There will always be someone better than you.
For a significant portion of my life, I’d accepted this sentiment with confidence. I mean, there are billions of people who live on this planet — it would be illogical to think I could single-handedly best each of them in a given subject area.
My faith in the above statement remained unwavering during some of the most defining moments of my academic career: The first time I took the infamous college entrance exam that shall not be named, I rarely found myself worrying about how well other students might have scored in comparison to me.
As I worked through probability equations in a concerningly cold classroom, I caught my focus frequently drifting toward how I could perform better on a future exam, as opposed to how my peers could outperform me. There will always be a student better at analyzing mathematical expressions than me, so what’s the point in obsessing over them?
Once I graduated high school, I was certain this mentality would follow me into my college career. I had successfully avoided getting stuck in deep pits of self-doubt during the college admission process; I never thought that my extracurriculars and academic accomplishments didn’t make me a good fit for UF.
And then I stepped foot on campus.
I entered my first discussion period for The Long Civil Rights Movement two months ago, eager to apply my keen interest in social justice and aptitude for writing to a class that synthesized those two things perfectly. It was when assignments started becoming increasingly difficult, though, that I wrongfully began to dislike this course.
As I started to compare my grades with those of my classmates, I realized for the first time in my life, I was no longer accepting of the aforementioned statement that used to define my academic career. I was no longer ok with not being the best.
Why didn’t I earn that point? Why are other students performing better than me? Do I not belong here?
Within a matter of weeks, this frustration with my own performance transformed itself into a larger issue: a full-blown demonstration of imposter syndrome. Loosely defined as a sense of self-doubt that leads individuals (especially those that are high achieving) to feel like pretenders — this perceived fraudulence was only heightened by the environment I was in.
Earning the title of a top-five public university last year, UF has become a space for some of the nation’s most gifted individuals — something that often prompts students to go the extra mile when doubting their own skills. Questions of academic ability often become questions of belonging, with a single less-than-superior grade housing the potential to make students worry about whether they deserve to have a spot here.
But it’s especially important to consider the demographic that imposter syndrome likely affects the most on campus: freshmen.
Members of the class of 2026 were forced to navigate through one of the most difficult college admissions seasons in recent years. With overall application rates surging for a slew of reasons, acceptance rates for schools throughout the nation dropped significantly. Accepting 22.8% of applicants during the 2022 admissions cycle as opposed to 32.8% the previous year, UF was not exempt from this trend.
First-year UF students successfully made it through this year’s competitive admissions season, and now they’re trying to prove themselves to be the people in their applications. So, why do some of us still feel like we don’t belong?
The uncomfortable truth
Dealing with imposter syndrome has been especially challenging because it’s revealed an ugly truth about students like myself: We are overly focused on academic achievement.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with being committed to attaining academic excellence. Goals like these played an instrumental role in my admission to UF, and it plays an even bigger one in my current experience here. But it is remarkably easy for this focus to send first-year students down a harmful spiral.
When faced with the tiniest academic challenge, those suffering from imposter syndrome are quickly led to believe they do not deserve to be in whatever environment they exist in. When I began comparing my academic performance to that of my classmates a couple months ago, I allowed myself to fall victim to this notion.
The truth is, the point of pursuing a higher education isn’t to be the best at anything, really. There is a lot of good that can come out of simply valuing the academic experiences that can be gained from spending time in school, whether positive or not.
When we start entering class with a little less of a goal-oriented approach, we free ourselves from unnecessary comparison. There will always be someone who’s better than you at something — so accept it and continue to excel, regardless.
Halima Attah is the Opinion Editor at The Alligator.