How to Deal With Impostor Syndrome When Applying to Law School

January 3, 2020

If you’ve ever experienced impostor syndrome, you can relate to the anxious, icky reaction that comes with feeling wholly unqualified for a situation — that you’re not smart enough, not good enough, not experienced enough, or on the verge of a hugely embarrassing mistake that will reveal you for the scam artist you are.

We’ve all felt this way at one point or another, and even our most esteemed role models will cop to it. Even after winning a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony award, five Grammys, and serving on two presidential committees, beloved author Maya Angelou is quoted as saying, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to me find out.’” 

As outside observers, we know that Angelou’s fears are unfounded. But when you’re in the midst of something that causes the self-doubt to rage, like staring down a law-school application or the LSAT, impostor syndrome can leave you feeling like you have absolutely no business trying to earn a JD.

Man contemplatively looking at his laptop

The Science of Impostor Syndrome

The concept of feeling like a fraud, even when you’re not, was first identified in 1978 by Pauline Rose Clance and Suanne Imes, two psychologists who described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” If the person does achieve success, they dismiss it as luck, good timing, or even deception, and conditions like perfectionism, black-and-white thinking and intense fear of rejection and failure make it worse. 

Combined with the fact that some lawyers are also tasked with the business side of building their own practice or working at a small firm, and impostor syndrome can become paralyzing. 

It’s a scary proposition. But at the same time, knowledge is power. And instead of succumbing to the “What ifs,” unpacking impostor syndrome can help you overcome them.

How Applying to Law School Can Challenge Your Confidence

You know you’re in for a long haul when you hear pre-law advisors talk about “application season.” While most law programs begin during the fall semester, the application process can start up to a year in advance and includes researching schools, understanding their application requirements, registering with the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), studying for and taking the LSAT, writing a bevy of personal essays, tracking down undergraduate transcripts, letters of recommendation, securing financial aid and more. 

Aside from that painful wait between application and acceptance, the LSAT has a special way of feeling like you can’t hang with the smart kids. The questions can be brutal. It takes a lot of prep. And the score is one of the top determining factors for who gets into which school. Not only that, but your score can also affect your job placement after graduation and even keep you from receiving merit-based financial aid.

For better or worse, rankings matter in our profession. So it’s not hard to imagine how falling below the top-percentile threshold might open the door for impostor syndrome to creep in.

How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome 

The first step to overcoming impostor syndrome is to realize that you have it. There’s a distinction between a true fraud and someone who just feels that way, and self-awareness is key to spotting the difference. (If you are truly fraudulent and lack the quantifiable skill to accomplish a job, it can be corrected. If you’re feeling impostor syndrome you already have the skill, you just don’t believe in it.)

Once you realize it, you can own it. And then you can tell it to go away. (Here’s a great article that digs into the psychology of impostor syndrome.)

Next, understand that you’re chasing a big, ambitious goal. That makes you a high achiever and prone to feeling like an impostor at one point or another, especially as you make the leap from classroom to courtroom. When that day comes, think back to how your confidence grew between the first day of law school and graduation day. 

The other important thing you can do is plan, plan, plan. Start your research early. Create a timeline that starts with the first day of school and backs out as long as necessary for you to feel comfortable.

Finally, remember that you’re not alone. More than 60,000 people applied to law school for the 2019-20 school year — that’s a lot of personal essays. And we’re willing to bet that many of them didn’t send off their applications to the nation’s top law schools with 100% confidence. Consider joining an online support group, where you’re likely to find many other students who share your uncertainty. Forums like Reddit, Facebook and even specialized groups for lawyers and law students can connect you to others that can relate, offer advice, and maybe even help you realize that you’re not as far below par as you might think.

Ready to make the leap? Schedule a campus visit today.

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Topics: Applying to Law School