Imposter Syndrome in grad school applications and how it holds people back

Imagine having success after success, but somehow feeling inside that you still are not good enough, that you still don’t belong, and that soon someone will expose you as a fraud.  

Imagine a self-doubt that nags at you repeatedly, and no matter how good your results and how much people praise you, that doubt just won’t disappear.

This can be the sign of “imposter syndrome”, a condition described by HBR as a “collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success”. 

Working for many years as an MBA admissions consultant, I’ve seen the effect that imposter syndrome and its chronic doubt can have unless people get support. It’s part of what inspired me to founder Tide Changer Consulting and to pursue my doctoral research on the hurdles women face to leadership positions and MBA programs.

The effects of Imposter Syndrome are certainly more pronounced in some people than in others. While it’s not exclusive to women, I find it’s more common in women than in men – or at least more observable. 

Today, I receive a rapid flow of new clients with exceptional CV’s, often people who topped their university class and who are now excelling in professional careers and building professional growth curves that most would envy. 

Simultaneously, it is not uncommon for these people to be plagued with self-doubt, convinced that their next career move should be a cautious one because they’re not good enough for anything better. 

The consequence of this doubt is that many clients arrive with a conservative idea of where they want to go next – something that could stunt a promising career. 

It’s not uncommon for people with CVs capable of entering the Ivy League, Oxbridge, or a top-tier business school to set goals well under what they’re capable of achieving. To highlight, I’ve even had clients with undergraduate GPAs of 9.8 inform me they don’t want to apply to scholarships, citing “they’d never give it to me, I’m not good enough”. 

What’s the source of this doubt? Well that’s a more complex question to answer. Likely, however, our social and family experiences influence our feelings. 

Women I have worked with have told me stories of how they were told as girls to never be too good at something because boys were the bread winners in life. Others have shared how they were overlooked for bonuses at work despite crushing their targets, or how they found out they were paid 50% less than a guy for doing the same job or even more.

While not definitely the cause of the issue, these things could evidently reinforce and deepen any self-doubts that exist. 

Shifting away from a discussion of the cause, all is certainly not lost. In the past few years, I have gained a lot of experience working with aspiring grad school and doctoral candidates with apparent imposter syndrome. I’ve certainly not engaged in any kind of psychological counselling as I’m not trained to do that, but I have found success in gentle reassurance and in encouraging people to be more ambitious in their goals. 

Perhaps one of the most important techniques has been to get people to think objectively about their achievements. More simply, focus on what was achieved and not what they feel about those achievements. 

Coaching upwards of 100 people a year on applications to top MBAs, law schools and doctoral programs, working on their application essays, CV and interviews, I am delighted to see how many people, thanks to this gentle nudge, have gained access to truly exceptional programs in some of the world’s best universities. A large percentage of these are women and that trend needs to continue. 

As a company, we predominantly work with the Latin American. The good news is that every year we’re seeing more people, especially women, enter Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Stanford, and Chicago, amongst others.

This shows just how much potential and talent the region has and how talented students and professionals here are. This is something that cannot change. 

We must be encouraging people to shoot for the moon and to go for something bigger. We should not be putting them down, discouraging them and telling them to settle for second best. 

This is something I share with clients, recounting to them an anecdote of one female coaching client who shared her MBA essays with a male colleague to get some constructive feedback. 

His contribution to her application and career development was to suggest her essays were poor and that she should consider either not doing an MBA or lower her expectations. With a gentle bit of encouragement, she didn’t change a thing and went on to get an enormous scholarship at a top-tier Ivy League MBA in Round 1. 

Others have arrived with a list of mid-to-lower tier universities, stating “I’ve got to play it safe, otherwise I’ll never get to do a Master’s”. With a friendly push, they’re now sitting on offers to some of the finest academic institutions that exist. 

If you’re in doubt about what you can achieve, I recommend looking at inspiring stories like that of Zulima González, who went onto get the Chevening Scholarship and who is now a partner in her law firm as well as a leader in one of Mexico’s most influential insolvency legal networks for women

For sure, some candidates are not academically cut out for top-10 universities and not all who apply will make it, but their talent can still easily be enough for truly great institutions. Getting the right advice at the right time is critical for helping people make informed decisions about their career and the steps they should be taking.

Whether someone seeks out a coach, a colleague, a family member or a friend to help them make these choices, the psychology should be positive. Know your strengths, believe in them and then play to these. 

So next time you’re about to make a big decision, ensure you have a promotor next to you, someone who will encourage you to take some calculated risks, someone who knows the system and how it works. Don’t let it be a detractor that helps shape your vision, someone who might even encourage you to aim low just because they had once failed to reach the heights that you now aspire to.

Aim high, dream big, and go for it… 

Author: Thomas Guy Scott

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