Helping Students Overcome Imposter Syndrome - Scholarship America

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Helping Students Overcome Imposter Syndrome

By Scholarship America

When Scholarship America conducted our annual student survey in 2021, 63% of students told us they planned to apply for more scholarships and grants in the wake of the pandemic and its financial impact. Those scholarships can help them alleviate the financial burden of college while still reaching for their dreams—but for many students, the scholarship application process is full of barriers.

Students who actively apply to multiple scholarships have to balance GPAs, references, essays, community service and extracurricular activities to create a narrative of why they deserve to receive a generous award. The process is time consuming and tiring—and it puts students in a vulnerable position where they know they are pitted against the credentials, stories and experiences of other students.

Many students have been told all their lives to stay humble and let their actions and deeds speak for them. All of a sudden, scholarship applications ask students to sell themselves as a candidate; to compete against their peers for money in order to move their dreams forward.

When imposter syndrome strikes

It is enough to give some students the scholarship application version of “imposter syndrome.” First described in the 1970’s, “imposter syndrome” or “imposter phenomenon” is experienced when “achievers … are unable to internalize and accept their success,” feeling instead like their accomplishments have been the result of luck, or that they are where they are because they are a fraud.

Those suffering from imposter syndrome look around at people in their similar situation and believe that everyone else is more talented, smart, skilled and creative, and that their perceived shortcomings will be “found out.” At its worst, it can prevent high achievers from pushing themselves, because they don’t see themselves on the same “level” as those who they would be competing against, despite their own abilities and achievements.

This feeling of doubt and hesitation has a massive impact when it comes to scholarships. In our research, students said the top barrier to applying is the thought that they might not receive the scholarship, so they shouldn’t waste valuable time applying. It’s a classic example of imposter syndrome, especially in  the competition for larger awards: students go into the process thinking that someone more “deserving” will always have more need, a better story or more reason to be awarded than they will.

Unfortunately, this kind of self-doubt contributes to an estimated $100 million in scholarship dollars going unclaimed every year. As we know, not every scholarship is for the student who has the most need, the most accomplishments or the highest GPA. But many times, that is the assumption students make.

So how can we, as scholarship providers, help students through this form of imposter syndrome?

First, we can empathize with what students are facing. It might be easy to dismiss student concerns in this area; after all, applying for scholarships is “just” gathering information and answering questions. But it is critical to understand that starting with applications, college overall causes significant anxiety for some students.

In fact, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “nearly a third of all college students have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, [and] the number of reported cases of student anxiety has increased by 50 percent over the past eight years.” To help alleviate anxiety in this part of their college journey, ensure your scholarship’s requirements are clear and straightforward, and broad enough that students feel encouraged, not discouraged from applying. Ambiguity only increases anxiety and students will do best when all of the information is clear, welcoming and upfront.

Second, build a connection with past scholarship recipients to build legitimacy with your program and let students see that winning is possible. Students see themselves in other students so building a rapport with previous recipients and telling their stories will give applicants a little more confidence to apply.

Finally, help students access resources that will expedite their scholarship application process. This will position you as an organization that is on the side of students and committed to seeing them succeed. There are many scholarship application resources you can link to and share with other organizations, including those developed by the National Scholarship Providers Association (NSPA) and Scholarship America.

To students, the message is: don’t be discouraged and apply for as many scholarships as you are able. Everything you have done has merit and is worth of including in an application. With strong preparation for your applications, you will be successful.

Of course, like we said above, it’s important to hear it directly from students who have been in your shoes. Therefore, we’ll let some of our 2022 Dream Award Scholars share their own advice directly.