I Felt Like an Imposter in the Ivy League
Spending four years feeling out of place might just teach you how to find your place.
Ever since I was a little girl, I dreamed of going to an Ivy League school. After all, that was my parents’ American dream: work hard to provide an environment conducive to cultivating success in their children. The most critical step that came before adulthood was which college I would attend.
When I was eight, I walked around the campus of Princeton University for the first time. How magical it would be to come to this place and spend four years! In the years to come, some of our summer vacations in the northeast would involve tours at other schools (of course those included Harvard and Yale).
Over the years while I continued to dream of attending an Ivy League school, I became afraid of having to live in a reality where that dream didn’t come true. Seeing that the overall acceptance rates at these schools was in the single digit percentages, I started pushing the dream away. Working hard felt futile. I was doing all these things in high school all for the slim chance of making it in.
Then I was in. My parents’ efforts had paid off. My efforts had paid off. I had spent so many years looking forward to this moment, and I had no idea what to do next.
Like many high school seniors, I spent my last semester doing the bare minimum. Nothing mattered anymore. I remember my mom asking me if I might want to get a head start and start looking at course materials before the semester started. I brushed her off completely. College would be fine. After all, I had been a straight-A student throughout high school.
In hindsight, it would have been a good idea to listen to my mom. The engineering prerequisites I took that first semester were brutal. I had assumed that I would do fine by studying the same way in high school plus a little more. Unfortunately for me, procrastinating the same way I did in high school just didn’t work anymore.
Being a freshman was exciting. There were so many activities aimed at acclimatizing the new students into campus life. As I met new students in my classes and other activities, it was immediately clear how hard they worked to this point. Many of my friends were all valedictorians or salutatorians of their high schools. My international friends had done things like win top international science awards and fly around the world representing their nation in math competitions.
What had I done to deserve getting to this place? For the sake of getting into a good school, I had some other extracurricular activities that I actively participated in. But, the plan was always to drop those activities and focus on my academics in school.
Even though I had more time to focus on my classes, I just couldn’t crack the studying code. I received a C on the very first paper I wrote and finished out the semester with a sad 2.7 GPA.
Honestly, I thought A’s didn’t even exist anymore. I had been beaten down so hard that I felt like there wasn’t any way I could recover from all this. I saw other friends struggling in classes, but I felt like I was doing the worst. Thankfully, I found a solid church group on campus that saw me through all of these times. It was inspiring for me to see these upperclassmen who were so involved in their faith and successful in their studies at the same time. I always thought it was a give or take situation.
When I went home for winter break, my parents’ friends excitedly greeted me at church, immediately addressing my change in appearance (yes, I was a victim of the freshman fifteen) and then asking me how my school this was. They largely assumed that I was extremely successful in school.
When freshman spring came, I started to realize that I should probably have an internship lined up for the summer. After all, that was what all Ivy League students did, right? I applied for a summer program only to completely miss an interview email. By the time I realized my error and emailed back, the program coordinator sent back a curt reply telling me that they were already done considering candidates.
I was lucky that I landed a summer internship through one of my mom’s connections. I barely remember what I did that summer, but at least it was something I could put on my otherwise empty resume.
Embracing the Imposter Within
I now understood why people said things like “small school in New Jersey” or “just a school in Boston.” It was a cover to hide from the assumptions and expectations someone might have if they knew.
Personally, it felt extremely uncomfortable having someone be impressed by where I went to school while I was struggling academically. The one redeeming factor about doing so dismally right off the bat was that things couldn’t get that much worse moving forward.
Since I was already so far out of my comfort zone when it came to academia, I started taking courses completely unrelated to my major. Sophomore year, I enrolled in my first entrepreneurship class. I arrived at my first class late and not having done the reading. It was extra humiliating when it quickly became clear to me that this first class was no syllabus class. Each student was sitting with a printed name placard in front of their seats. Not long after I found an open seat in the back row, the professor was busy calling on students to share their thoughts on the case study I forgot to read. To make everything better, there was a TA in the front marking down each time someone spoke.
I really was the smallest fish in the ocean. At least several of my classmates had successfully launched businesses before, and many shared about their previous experiences working at startups. I was a nervous wreck in that class. Each class, I would anxiously bide my time to see when I could share something that didn’t sound stupid and get my participation point for the class.
