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What colleges need to know about imposter phenomenon and social anxiety

How to best address these two prevalent mental health concerns

February 28, 2024, By Melissa Lantta, Strategic Leader, Student Success

Imposter phenomenon and social anxiety are two conditions that are on the rise but are rarely discussed in the broader conversation on student mental health. Unfamiliar environments can fuel these conditions, leading students to feel insecure about their academic abilities and perceive others as more knowledgeable or capable.

Additionally, there has been a rise in the number of incoming Millennials and Gen Z college students who indicate that they are perfectionists. Although setting high standards and being driven can be positive, when taken to extremes, they may contribute to mental health concerns and even suicidal ideations among students. Higher ed leaders must recognize these potential challenges, along with their intersections, to develop comprehensive campus-wide strategies that address the diverse mental health needs of students.

Three common traits of imposter phenomenon we’ve all likely experienced

Imposter phenomenon (IP) was first used to describe a phenomenon observed in women in the workforce and is now used more broadly.

While often referred to as imposter syndrome, imposter phenomenon is the preferred term because it is not a clinical diagnosis. Imposter phenomenon is comprised of three defining characteristics:

  • Insecurity: Individuals with IP believe that others have overestimated their abilities; they fear being exposed as a fake or having the “truth” revealed that their abilities are not enough to prove successful.
  • Self-doubt: Those with IP are unable or unwilling to internalize success and believe it is tied to external factors, such as luck. The rise of social media has also led individuals to develop inaccurate views of their own lives in comparison to others; when individuals see a curated version of people’s best days highlighted on social media, they may feel that they are either not doing enough or that they are not enough.
  • Perfectionism: Perfectionism can be seen in high-achieving graduate students and in underrepresented student populations (e.g., students of color, first-generation, nontraditional students). Students tend to set unrealistic expectations and goals for themselves and even when success is attained, they can focus only on mistakes.

College life can exacerbate pre-existing social anxiety

Social anxiety—recognized by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V)—is a common clinical anxiety disorder in which individuals experience fear or anxiety when they feel they are being judged by others. These feelings cause intense anxiety in social situations and may lead individuals to avoid them altogether.

Pre-pandemic data estimated the impact of social anxiety to be around 7.1% of the U.S. population with at least 12% of college and university students being affected. A study of university students between September 2020 and February 2021 revealed the prevalence of anxiety to be 41% globally with the U.S. experiencing the highest levels at 56%. While social anxiety can impact students’ ability to connect with others, it can also affect their academic success. Students may be afraid to ask questions in class or they may even stop attending class altogether, causing them to eventually stop out.

College can create an overlap between imposter phenomenon and social anxiety for many students

Social situations meant to engage incoming students like orientations and icebreakers can cause individuals with social anxiety to withdraw. Similar scenarios occur throughout a student’s academic journey (e.g., their first exam, presenting their first speech, applying to a competitive program).

Those grappling with social anxiety and imposter phenomenon fear making mistakes, worrying about saying the ‘wrong’ thing, and potentially embarrassing themselves. Physical manifestations like sweating, blushing, avoiding eye contact, increased heart rate, or a queasy stomach may accompany these situations. Addressing imposter phenomenon and social anxiety becomes crucial as students approach graduation, especially when applying for graduate programs or interviewing for jobs.

Provide proactive support to students experiencing imposter phenomenon and social anxiety

Colleges and universities are responsible for identifying and implementing policies and practices that support imposter phenomenon and/or social anxiety. Institutions should strategically pose questions to students and extend outreach during crucial moments, such as the start of a semester, after their first test, and before graduation—especially during transitions to graduate school or the workforce. Additionally, sharing the prevalence of students experiencing imposter phenomenon or social anxiety is vital for normalizing these feelings.

5 ways to support students with imposter phenomenon or social anxiety:

  1. Educate them on ways to recognize and address their feelings of imposter phenomenon and/or social anxiety during orientations or first-year experience courses. Students may not know that what they are experiencing has a name and that their peers feel similarly. Once they can name what they are experiencing, they can begin to manage it.
  2. Intentionally discuss imposter phenomenon and social anxiety when students arrive at your institution. Faculty and staff should openly share their experiences, shedding light on shared struggles to diminish feelings of isolation and enhance connection.
  3. Offer options that assess students’ competencies on the subject material besides the traditional assessment methods (e.g., portfolios, simulations, self-assessments).
  4. Use student surveys or polls to identify students who are experiencing imposter phenomenon and/or social anxiety. However, these surveys should not be used as a diagnosis, but more for awareness.
  5. Create an environment where mistakes are seen as learning opportunities and set healthy expectations for students to celebrate their successes as a community.

Questions to identify feelings of IP or social anxiety

If you want to survey students to help connect them with resources related to imposter phenomenon and social anxiety, we’ve curated questions from trusted sources to get you started.


0 = Not at all
1=A little bit
3=Very much

  1. Have you ever been afraid that others will discover that you are not as competent as they think you are?
  2. Do you often doubt your own abilities or believe that your success is due to luck?
  3. It’s hard for me to accept compliments or praise about my intelligence or accomplishments

(Sampling of questions revised from Clance IP)

  1. Fear of embarrassment causes me to avoid doing things or speaking to people.
  2. I avoid activities in which I am the center of attention.
  3. Being embarrassed or looking stupid are among my worst fears.

(Questions from Mini-SPIN)

Melissa Lantta

Melissa Lantta

Strategic Leader, Student Success

Read Bio

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