Acceptance To Harvard, Impostor Syndrome, and What It All Means

“Congratulations! I am delighted to inform you…”

Reading these highly sought-after words often triggers a period of overwhelming euphoria. While the moments that follow begin to diverge, as each admit responds to news of their acceptance differently, for most there exists at least one evening of celebration as one’s friends and family are alerted to the news. This celebration comes with good reason too: Their hard work has been rewarded, their goals achieved, and their anxiety replaced with a certain security found in knowing their immediate future. However, despite that first joyous evening, at some point, a new day begins. It is towards that new day where we might look in order to gain insight into the realities of the human experience.

Nevertheless, at some point in the following days, weeks, or months, we all find new facets of life to anxiously obsess over. We so often move on from that first joyous evening in favor of new worries: the logistics of moving sometimes thousands of miles; the stress of leaving behind one’s friends, family, and childhood; the habitual comparisons between oneself and his or her peers or those who’s stats seem more impressive but who were nonetheless denied admission; and the pressure too often placed on us by our communities, our families, or ourselves to succeed and be a constant role model for those around us. Now, these are not always negative things as some are simply realities of becoming independent and moving into life’s next stages, however there exists a point where we begin to lose sight of ourselves and the things that made us so unique in the first place. And what happens when we’ve lost our sense of self and can no longer see the ways in which we might contribute to the world? Well, in some cases we already know.

Left only with the pressures of grand success, be them self-imposed or placed upon us by others, and surrounded by peers who all seem more outgoing, put together, successful, and happy, students can all too often feel like an outsider, someone who doesn’t belong, an impostor. This “impostor syndrome” can manifest in a number of ways, from minor feelings of self-doubt or worry to more serious feelings of depression, or even suicidal tendencies. This isn’t just speaking hypothetically either; it’s a real problem facing schools like Harvard. Both Harvard and MIT have suicide rates well above the national collegiate average with respective rates of 11.8 and 12.5 suicides per 100,000 students, compared to the national average on college campuses which sits at between 6.5-7.5 suicides per 100,000 students.

Why might this be? Why do we so frequently focus on our own missteps and inadequacies, ignoring our aptitudes? Why, sometimes in a matter of days, do we cast aside an achievement that many of us worked towards for months or even years? Why do some of the world’s brightest and most-capable students face a suicide rate almost twice that of the national average? The answer may be twofold, containing both a habitual and a psychological component.


First, the habitual component. This component can be defined as a habit which positively affects one’s chances at external success and achievement (also thought of as a more “traditional” picture of success), and can be characterized through the generation of wealth, prestige, and popularity. An individual’s drive to constantly pursue ambitious goals and to fully utilize his or her potential would exemplify such a habit, because although this positively affects a person’s ability to achieve their external goals, it also requires a certain dissatisfaction with one’s existing accomplishments. This method of framing accomplishments, where the focus is always placed on that which is not yet achieved and past accomplishments are quickly cast aside and taken for granted, is especially common for Harvard-caliber students. Why? Because we are selected, in part, on the basis of such qualities. It is that same hunger for the pursuit of new goals and unwillingness to rest on one’s laurels that often lies beneath our sustained success and differentiates us from our competition. And while to some extent this is an admirable quality, it can very quickly transform into an unhealthy obsession and prevent us from feeling contentment or satisfaction in our lives.

Now, the psychological component. The Law of Hedonic Asymmetry, one of the 12 laws thought by some to govern how we experience emotions, states that positive emotions always fade over time, regardless of the initial intensity. The same does not hold true for intense negative emotions. This insight into the fleeting nature of positive experiences may explain why we tend to focus on our inadequacies and hardships: if positive emotions are destined to fade over time, all that remains are the most intense of our negative emotions.

So, what can we do about all this? We must first recognize that it is easy to focus on our own inadequacies, to negatively compare ourselves to our accomplished peers, and to lose sight of the unique experiences and gifts that we each carry; that may be what we’re used to doing and it may be our natural inclination as humans. However, we must also make a concerted effort to remind not only ourselves but each other that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed at times and that we each have our own areas in which we struggle. To those who are currently struggling with feelings of inadequacy or undeservedness, know that you are not alone. Harvard is a place meant to make us all struggle, but only so that we may grow and better help those we may encounter later in life. And with each of us striving to bring up our peers, learn from one another, and be part of a community where we all can talk openly about our struggles rather than feeling forced to wear a mask of perfection, we can become the people capable of bringing those changes to the world at large.

Lucas Y. Woodley ’23 lives in Pennypacker House.