Feeling Like a Fraud in the First Year of College (and why that’s OK)

When I ask students in their first year of college how they’re doing, I often get a pained look in response. it’s common for students to feel a bit (or maybe a whole lot) like they don’t fit, even like they’re a fraud, not a “real student.” Do you ever feel that way? Well, here’s a confession: I felt that way myself when I got started as an undergraduate student, and it took me some time to shake that feeling. It turns out that this kind of feeling is absolutely normal and even a kind of standard part of getting used to a new role. As Erving Goffman explains in his dramaturgical theory of social interaction (Goffman 1959), we are all in a sense playing roles on a public stage, trying to pull off our scenes, trying to remember our lines. Difficulty in performing a role like that of student doesn’t mean you’re a bad human being — it just means you need to be patient with yourself and give yourself a bit of time to practice your new role before you can feel like you’ve truly nailed it. I share my thoughts on this subject in the video below:

William Shakespeare shared this sentiment in two of his plays:

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”
– Macbeth

“All the world’s a stage,
and all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.”
– As You Like It

Goffman would agree with the second quote, but disagree heartily with the second quote. For Goffman, the lines we deliver and the successful scenes we accomplish in interaction signify a great deal. Indeed, the whole point of our strutting and fretting our hour upon the stage is to learn how to signify to one another. An undergraduate’s role in the first year is hard, because a college or university education involves a whole new way of signifying what matters, how it matters, and how we know what matters.

The bottom line? Feeling like a fraud in the first year of the undergraduate experience is not just normal; it’s actually OK, a sign of growth, a sign that you’re extending yourself into a new role. As the popular slogan goes, you just have to “fake it till you make it,” to keep practicing the new role until you get the part down well. A die-hard dramaturgist might say that there’s really no difference between someone who perfectly impersonates a success and an actual success.

Just keep practicing, keep pretending until the pretense becomes real. You can do it.

Reference

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Random House

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