Talking to a freshman friend before I headed off to Bicker, he lifted his coffee in salute as if I were a soldier entering battle and encouraged me to be myself — only wittier, smarter and more fun.
He was joking, but his point was spot-on: Whether in classes or around the dinner table, I often feel as though I need to be a shinier version of myself in order to compete with my peers. That feeling was nonexistent in high school, where, like everyone else at Princeton, I was guaranteed by a legacy of hard work and natural aptitude to do well in my classes. My conception of Princeton, by contrast, is that everyone is still riding the front end of the bell curve — wooing professors, writing Pulitzer Prize-worthy papers and surmounting the challenges of grade deflation — while I’m the only one who struggles to make even an intelligible comment in precept. Often, I worry that I’m only here because, one fateful day in early 2011, some Tina Fey-type character mistakenly slid my folder into the “accept” pile. I am afraid that I was an accident. I am afraid that I am a fraud.
At least in my experience, this feeling is most profound during freshman year, when you’re constantly discovering that your new best friend is an international math champion or that your roommate is pulling As out of thin air while you’ve managed to unlearn how to write an English sentence. In one of my first HUM precepts last year, a prep school grad in creased khakis announced that he’d already read “The Aeneid” — and in Latin, no less. My high school had first moved Latin classes to the trailers on our crumbling campus and then canceled them outright due to budget cuts, so I shrank into my chair for the remainder of that precept (and much of the semester), convinced that Princeton had made a grave mistake. I was sure they had missed the inadequacy lurking just behind the numbers.
Even a year later, having befriended the Latin-reading Atlantan and many others like him, I’ve found that feeling of inadequacy hard to shake. And I’m not alone: Impostor syndrome, or the inability to see one’s accomplishments as evidence of one’s ability, has been well documented at top-tier institutions like Princeton. When everyone has a resume that sparkles with state, national and international accomplishments, it’s hard not to feel like yours is a sham. What they’ve accomplished is a sign of their sterling intellects and impeccable academic pedigrees. What you’ve accomplished, by contrast, is a series of accidents easily explained by luck, mere statistics or chance. You are an exception by virtue of being unexceptional.
I discussed this feeling with my roommates the other day, and while they, too, had felt this anxiety during freshman year, they insisted that it had withered away by the third semester. “You just accept that you’re average,” one roommate said, sinking into a butterfly chair in our common room and resting her feet on the coffee table.
By the numbers, of course, she’s right. We can’t all squeeze into the first quintile. A certain number of us will be relegated to the bottom of the class by sheer mathematical necessity, and, in most classes, 65 percent of us will fall below that coveted A cutoff. The majority of us will have GPAs that hover around the University average of 3.39. These are the facts. The problem, however, is that we start to interpret these numbers as evidence that we can’t compete with our peers and that what we have to say about “The Aeneid” is somehow less valuable because we haven’t read it before, in Latin or otherwise. We were all admitted on the condition that we are academically qualified to be here. Yes, some of us went to high schools with headmasters, and others went to high schools with security guards. Some of us nabbed a few more points on the SAT one groggy Saturday morning. But at the end of the day, the range of our abilities is just not that large. As one professor recently put it, “You might be ignorant, but you’re not stupid.”
So the next time you feel paralyzed in precept, staring at a reading you spent hours on the night before but suddenly cannot make heads or tails of, remember that simple fact. Somewhere between that early HUM precept and this past semester, I found my voice in class by constantly reminding myself that I have a right to be here and that I have something to contribute. And though there’s not much that Tyra Banks has taught me, she was right about one thing: Fake it ’til you make it.
Cameron Langford is a sophomore from Davidson, N.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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