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Study Finds Imposter Syndrome Higher Among First Generation Students

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Imposter syndrome describes the unfounded belief that one is unworthy of his or her accomplishments, and according to new research, first-generation college students are more likely to suffer from it.

Dr. Elizabeth Canning

The study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, focused on a group of 818 freshmen and sophomore students pursuing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The students completed surveys, which included questions surrounding imposter syndrome, immediately after their STEM classes for a two-week period and at the end of the semester.

In classes that students considered highly competitive, first-generation students were more likely to agree with statements such as, “In class, I felt like people might find out that I am not as capable as they think I am.”

However, in classes that students didn’t perceive as competitive, there was no difference in the levels of self-reported imposter syndrome between first- and continuing-generation students.

“We found that when students think their class is competitive, they feel more like an imposter on a day-to-day basis and this is most problematic for first-generation college students,” said assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University and author of the study, Dr. Elizabeth Canning, to the PsyPost.

She said the study’s findings are especially significant to the retention of first-generation students given that imposter syndrome is often associated with less course engagement, lower attendance, dropout intentions and lower course grades.

In the abstract of the study, Canning wrote, “Classroom competition and the imposter feelings it engenders may be an overlooked barrier for promoting the engagement, performance and retention of first generation students in STEM.”

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