Mar 27, 2012
The Real Deal
A few days ago a young man posted a confession to the Class of 2016 Facebook group:
I know I've been *admitted* to MIT, but I don't know if I am actually smart enough to perform at this fabulous school with you amazing people!
In the comments some of his classmates shared similar sentiments:
*dislike* for not recognizing your own awesomeness, but *like* because i feel pretty much the same way... 0.o
I keep reading about these national scholars and competition people and I'm just a guy from Arizona. lol. Not that I haven't performed well or worked hard, I have. But still. :)
I sort of want to email admissions and ask "So thank you very much, but uh... why?"
These comments aren't fishing for compliments or falsely modest. Many students have told me over the years that after they were admitted, once the glow of joy dimmed down, there lurked in the shadows some existential unease over their admission which only intensified after they learned more about their fellow admits. Online, at CPW, and eventually after enrolling, MIT students often meet classmates so well-accomplished that they begin to question themselves, and wonder why they were among the chosen few. They begin to wonder, in other words, if they were a mistake; if they really deserved admission.
To the members of the Class of 2016 who feel this way: you are incorrect. But you are not alone.
See, there is a well-documented psychological phenomenon called impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome, says Wikipedia, is "a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments." It's extremely common in education, especially in programs with competitive admission and high achievers, and especially at graduate school (one grad thread on a forum I frequent is subtitled "Everyone Else Feels Like An Impostor Too"). This article from Science Magazine opens with an anecdote with which some of the 2016s quoted above could probably relate:
When a tenured professor admitted in a panel discussion that she had felt like a fraud as a graduate student, Abigail* knew exactly what she meant. The professor told the group that she had worried that she'd been let into her graduate program on a fluke and that someday she'd make an error that would blow her cover. She had always believed her peers in graduate school were much smarter despite knowing that she had the best grades of the bunch. "She said that she realised much later that this was completely ridiculous thinking and that obviously she was smart enough," says Abigail, a Ph.D. student in cell biology. "What she said really spoke to me."
"Impostor syndrome" is the name given to the feelings that Abigail and many other young scientists describe: Their accomplishments are just luck or deceit, and they're in over their heads. The key to getting past it, experts say, is making accurate, realistic assessments of your performance. Perhaps equally important: knowing you're not alone. Abigail thinks that sharing her feelings with other people is how she will eventually come to grips with her sense of feeling like an impostor. "It's fantastic to hear other people say, 'I've felt that way, too.' "
In some ways impostor syndrome is the mirror image of the similarly common (though much more hilariously frustrating) Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect posits that the unskilled are unaware of it. Those who lack cognition necessarily lack the metacognitive abilities to realize it. Bluntly: stupid people are too stupid to know they are stupid.
Impostor syndrome, on the other hand, strikes when exceptionally intelligent people are acutely and appropriately aware of the limits of their own expertise, but unaware that the poised people around them also have their own blind spots, their own weaknesses.
I think back to a story one of the bloggers told me about coming to MIT. This blogger had been an all-star at a small, somewhat rural high school. Never had to study, always aced everything. And some of the GIRs just flat out crushed him. Chemistry was the worst, and one of his study buddies was a real whiz. Amidst his despair this blogger felt something akin to the impostor effect.
But second semester, when both of them were in 8.02 - the second semester of physics - the blogger was acing everything, and his chem friend was barely scraping through. It then became clear: they were just playing to their respective strengths and weaknesses. This is a small and simple but demonstrative example.
I actually like the fact that our students are so aware of their own limits and weaknesses. Anyone who thinks they're going to breeze through MIT is rather dramatically mistaken. And the fact that MIT punctures these delusions like balloons early and often means that students stay appropriately grounded.
When I first came to MIT - having never stepped foot on campus before my interview - I frankly expected the students to be, well, a bit insufferable. Prestigious institutions are particularly fertile soil for pridefulness: plant high-achieving people and shine upon them the bright light of external validation and they soon grow into towering egos. But this doesn't happen often at MIT. It's fertile soil all right, and all the nutrients are there, but your fellow students and brilliant faculty are there to provide some prudent, healthful pruning.
With that said, I don't want to see any student's sense of self-worth clipped to the quick. So for those who are feeling a bit impostory - for those who are worried that they don't deserve this opportunity - let me drop some knowledge on you:
We admitted less than one in ten of the awesome people who applied to us this year. You may - you will - have a different distribution of talents, of skills, of interests, of experiences, than your classmates. That's rather the point of our process. But if you were admitted, you are not an impostor. You are here because you are the genuine article. You are here because you belong at MIT.
Keep your head out of the clouds - but don't be afraid to hold it high.