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Feeling Like A Fraud: Imposter Syndrome in College

How did you get into the technical field?

Sarah: So that’s kind of a long story. Throughout high school, I was convinced that I was going to go into the humanities, probably studying either history or theatre. By senior year, I did a 180° and decided to pursue astronomy after realizing just how fascinated I was by the universe. In picking my first semester classes for my freshman year of college, I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to take an intro computer science course, as that might help me to find some research opportunities down the line. While astronomy didn’t work out for me (though I continue amateur astronomy as a hobby), I realized that computer science was really interesting! Now, I grew up with an IT guy for a dad, so it’s not like I never had any exposure to the tech world, but I didn’t know of a single woman in the industry, so needless to say, I was really intimidated. I ended up changing my major to Informatics with a concentration in Human-Computer Interaction. A big part of my decision to do this (apart from the subject) was that both the advisor and the peer mentors were women. At the same time, I shied away from applying to become a computer science major because 1) less than a quarter of majors were women, and 2) I didn’t feel like I was smart enough to do well in the program (especially with some of the math courses).

Alicia: I really didn’t do anything technical until I went to college! I did a little bit of basic HTML and CSS, but that was it. The summer before my freshman year, I decided that I was going to try something new and take some computer science classes. The first week of freshman year, I told a boy who lived down the hall how I was planning on taking computer science classes. He told me that computer science was hard and that I should not take any technical coursework due to not having exposure in high school. Unfortunately, this was not the last time I received pushback from my peers about pursuing a technical major. I also faced a lot of setbacks since I was not exposed to computer science until college and my math abilities were not on par with the typical computer science student. At some points, I considered switching to another STEM major, but I kept deciding to give my technical coursework another shot. Eventually, I changed my major from Education to Informatics with a concentration in Data Science.

What are some ways that you have experienced imposter syndrome?

Sarah: Imposter syndrome sneaks up on me in so many different aspects of my life. It hit me hard during my introductory computer science courses, as it seemed like so many people didn’t even have to try. It took me until recently to even feel remotely (un)comfortable enough to try a hackathon, and while I have since found a fondness for them, it still took me a while to even feel like I was worthy enough to go. Along with my studies, I also work part-time as a tech department associate at the campus store. I enjoy the customer service aspect of my job as well as the technical portion, but it’s easy for me to admit that I often feel out of my element. Because I tend to need to do extra research when talking to a customer about a product, I sometimes feel like I’m not good at my job because I can’t rattle off specs like they’re the ABCs. Doing extra research isn’t bad though – in fact, it’s helpful to double check everything so that customers are getting what they want! Increased speed and knowledge comes with time, so it’s important to realize that IT TAKES WORK. People aren’t born with tech knowledge. Imposter syndrome has been the hardest to face at work because of the customer service aspect of it. For example, this summer I’ve been the only woman Tech Associate on the floor, and I’ve had to work hard to get customers to talk to me rather than just turn to my male coworkers. The first time that that happened, it hurt. But you know what? I used that experience to fuel my desire to learn, rather than have it bring me down.

Alicia: I experience it in my everyday life. I felt this way when I was taking my first few computer science classes. In the first class I took, I thought that I didn’t belong in the class since I didn’t have any previous knowledge of computer science. The class went very fast and it was hard to keep up. I felt like it was impossible to learn the material. Feeling this way ultimately harmed my performance in the class and it was at that point that I considered dropping the technical coursework I was doing. I gave computer science another shot despite everyone telling me to quit. At the beginning of the semester, I began to feel overwhelmed and thought that I would not pass the class. About midway through the semester, I decided to start going to office hours as well as additional tutoring sessions every day of the week until I got all the concepts down. I started to feel more confident in my programming abilities and I decided that I should pursue a technical field. I began to look for jobs on campus relating to a technical field and applied to a few. The first interview I had did not go well. I was nervous I didn’t answer any of the technical questions they asked me correctly. I did not end up getting that job. At my second interview, to calm my nerves I did a Wonder Woman power pose in the bathroom and marched into the interview confidently. To my surprise, I got the job despite the fact I thought I was a total fraud. I was going to be the only woman on a team of five programmers. When I started working at my job, I thought they were going to fire me any day since I “tricked” them into hiring me. They never did. Sometimes I still feel like a fake, but I feel that less so now compared to the first few months at my job.

How have you fought against imposter syndrome?

Sarah: Imposter syndrome creeps up on me at the strangest times. I try to fight it preemptively by surrounding myself with supportive friends and by repeating a little mantra in my head: “You are enough”. I try to find perspective on what I’m doing. For example, sometimes I get down on myself for how my website looks or that I haven’t been doing enough projects on the side. I try to change my perspective and look at what else I’ve been doing (like extracurriculars or one project that I’ve focused on) or I tell myself that everything is a work-in-progress and that skills grow with time and practice.

Alicia: The way I deal with it every day is to remind myself of my accomplishments and how far I have come in the past year. A year ago, I was really struggling with computer science and didn’t do any coding in my spare time. Last summer, I didn’t have a job that involved writing code because I had no confidence in myself. In the past year, I have become way more confident in myself and now have a job as a programmer. Outside of work, I am constantly working on some side coding project. Another thing I do is look back at the projects I have done in the past year and see the improvement in my coding abilities. Sarah and I realized what a big problem imposter syndrome is and we constantly work to fight it within the campus community. We started an organization called USIT(UMass Students In Tech) to encourage those who did not have technical coursework previously to pursue coding project in their spare time. We host workshops to teach people how to code as well as events such as Coffee,Code, and Chill for collaboration on ideas students want to work on. Through USIT, we create a setting where people can feel comfortable about the issues that they face and talk through them with others.

Any advice for other people struggling with imposter syndrome?

Sarah: You are not alone! Find a support network of other women in tech (thanks, Rewriting the Code!). But my biggest piece of advice? Read Dr. Valerie Young’s book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. This book changed my life. It’s helped me to identify imposter syndrome in my daily life and banish those intrusive thoughts. Those feelings can still linger, but now I know what it is and how to still be proud of my accomplishments. And guess what? You can too. I believe in you.

Alicia: Never give up! Embrace social media networks like Rewriting the Code, Tech Ladies, Ladies Storm Hackathons. If your school has tech meetups, clubs, or hackathons then go to those to find mentors, peers, or learn how to code even if you think you’re unqualified. Being the person who knows the least in the room has the most to gain. Also, many student organizations and hackathons are very welcoming to newcomers. When I feel like a fraud, I watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about faking it until you make it. Her talk reminds me that I am not alone in my struggle and many women deal with imposter syndrome. Just keep on working hard and at some point there will be a breakthrough where you don’t feel like a fraud anymore. One last tip I have is to seek out a mentor whether that be an upperclassman, advisor, or someone who has your dream job. A mentor will help you get unstuck and may even push you out of your comfort zone. Remember, that everyone receives help along the way and never be afraid to ask for it.

Don’t forget to believe in yourself <3

Alicia Bochnak + Sarah Manlove, 2019 RTC Fellows

Rewriting the Code – Empowering College Women in Tech

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