What Is Imposter Syndrome?

  • Reviewed By: Liz Flagge
  • Have you ever experienced the imposter phenomenon/imposter syndrome? Let’s do a quick self-check:

    1. Do you attribute your successes to external phenomena, like luck, instead of recognizing the amount of work and effort you put in?
    2. Do you doubt your worth or ability, even when others express appreciation or point out evidence of your achievements?
    3. Have you had small setbacks or mistakes that create self-doubt about your competence?

    If any of those sound familiar, then there might be a self-proclaimed imposter in your midst. However, it’s important to recognize that you aren’t alone. Imposter syndrome affects high-achieving individuals more often than others. And if you’re prepping yourself to be a future doctor, chances are that you’re pretty dang high achieving. It’s a gift and a curse, so to speak.

    What Is Imposter Syndrome?

    Feelings of self-doubt are common in premeds, medical students, and doctors alike. A recent literature review found that studies on the impostor phenomenon directed at medical students, specifically, reported 20-50% of medical students experience such feelings of impostor-hood. 

    Those are students who already did well on their MCAT, are already accepted to schools, and are on track to be doctors, and—by the numbers—are mostly doing well in their medical studies. As it turns out, it’s easy to doubt ourselves and our abilities if we don’t have consistent reminders that our position is one we earned. 

    Doubting your worth can cause undue stress, which can sabotage your performance. Further, since these feelings aren’t often rational there might be no easy way to “prove” they aren’t valid. That puts these types of feelings adjacent to burnout, or complete emotional exhaustion, which is another common struggle for premeds and in the medical field.  

    How To Overcome Imposter Syndrome

    Before stress or burnout happens, it’s important to implement some sort of plan to cope with those intrusive imposter feelings. Here are some potential action steps you can take, as laid out by the American Psychological Association:

    1. Know what’s happening in your life. When you feel self-doubt, take inventory of the facts about your situation, especially those that support your abilities or position.
    2. Speak up. Tell trusted people outside your professional or school circle how you’re feeling.
    3. Celebrate your victories. Recognize your successes when they occur and celebrate them (in at least a small way)!
    4. Focus on progress instead of trying to be perfect. Perfection is a slippery goal that isn’t realistically attainable in most situations.
    5. Work toward an internal locus of control. Recognize the extent to which you can control your progress, and set goals based on what’s reasonable.
    6. Look at failures as opportunities to learn. Everyone fails sometimes, but most people don’t discuss failures openly. If you’re willing to fail and learn from it, doubt is less likely to sneak up on you when something doesn’t go according to plan.
    7. Accept that imposter feelings are going to happen. If you’ve felt this way once, you probably will again, and that’s fine! What isn’t fine is letting it control you. Be prepared to work through steps like these any time that similar feelings come back.

    None of those steps are a magical cure, but even simple awareness can help! Keep yourself accountable but set realistic goals as you progress through your coursework, your MCAT prep, and beyond. It’s possible to aim for perfection without obsessing about mistakes. That brings up another important point: you don’t need a perfect MCAT score to get into medical school.

    Of course, I wouldn’t stop you from shooting for a high MCAT score—I’ll be the first to encourage you to work toward perfection—but few of us ever get there. I’ll let you in on a secret: I didn’t get a perfect MCAT score. After years of studying, teaching, and working with the MCAT, it’s STILL difficult. 

    I’m proud of how I did on the last real MCAT I took, but I definitely kicked myself when I realized I picked the wrong citric acid cycle intermediate as the answer. I even still remember picking “Bones” as the answer to “Where do T cells mature,” on the first MCAT I ever took (the T literally stands for Thymus, doh!), and thinking something must have been wrong with me to miss something I knew like that. It’s healthy and normal to want to do better, especially in a field as competitive as medicine, but we need to stop ourselves once doubts begin to set in.

    If you’re early in your MCAT prep, you have a lot of work in front of you. That’s OK! At some point, the best MCAT scorers in the world all had a lot of work left in front of them. You’re going to make mistakes, and you’re going to be in good company when you do. Stay focused on the MCAT score you want, evaluate your progress on a regular basis to stay on track, and if you feel doubts creeping in, try out those steps I mentioned earlier. You’ve gotten this far already; you can crush the MCAT too.