Although I regularly complained about how intimidating the classroom atmosphere was, things got better. My heart wasn’t pounding as fast when I raised my hand. I also managed to weasel my way into a group with one of the professor’s favorite students for the final project of the class. It was nice to get a GPA boost.
As I reflected on how uncomfortable I was in that class after it ended, I also realized how it molded me into a better student. Before college, I was so used to having everything provided for and getting by doing what others told me to do. This entrepreneurship class taught me how to fend for myself and start developing the confidence that my classmates had.
With that, I enrolled in another entrepreneurship class for the next semester. And the next. I ended up taking at least one entrepreneurship/business class each semester until I graduated. Although I ultimately chose to major in computer science, my business classes ended up becoming a breath of fresh air in my otherwise lecture filled course load.
I felt most like an imposter in my computer science classes. I decided sophomore year that computer science would be the most tolerable major for me to graduate with based on all the engineering requirements I slaved away at freshman year. I was often confused and lost in lectures, but I started being proactive and taking advantage of office hours. I became less afraid to ask stupid questions.
There were still many moments of despair as I studied late into the night, but I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Along the way, I discovered more students who shared similar academic struggles. It was nice having that camaraderie in our study groups where we could laugh about how much we were struggling.
The Lessons I Learned
I’m very thankful and lucky to have been able to go to school (especially before Zoom university times) for those four years. Looking back, I think the biggest changes were related to my own character growth. I can barely recall the things I spent hours studying for in exams.
Learning How to Learn
I became fluent in the art of Googling when I was in school. Because my classes were so difficult for me, I was forced to identify the studying habits that worked for me. In one of my classes where I could barely follow what my professor was saying, I took to watching the equivalent lectures from another university on YouTube to supplement my learning.
Taking Initiative to Influence Outcomes
In school, I was forced to work hard to improve my GPA. Going through the exercise of tackling a new subject multiple times in school roved to be especially beneficial when it came to applying to jobs. So many of my friends were going off to great companies and organizations to work, and I saw that a lot of that preparation came from individual hard work and initiative.
I was determined to graduate with a job ready to go to. After not hearing any responses from any of the companies I applied to freshman year, I became more proactive in sophomore year. When junior year came around, I was sending out applications in the fall to increase my chances at landing an internship earlier on.
Embracing the Unknown and Calculated Risks
I hated uncertainty, but the roller coaster I experienced over my years in school taught me that there is value in using the future’s uncertainty as a motivating factor.
Since working, I have changed teams three times already. I honestly thought that I would stay with the same team for at least a couple years, but opportunities have presented themselves and I’ve taken them. Though each transition had its own challenges, I can see how they have improved my technical skills as well as advanced my career.
These points can be applied for any stage of life, whether you’re a prospective student or already well in your career.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
One of my regrets from college was that I spent too much time wallowing in my own self pity on how poorly I was doing. I wish I had kicked myself out of my comfort zone earlier. I never got to a point where I understood 100% of what was going on in classes, but it was okay.
It’s never too late to start challenging yourself. Find out what works for you. Personally, this looks like setting stretch goals that I am motivated to work towards. This way, my goals are challenging but not so challenging that I easily give up.
Meet More People
I don’t know about you, but I’m usually flattered if someone wants to meet me. There are others out there who feel similarly and are happy to get to know you. Introducing yourself to strangers might feel weird at first, but it’s all part of getting out of your own comfort zone.
I learn so much from people who don’t necessarily share my world view, and there is value in embracing diversity. When things open up again, I’m excited to attend more meetups and spontaneous hangouts.
My community of friends in college made an enormous difference in my college experience. It was so nice knowing that others were going through the same struggles as I. It was also always fun to kick back and relax after a hard semester.
It was a lot of fun for me to look back at my college experience and reflect on the ways it has fundamentally changed me as a person. Although there are so many things I would do differently if given the opportunity, I think that everything that happened during those four years was ultimately for my good.
One thing still hasn’t changed though. If someone asks me where I went to school, I’ll probably still say that I went to a small school somewhere on the east coast.