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jhh

At the beginning of the school year we were told admissions doesn’t make mistakes. I’m certain each student at Princeton deserves to be here for some reason or another. First-years, however, enter college having only known an academic environment that is typically easier to manage than college. Thus, the beginning of the spring semester reminds me of the dreaded “impostor syndrome,“ defined as constantly doubt in your accomplishments and persistent fear that you will be exposed as a fraud. The feeling that you are neither qualified nor do you fully belong is unfortunately common here.

In this case, the cause of my “impostor syndrome” is Princeton: the shock of a college work load, expectations, and responsibilities coupled with less-than-desirable results on tests and papers that quickly cause one to feel less than competent. As a freshman who has recently undergone my first college finals and received my final grades, I found myself looking back at my first semester experience and wondering if I am really as smart and capable as Princeton told me I am by admitting me. 

My biggest question was why the study habits and work ethic I had in high school were hindering, rather than helping, me. I was only taking four classes, one of them a freshman seminar. Yet, I was struggling to understand the material and meet deadlines, not to mention that I was unable to keep healthy lifestyle habits, get enough sleep, and feel like I had any sort of potential for success. I felt as if I was having to improvise every aspect of my academics, and I began to doubt myself at a time when I should have felt confident.

Although it is easy to assume you are alone in these feelings of anxiety and mediocrity — something I originally thought — know you are not the only one facing these fears of inadequacy. For first-years, we all come to the realization that college is different from high school. In order for us to succeed, we must adapt.

So yes, to answer many first-years’ question: part of us does not belong at Princeton. That doesn’t mean we will never belong at Princeton. It just means we need to recognize that college requires a new approach to problem solving and time management. We must learn that responsibilities now hold more weight and can carry greater consequences. 

Who each of us was in high school is not enough to thrive at Princeton. It doesn’t mean we need to entirely change who we are. But, in order to feel confident in our qualifications and abilities, we need to change something about our approach to handling classes and work, while learning how to be more adult all at the same time. Ultimately, we need to accept that as much as our friends, family, and even members of the Princeton community may tell us not to worry, “impostor syndrome” is partially true and accurate in our case.

It is easy to view these feelings of incompetence and mediocrity as the proverbial end of our Princeton career.  Harnessing those anxieties to overcome our self-doubt would be a better use of our time and result in a better outcome overall. This is the first real opportunity we have in our lives to understand that we need to let go of some parts of who we are in order to move forward.

People often say that college presents the opportunity to debut a “new you” to the world. I think, however, that we should focus on the attitudes that hold us back from success. Identify the patterns of behavior that end with feeling inadequate and learn how to change them.

Remember, Princeton accepted us because they wanted who we are as individuals and what we can bring to the community. But that doesn’t mean every aspect of who we are should remain the same. 

Brigitte Harbers is a first-year from New York, N.Y. She can be reached at bharbers@princeton.edu. 

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