Imposter syndrome in medical school

Many medical students experience imposter syndrome. Changing your outlook is not easy, but doing so can help you overcome feelings of self-doubt.


Entering medical school is an exciting time. Years of hard work, from lengthy MCAT preparation to impressive extracurricular achievements, culminate in that much anticipated, well-deserved acceptance letter. But the reality of medical school can quickly shatter this initial excitement when you are surrounded by bright-minded individuals.

You share a classroom with students who were in the top of their class and students who come from a family of doctors. Whiteboards in the study lounge look like a foreign language. Everyone is talking about “First Aid” and “Anki,” which are resources you’ve never heard of. As the weeks go on, you start to feel like maybe you’re not cut out for med school. Maybe you got “lucky.”

Yet, it is important to remember that this is a common experience, and you must find that balance between self-assuredness and self-doubt. This feeling has been coined “imposter syndrome,” and unfortunately, academics is a common home for it, with medical school being no exception. Imposter syndrome can make you feel isolated, like you’re constantly drowning in unfamiliar territory while everyone else knows how to swim. While it can be tough, it’s important to take the time and recognize all that you’ve achieved and stop comparing yourself to others.

‘Comparison is the thief of joy

Theodore Roosevelt said it best. It is easy to get caught up in the comparison game, especially in an environment where board scores, class rank, grades, and research achievements can profoundly impact your future career. The pressure to constantly perform and succeed can be overwhelming, leading to feelings of guilt or laziness when taking a break or engaging in self-care. It can feel like everyone around you is simply doing more than you.

I struggled with this a lot as a second-year student when I was preparing for my first round of boards. I noticed when setting aside time to relax and recoup, I felt guilty. “You must not want it that bad,” was a common narrative that replayed in my head, making me feel as if making it to this point was simply a “mistake.” In reality, everyone is human and needs to take breaks. Self-care is never selfish, and this feeling was so prevalent in my peers. Focusing on all your achievements is essential instead of comparing them to others.

Confidence isn’t linear

It can be challenging to avoid tying your self-worth to the outcome of a test score or evaluation from an attending. As a medical student, you may experience weeks when you excel in creating strong differentials and answering questions on rounds with ease, followed by difficult weeks where it seems impossible to identify any sort of diagnosis. All the physicians before you have been in your position and recognize how steep of a learning curve medicine can be.

During these challenging times, it’s important to recognize that fluctuations in performance are normal and to view these moments as valuable opportunities for growth. Like people working in most fields, those in medicine have good and bad days, and adopting a growth mindset can help you achieve confidence instead of feelings of failure.

You are a valuable member of the team

As a medical student, it is easy to underestimate your worth and role within a medical team.

When patients or other medical team members would ask me to put in orders or have a question about their care, I often said, “Sorry, I’m just a medical student.” The sentence was true, but saying it often left me feeling inadequate.

A conversation with my attending helped solidify how much students can add to patient care. We often have the time and medical knowledge to sit down with patients after rounds and answer questions or further explain a treatment plan. There are many ways to contribute and if you are feeling out of place, the best thing to do is ask your superior what is expected of a medical student on the rotation. Continuously downplaying your role can make you question how important your contributions are.

Imposter syndrome takes on various forms and is a common hurdle for many students. As someone who discovered their passion for medicine later in college, I felt intimidated by the depth of knowledge my peers seemed to have when starting medical school. However, as I near the end of this journey, I’ve realized that most people have experienced these doubts at some point. It’s important to remember that becoming a physician is a lengthy process that all doctors go through, and everyone faces their own unique challenges. You deserve to be here.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

The ironic tango of imposter syndrome and a growth mindset

How to make mistakes and recover from them as a resident


  1. Bill Williams

    Truthfully if I hadn’t spent over 14 years on Active Duty, work my way up from Combat Medic to Physicians Assistant I’m not sure how I would have done with dealing with the Challenges of Medical School Even with this background there was a Rotation that almost brought me to my knees.

  2. Denis Gibbs DO. KCCOM 1074

    Imposter syndrome. Depression walking into a classroom filled with students from all backgrounds, including Ivy League left you feeling how did I get here was I just lucky . well I make it. By the end of the first year I began to overcome these fears by the end of the second year I had the confidence that I was going to become a physician. It made the third and fourth year, no matter what the rotation fun though still at times a grind.

    looking back, I truly wish our first week had included dealing with this issue. I love what I do, and I’m sure the incoming classes will find the same satisfaction that grows day by day as they gain the confidence in themselves.

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