“Everyone here knows more than me.”
“They all know what they’re doing.”
“They’ll figure out soon that I don’t belong here at all.”
Whether you’re presenting on Zoom, struggling with a difficult project, or sitting down to take the GMAT exam, most of us have had moments of doubt like this.
But what if it’s more than a moment? If you find yourself having these feelings of self-doubt more often than not, you may be experiencing imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern where people doubt their skills and have a persistent fear that they are going to be exposed as incompetent or a fraud. And the feeling persists despite evidence that says you are qualified and capable.
A staggering 70 percent of people have felt this way at least some of the time. It’s not surprising to have these feelings show up as you look into MBA programs: the whole process revolves around judging your credentials and abilities.
The rigorous application process can heighten feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, and fear of failure. Are my GMAT scores high enough? Are my work experience and resume strong enough? Do my letters of recommendation make me sound impressive? These worries can have a real impact on your grad school search, making you rule out highly ranked schools or delay applying.
And if you’re an underrepresented minority, the impact of your internal doubts can be doubled by external feedback — microaggressions and questions that imply you don’t belong. A woman or person of color in a prestigious MBA program might get questioned in ways others are not — what was your GMAT score, where did you go for undergrad. What you’re really being asked is how did you get into this program, and those subtle but aggressive attacks can reinforce any doubts you already have.
How to disarm your doubts
So what to do? Start now with some concrete strategies to boost your confidence and confirm your qualifications. In their book Own Your Greatness, psychologists Lisa Orbé-Austin and Richard Orbé-Austin lay out ideas for coping.
- First, speak your fears. Suffering in silence can strengthen these feelings. Tell a trusted friend or family member about your doubts. Let them support you. Commit to speaking to them when you feel unsure.
- Address your negative self talk. Notice the negative thought, look for evidence against it, and replace it with a more helpful, truthful thought. For an MBA applicant, this might be something like “I’ve put together the best application I can and that’s all I can control.”
- Build a community of support. Key relationships will support your well-being and reassure you that you are capable. A mentor can give you advice and perspective, a coach will help you set goals, a cheerleader offers unconditional support, and a grounder can do a reality check. Think about who fills these roles for you and then check in with them as needed.
- Own your accomplishments. This is important because it fights fear with facts. Recognize your accomplishments, large and small — and make a list of them, including personal and professional deeds. Post work achievements on LinkedIn. When you doubt yourself, review your lists.
- Finally, tend to self-care. When you lack confidence, it’s easy to overwork and burn out trying to prove yourself. Value your well-being by assessing your physical, personal and professional needs. Create a care plan that’s just for you. Start small, adding things into your routine to keep you mentally and physically healthy. Prioritizing self care can help you put your best foot forward during the application process.
Applying to grad school can be a big task and it’s important to treat it that way. Realize that it will take time and work, and may bring on bouts of imposter syndrome. Having a plan in place will help keep your confidence up, your life in balance, and your career moving forward.
Britnai Nunley is an Accelerate Leadership Coach at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. After pivoting from a career in law to one in leadership development, she’s worked in multiple sectors, including business, government, and nonprofit. Through executive coaching, immersive engagement activities, and learning and development programs, she helps individuals develop the skills to be agile, effective, and inclusive leaders. Britnai holds a J.D. from Wake Forest University School of Law and an Associate Certified Coach credential from the International Coaching Federation.
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