According to the Harvard Business Review, imposter syndrome can be defined as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success … and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence”. Imposter syndrome is as much a part of the Trinity experience as the “don’t run under the Campanile if you want to pass your exams” superstition. It is practically a rite of passage for Trinity students, but it is also a lethal blend of insecurity, fear and doubt. Each of these emotions incurs harm in isolation – combined, they generate a form of internalised distrust that sets students on a path for failure before they have so much as picked up a pen.
An admittedly less official but no less precise definition of imposter syndrome involves mentally changing your proposed career path on a weekly basis, re-examining your CAO course choices on a daily basis and internally screeching “I’m not good enough!” on an hourly basis. I would write a more detailed manual for this condition, but three chapters in I’m likely to convince myself that someone else would be better suited for the task.
Many leaving certificate students view acceptance onto a Trinity course as their opportunity to learn with like-minded people and specialise in an area of study. Far from the constraints of secondary school, college is meant to be a place of increased freedom and opportunity. But there is much more to the leap from school to university, and it is quite a shock to the system.
Mixed-ability classes in school allow students to gain confidence in their best subjects and as a result. In college, however, students are inclined to reduce their subject choices down to their best or favourite. It is rarely a coincidence that a student’s preferred and strongest academic field is intertwined. Instead of allocating brain power across seven or more school subjects, university students can focus and prioritise.
No longer is the student who excelled at maths situated beside the artist who would rather paint their calculator than use it. No longer is the English student who is more comfortable losing themselves in the world than mapping it collaborating with the geography student. Instead, students are grouped together because of a shared achievement of points and a determination of capability. This environment generates the perfect breeding ground for that trusty Trinity companion: imposter syndrome. Add to this the academic shock of a new, intense grading system that leaves freshers doubting all of their own strengths and capabilities and it is no wonder that so many students struggle silently.
Finding your feet as a fresher involves trying to wedge yourself into a community where history, pride and a lingering sense of elitism are all quite literally written on the walls
The transition from secondary school to college is akin to the move from a big fish in a small pond, to a small fish in a very, very big pond! In Trinity, this pond can sometimes feel a little more like the open and unforgiving sea.
Finding your feet as a fresher involves trying to wedge yourself into a community where history, pride and a lingering sense of elitism are all quite literally written on the walls. It is unsurprising, therefore, that fresher students often find themselves floundering to keep their heads above water while battling a fear of not being good enough.
What is the underlying cause of this silent struggle? It’s fear. It’s a deeply entrenched concern that perhaps you were only successful in school because you were a mathematician graded against a musician, or a classicist competing with a chemist. Perhaps now will be the moment where someone will work out that you are a fraud. Someone might realise that you have been carried to your lecture seat in part due to some lucky guesses and waffled essays.
I have absolutely no qualifications other than my title of senior fresher to give advice, but I can promise you this: there will not be a great unveiling of your camouflaged stupidity. Your English lecturer will not demand that you provide a synopsis of Ulyssess in your first week, nor will your sociology professor expect you on day one to solve the problem that is contemporary society.
I have absolutely no qualifications other than my title of senior fresher to give advice, but I can promise you this: there will not be a great unveiling of your camouflaged stupidity
College is your chance to learn about your subject. It is your time to ask questions without fear of being stupid. Every student has had to battle their egos -– and some have clashed with other egos too. Every student has had to reconcile their perceived ability and previous ambition. Every student has had to push themselves to regain their confidence. Every one of us has been a fresher.
The students that sit around you in the lecture halls spouting long words and detailed theories are likely battling the same internal conflict as you. You have no way of knowing exactly how they feel or what they are thinking. All you can know are the superfluous words coming out of their mouths. And if you do not understand any of it? Don’t worry, your degree has years left in it for you to find your comfort zone!
If we spoke of our insecurities with as much candour and assurance as we do our success, would imposter syndrome be such an intimidating foe around Front Square? I don’t think so.