifting the blame for what are, in reality, institutional problems onto its students.

Imposter syndrome is but one component of Oxford’s wider access problems, but it seems to be official policy that it is the students’ problem to deal with. The University needs to understand that we do not need to just be told that we belong, we need to be shown that we do. This, of course, comes with institutional change but an important first step would be to acknowledge the facade of imposter syndrome for what it is: a way to avoid the awkward conversation of what it means to ‘belong’ here.

Oxford, imposter syndrome is definitely a ‘you’ problem, not a ‘me’ problem. And it’s on you to sort it out.

I ‘got over’ my imposter syndrome by rejecting it. I learnt that while I deserve my place, it is not my fault that I don’t feel like I belong here. I have found my own circles within which I have a sense of belonging, but I can’t say the same of the wider University. Oxford, imposter syndrome is definitely a ‘you’ problem, not a ‘me’ problem. And it’s on you to sort it out.

Image credit – Hannah Johnston