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The Transition to College: Adjustment Disorder & Imposter Syndrome are Common in College Students

Updated: Feb 15

Especially in first-year college students, reports of adjustment disorder and imposter syndrome are common. Read on to learn more!


Each year millions of young adults across the county start their higher education journey. This year, fifteen Access Opportunity students (thirteen of whom are first-generation) began school at predominately white institutions, mostly populated by students from high-income families and other demographic characteristics different from those of our students.


Prior to heading to campus, AO students have worked tirelessly on college applications and spent months envisioning a future where they have independence and can define themselves in a new world that is full of possibilities. Just like anything in life, reality is not always what we imagined. Sometimes it's better, sometimes it's worse, but oftentimes it's just...different.


Although adjusting to college is exciting, it can also come with some challenges. Adjustments take time and sometimes feelings of self-doubt, isolation, fear, and nervousness can take over. People experience adjustments differently and sometimes the reaction to adjustments can mimic other mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Challenges that some college students experience when they start college could be explained by typical feelings of self-doubt and existential questions that arise as an outcome of youth development and external changes. Some challenges can be explained by a reaction to change that is a bit more complex, this reaction is known as adjustment disorder. Others may experience something else known as imposter syndrome. And some might experience mild to severe combinations of each.




What is Adjustment Disorder?

You most likely automatically have a negative reaction to the word disorder, but adjustment disorder is actually quite common, hence you could argue there's nothing disordered about it. Adjustment disorders typically occur during times of great transition and stress in one's life. This reaction to stress leads to an inability to function normally, which impacts social and emotional wellness. Adjustment disorders can exist with a variety of symptoms, vary in intensity, get better with time, and can be made more manageable by getting support.


For many people, going to college is a positive opportunity for growth. However, for some, it can bring on an adjustment disorder. One study found that a significant number of first-year college students experience adjustment disorders, making it one of the most common mental health issues facing college students.


What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a condition that describes high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or an imposter.


Imposter syndrome disproportionately affects women, especially women of color. In the article Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome, Tulshyan and Burey argue that the impact of systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases was absent when the concept of imposter syndrome was developed.


AO Students tend to report imposter syndrome feelings throughout college, but feelings seem to be more overwhelming when they first arrive at college. The following commonly reported experiences contribute to feeling like an imposter; A major cultural and life adjustment, perfectionistic expectations for oneself, and feeling like they don't belong. AO scholar and first-year student at DU, Yamilet Esponoza Nunez, says "Imposter syndrome is real, I didn't think I'd experience it, but I did. A major feeling that arose from this was fear. I'm learning to look at things as challenges, not as threats, in order to overcome these feelings."


What Are The Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome?

Understanding the characteristics of imposter syndrome is crucial in understanding your experience. The following are all symptoms of imposter syndrome:


  • Self-doubt

  • An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills

  • Attributing your success to external factors

  • Berating your performance

  • Fear that you won't live up to expectations

  • Overachieving

  • Sabotaging your own success

  • Setting very challenging goals, and feeling disappointed when you fall short


How Does Being a First-Generation College Student Affect Imposter Syndrome?

First-Generation students are inspiring and brave. They are doing something that no one else in their family has had an opportunity to do, yet they're more likely than continuing generation students to experience imposter syndrome, especially in environments that feel more competitive. AO Scholar and first-year student at CO School of Mines, Eli Paiz, says "At Mines, this syndrome is a very serious one. My time here has taught me to not focus on others and instead to focus on what I can actually control. Other people's lives are not your own, and many times circumstances vary wildly. As long as I can tell myself I'm giving my best effort, I have learned to not plague my mind with negative thoughts."


Why Are Students of Color More Likely to Experience Imposter Syndrome?

Dena Simmons talks about students of color confronting imposter syndrome in her TED talk. She describes the emotional damage done when young people can't be themselves and when they are forced to edit who they are in order to be 'acceptable.'


How Can I Manage If I'm Struggling with Adjustment Disorder?

Oftentimes, adjustment disorders go away on their own as the person adjusts. In some cases, adjustment disorders can develop into full-blown anxiety and depression. Therapy can be highly effective at helping one manage symptoms and develop coping strategies that you can use throughout your life.


How Can I Combat Feelings of Imposter Syndrome?

In order to overcome imposter syndrome, you have to actively change thought processes that contribute to you feeling like you aren't good enough. You can work to change thought processes through self-guided techniques, but much like dealing with adjustment disorder, getting support for when you're having feelings of being an imposter is crucial to overcoming these self-defeating thoughts and feelings.

Michelle Obama explains how age and practice have helped her work through her imposter syndrome. She explains that it is important to occupy seats and know that your thoughts, experiences, and insight are valuable. She says "You're needed at those tables, so you can't sit there wondering whether you belong because you'll waste your time and hold your voice back and you won't be able to make change because you're waiting for someone to tell you you belong, I'm telling you, you belong!"


How Does AO Programming Support Students When They Transition to College?

Students receive support individually and through cohort meetings. Cohort meetings occur quarterly and specifically focus on how change and transitions can affect your overall well-being and how to manage change in healthy ways. In cohort meetings, students are encouraged to share their experiences and support one another in finding solutions to the challenges that arise when making such a huge adjustment. Individual support is also offered to support students in identifying resources that their community and schools offer and ways to access those resources. In addition to cohort meetings and individual meetings with their AO Counselor, all first-year students are assigned a Peer Mentor who is an older AO student.


If you are an AO student and the idea of Imposter Syndrome or Adjustment Disorder resonates with you, you can always schedule an appointment with Juli to further discuss your experiences.

 

Juli Veser

Director of Social and Emotional Learning