Do I Deserve that Acceptance Letter?: Tackling Impostor Syndrome While Studying at Columbia

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A view of Columbia's south campus.

Impostor syndrome is one of those things that the majority of people experience but is rarely ever talked about in the Indonesian society. Getting into a prestigious Ivy League university is certainly one of those experiences that can spawn impostor syndrome, as experienced by our contributor Patricia. Here, she shares what impostor syndrome actually is, and how she overcame it.

When I found out that I got accepted into Columbia University, I was at an organization meeting at my community college. We were setting up for the club officer candidates’ campaign speeches when I received the email indicating my application status. Thinking that I won’t be accepted, I opened the email casually. What happened was the contrary—an aerial video of Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus with letters spelling “Congratulations” appearing in the foreground. After that, a letter from Columbia College’s Dean of Admissions detailing my acceptance popped up. I cried with joy in the middle of the beeps and the constant hum of the projector that was being set up. This is unreal, I thought.

A few months later, I received an email from my orientation leader directed to my entire orientation group, asking us to introduce ourselves and to tell everyone about what we did this summer. A stream of emails from other Columbia transfers came afterward. Most of these people transferred from my reach schools—schools I’ve never imagined I would get in before I started the whole college application process—and did an array of great things during their summer: interning in a consulting firm, researching in a lab abroad, volunteering in a special needs elementary school. I became more insecure in typing my introductory email. The most momentous thing I did this summer was a casual 3-day trip to Bali with my family—not exactly a world-transforming experience.

The façade of Butler Library, the main library in Columbia University. We had a discussion about it in my Global Core class, leading to a conclusion of the architecture invoking unbroken tradition, superiority, and grandeur: the three words I have in mind when I thought of applying to an Ivy League school.
The façade of Butler Library, the main library in Columbia University. We had a discussion about it in my Global Core class, leading to a conclusion of the architecture invoking unbroken tradition, superiority, and grandeur: the three words I have in mind when I thought of applying to an Ivy League school.
The view from the bridge to Columbia's east campus. To overcome impostor's syndrome, it's always helpful to stop and take in the little things around you, including this beautiful view.
The view from the bridge to Columbia’s east campus. To overcome impostor’s syndrome, it’s always helpful to stop and take in the little things around you, including this beautiful view.

Things became more exciting as I participated in orientation. I got to know the campus better, put a face to the name of my orientation group members, and started my first steps in adjusting to life at Columbia. However, there was always one thing that kept holding me back: insecurity. The people I met during orientation were talking about their internship at leading companies, while I had nothing interesting to contribute to the conversation; all that I was able to say were phrases like “That sounds exciting!” and “Good for you!”. But what about me? What have I contributed to society? I kept asking the same question to myself: do I really deserve that acceptance letter?

What I experienced is a very common occurrence called impostor syndrome: a phenomenon where one might think that their accomplishments are a result of sheer luck or pure trickery and not as a result of their own talent. My experience with impostor syndrome mostly stems from my background. Most of my peers transferred from top schools in the United States, while no one recognizes my community college. Being an international student also heightens this syndrome, as I have differing cultural expectations that might skew my perspective on what it means to be successful in America. My English-speaking ability is an example of this; it is really easy to feel insecure when people around you use words like “solipsism” and “apotheosis” in casual conversation, while you can only explain concepts on the fly with simple words.

I remember calling my parents before I committed to Columbia. Their sole advice to me is “yang penting kamu nyaman di sana” (“the most important thing is that you feel comfortable there”). I know that committing myself to a school like Columbia means that I have to face the fact that I am no longer a big fish in a small pond. I am now surrounded by people who have achieved a whole lot in their young lives; it is very easy to fall into a hole of insecurity. But at the same time, every time I feel like falling, I would always remind myself of the time I got that acceptance letter. I thought about the disbelief I felt at that time and I reflected on the instances where people would ask me how I got into Columbia. Inside my impostor syndrome, I’ve been asking the same question, but the more I think of it, the more I reevaluated what I’ve done in my life to get to this point, and the more I feel like I am exactly where I need to be. The admissions office have been evaluating prospective students for years; they wouldn’t give me an admission letter if they didn’t think I’d survive in Columbia. I have all I need to thrive as a small fish in a big pond.

In general, it’s easy to believe that you are not as qualified as your peers when you study abroad. The fact is that you are exactly where you need to be. There are reasons behind everyone’s insecurities—reasons like cultural barriers, self-consciousness, and exposure to a new environment—but we need to understand that these reasons create harmful ideas of self-doubt that might prevent us to succeed abroad. By being aware of these reasons and believing in myself, I can slowly rise above the shackles of impostor syndrome.

As time goes by and the thrill of orientation shrinks down, my impostor syndrome started to shrink down as well, and my self-confidence grew. I made a home in my group of friends, where we constantly remind each other of self-care in the midst of assignments and readings. I found my niche in student clubs and organizations, where I discovered that the people who slip words like “solipsism” and “apotheosis” in casual conversation are not more superior than I am; instead, they are the ones whom I share my most interesting, engaging conversations with. The people who I felt insecure around during orientation are now faced with the same assignments as I am. Sometimes, they would ask me for help, and I would ask them for help too. This made me realize that the further we get from orientation, the less dividing our past achievements become. At the end of the day, we are all Columbia students: sitting in the same lecture halls, doing the same problem sets, lining up in the same pasta station in our dining hall, and taking pride in our mutual, newfound home.

Photos by author.