ADMITTED, BUT NOT ACCEPTED: The Imposter Syndrome in the College Admissions Process

“Why did you give me this name?” I demanded, letting my books fall loudly on the table next to us.

“Austin, your father and I had a really hard time coming up with a name we both liked … We knew that anyone who saw it before meeting you would assume you are a white man. One day you will have to apply for jobs. We just wanted to make sure you could make it to the interview.”

She didn’t know a name like Austin could be stretched wide enough to cloak a little black girl.

Lawrence Alexander
Lawrence Alexander

This is an excerpt from I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown. I recently read this penetrating book, which simultaneously comforted and disturbed me.

For the last decade, I’ve worked as a college counselor in public and independent schools where I’ve encountered several first-generation college students, students who identify as female, and students of color. I’d like to think that I’ve been their guide, counselor, and advocate. Yet as I reflect on Brown’s memoir, I wonder if I have unwittingly contributed to the “stretching of the cloak” over my students’ authenticity for fear that the predominantly white world of college admissions wouldn’t see them as legitimate or viable.

In what ways am I like Austin’s parents? I say, “I recommended these colleges because … ,” or, “You should write your essay about this topic because … ,” or “During your admissions interview, you should highlight this because … .”

I just wanted to make sure you could make it to the interview.

Brown’s book deals with what we commonly refer to as “imposter syndrome,” where people from underrepresented groups assimilate to the dominant culture — most commonly white, male, Christian, heterosexual, upper-class — while haunted by the fear that one day they’ll be exposed as fraudulent, pretending to be something or someone they are not.

So, what about the college counselor? From the creation of the college list to the day of paying the enrollment deposit, am I helping students find their best fit? Or am I helping them find their best compromise?

Here are some practical considerations I’ve wrestled with:

1. The college list: What kinds of communities am I recommending to my students? College counselors need to do more than recommend colleges. We need to accept responsibility for the communities those colleges create as well. There’s a difference between asking a student to employ a growth mindset and asking a student to deny their personhood. If we took responsibility for the community list and not just the college list, we’d stand a better chance at helping our students meet with success.

2. The true cost of attendance: How much does college really cost for underrepresented students? When affording college is a consideration, we could center the individual’s financial need and not their emotional, social, and psychological needs. I have been guilty of pushing colleges that give the best aid, but after reading this book I have to ask myself, “At what cost?” What does “demonstrated need even mean?” If I ensure that my student has no debt but no mentorship or cultural capital on campus, what good have I done? I know it can feel like an “add-on” to ask colleges and universities who provide generous financial aid to do more, but perhaps the issue at hand is that financial aid alone is never enough. Even free rides can be bumpy.

3. Creating opportunities to “unpack the sack”: For many, college counseling is not enough. They need mental health counseling as well. Underrepresented students inevitably encounter experiences around the “imposter syndrome” that go ignored. The “sack” refers to the issues underrepresented students carry around that never gets addressed so it becomes a heavy burden they’re forced to bear. Unpacking it means talking with peers, mentors, and counselors about these issues in spaces that are safe and supportive. As a college counselor, how can I work closely with a female student of color, place her at a predominantly white science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) school and not help her prepare for the psychological and emotional impact that will have on her? How can I work with closely with a poor white student from a homogenous, rural setting and not expect them to struggle at a highly competitive liberal arts school in an urban setting? We need to see the college counseling profession as more than admission and May 1 — the admissions deposit due date — as a beginning and not an end. Do students have space at our schools and their future colleges to unpack their cultural sack?

Brown’s confrontational conversation with her mother unearths a relevant question for college counselors everywhere. Are we stretching a cloak of cultural deniability over our students’ ability to be their authentic selves in the name of admissions and financial aid? I submit that our field is about acceptance — self-acceptance. I am personally re-dedicating myself to being a more culturally considerate, environmentally conscious, and socially responsible counselor. I look forward to seeing you at the desk. ν

Lawrence Alexander is the director of College Counseling at White Mountain School in Bethlehem, N.H. He is also a member of the DiversityIS Editorial Board.