Fitting into MIT

How imposter syndrome gave me a sense of belonging
APR 2020
Mechanical Engineering

When I got my acceptance email from MIT, I actually cried. My childhood dream was coming true, and my emotions were a whirlwind of excitement and disbelief. In a fit of excitement, I called my mom and somehow managed to string together words to convey the good news to her. At the end of the phone call, I jokingly told her "I am convinced they made a mistake, but I'm not going to be the one to tell them." Little did I know that my joking attitude was a manifestation of a phenomenon that I wouldn't learn the name of until later: imposter syndrome. 

Imposter syndrome is generally defined as the "false and sometimes crippling belief that one's successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill". It is worth noting that the American Psychological Association has published an extensive review drawing on both anecdotal evidence and expert observations to give insight into what suffering from imposter syndrome feels like, what causes it, and ways of coping with it. In the remainder of this blog, I will describe some of my own imposter syndrome experiences.

For me, joking about the admissions committee making a mistake was just the beginning. For the coming weeks between receiving my acceptance and going to visit, I thought I was going to receive another email stating that the previously released decisions were wrongfully sent out. After all, I thought, I am not the archetype of an MIT student: I cannot multiply 5-digit numbers together in my head, I do not have an innate intuition into some unexplored physical phenomena, and I certainly do not know the first things about Mechanical Engineering, the program I was admitted to (my undergraduate degree was in NanoEngineering). I kept wondering what the admissions committee saw in me. There must have been so many competitive applicants; how was I lucky enough to get picked out of all of them? Will I be able to do what is needed to be a successful graduate student at MIT? 

In anticipation of the visit weekend, I started to imagine the type of people I would meet. They would all be childhood geniuses or prodigies with a long list of awards and accomplishments dating back into their childhood. They would all have started companies that were making life changing impacts or written books proving some abstract ideas in math, science, or engineering. 

At the first event of the visit weekend, the Sidney Pacific dinner reception, we were assigned seating at tables with professors, current graduate students, and a handful of other admits. The current graduate student at my table unsuccessfully kept trying to bring up small talk to engage the new students. As I watched another admit biting their lip and picking their nails, I realized that I wasn’t the only one feeling nervous. I wondered if they also felt like an imposter. As the night ended, we all went our separate ways back to the hotel. We all had yet to find our place in this remarkable institution.  

It was not until the third day of the visit weekend that I truly realized how much what I was feeling resonated with other students. We were at a coffee hour, and I was making small talk with a few other students when a student “jokingly” said they were positive the committee made a mistake admitting them. Everyone there started echoing the same thoughts I had this whole time: What if I am not good enough? Is it too late for them to take back my admission? I thought MIT was only for geniuses? 

This exchange really resonated with me: I wasn't the only one. When I learned that there was a group of people feeling the same way, I began to feel as though I belonged more. The friends that I made were all hard working, passionate, and smart, but, like me, were not childhood geniuses or obviously successful. The friendships that I forged began to crumble my beliefs of who deserves to be at MIT and what it takes to succeed. Instead of extraordinary intelligence or rote memorization, to me it started to seem like MIT was more interested in graduate students that were determined to change the world and had the aptitude to pick up the skills needed to tackle any problem. 

To this day, I sometimes walk through the archetypal MIT dome to my lab in the mornings, look up at the stained-glass ceiling, and have a sense of disbelief that I made it here. However, now, instead of doubting how I made it here, I feel grateful for the opportunity to challenge myself in new ways and work with brilliant people. I realize that “intelligence” can manifest itself in so many different ways (e.g. creativity, intuition, determination). Just because your form of intelligence does not align with your stereotype of an MIT student does not mean you aren’t intelligent, and it certainly does not mean you do not belong here. Finally, if you find yourself in the position I was in, remember that you are not alone. Sharing your feelings might just help you find your people here at MIT.