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The perfect candidate

Summer internships are making students feel like the imposter at their institutions
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In January, to ring in the new year, email notices for job fairs and my parents’ questioning reminded me that I didn’t have any idea of how I would spend the four months of summer. Though the season felt so far away, it was apparent that the race to find an internship had already begun. 

Prior to enrolling at U of T, my summers consisted of working at an ice cream shop and travelling with my family during vacations. Recently, however, the prospect of scooping ice cream while my peers gain valuable professional experience consulting at a firm, assisting an MP, or conducting scientific research seemed to almost be a nightmare. I once thought of my summer life as an exciting daydream; it has instead become a slough of anxieties about being the only student in my orbit to not secure an internship. 

So, for the second consecutive year, I wrote stacks of cover letters and applied to some of the most competitive and obscure intern positions that I could find to pad my resume with.

Two weeks into my job search panic, my closest friend asked to join me on the European backpacking trip that I’d previously fantasized about for years. My dream has always been to travel Europe the summer of my 20th birthday; after looking at my stack of cover letters, I was ashamed of how willing I was to abandon that dream for an opportunity at professional experience. 

I wrestled with my dilemma for weeks. How could I spend a month travelling central Europe knowing that, one year later, the gap in my resume could prevent me from scheduling a job interview? Even worse, it could prevent me from scoring a successful career after graduation.

The trap of “hustle” or “grind culture” at U of T, and across North American academic institutions, can be incredibly hard to escape. For much of my undergraduate study, I believed that, despite all my achievements, my peers’ accomplishments represented my own inadequacies. Upon looking further into my insecurities, however, I learned that it wasn’t just myself who was feeling insecure — the increasing competition between postsecondary students to score internships is leaving many feeling like an imposter.

 

Who’s the imposter?

Here at U of T, the school which boasts the title of Canada’s number one ranked university for its academic and employer reputations, students are likely to experience “imposter syndrome.”

Imposter syndrome was first defined by psychologists Dr. Suzanne Imes and Dr. Pauline Rose Clance of Georgia State University in the late 1900s: “[It is] a phenomenon [that] occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success.” For students who boast a list of academic and professional accolades, rejections from jobs and graduate programs can minimise their existing achievements. 

In an interview with the American Psychological Association, Imes shared, “In our society there’s a huge pressure to achieve. There can be a lot of confusion between approval and love and worthiness. Self-worth becomes contingent on achieving.” 

In recent years, U of T has been featured in several articles about poor mental health among students, with the competition to achieve high grades often being listed as a crucial factor. Students see an average drop in their grades of 10 per cent when they enter university, suggesting that volunteering, research, and interning, all while maintaining an exceptional GPA, may be endeavours that only the utmost dedicated students can manage simultaneously.

Being surrounded by young adults of this high calibre is a benefit of studying at U of T because students learn from their peers and are motivated by the ambition and curiosity of others. However, this overwhelming — and even cutthroat — environment has also produced a mental health crisis surrounding fears of inadequacy and failure among students. 

So, to what extent is competitiveness beneficial and when does it become dangerous? 

Imes found that impostor syndrome was most likely to affect members of ethnic minorities, who have been historically disadvantaged in both higher education and the job market, and who also are reputed to have high cultural standards for achievement. 

The feeling that there is always more one can be doing to get ahead can produce a plague on campus. A successful student may feel like a failure in comparison if others’ accomplishments seem more impressive on paper. This phenomenon suggests the student mental health crisis is not solely a product of academic rigour, but also the competitiveness of postgraduate life. 

 

Impossible expectations

If I were to have voiced my summer dilemma decades ago — before the university student resume competition worsened and expectations rose — I would sound as if I were hyperbolizing the pressure of being a student trying to break into the workforce. In current times, however, having valuable work experience on top of volunteerism, extracurriculars, and a nearly-perfect GPA seems crucial to future professional success. 

At U of T, students are exposed to an enormous number of opportunities that we otherwise may not know exist. There are over a 1,000 clubs that range from academic interests, to charitable work, to more so social organizations. There are approximately 11,000 students who participate in athletic intramurals alone. Discovering these new interests and aspirations can motivate students toward greater success and also contribute to their high calibre.

At U of T, it is common to be in a classroom where half the students are club founders who volunteer on the weekends. These are the students that I imagine secure summer internships with professional titles and well recognized employers.

In 2013, the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers stipulated in a recruiters summary that employers’ most valued pre-screening criteria is work integrated learning co-ops and internships and co-curricular involvement. In the summary, these two criteria are in fact evaluated as more impressive than academic success. 

A growing assumption that graduate school admissions teams and hiring managers share is that each student is equally academically qualified, so employers have established extracurricular experience as an additional criteria for students to demonstrate their exceptionality. The higher education news outlet University Affairs published an article titled “How the medical school admissions process is skewed,” about the difficulty that students face after completing their undergraduate degree.

The article shared a parody of the average medical school application, painting an image of an undergraduate student balancing a myriad of responsibilities: while being a research assistant studying empathy in young children, the applicant still managed to volunteer at a clinic, be a member of a local dance team, and be the president of student affairs at their university. 

Continuing the list of accolades, the applicant’s cover letter reads, “My biggest project right now is working with a mobile clinic in Peru. Being able to shadow local doctors, dentists, and gynecologists, build sanitary bathrooms, and educate the people on basic hygiene was a great experience for me.”

Though this quotation and the applicant’s profile is meant to be humorous, it reflects the accomplishments commonly expected by recruiters of graduate school applicants and students entering a competitive workforce. 

Not only is getting into medical school challenging — only five and a half per cent of applicants are admitted to the average Canadian school —  but obtaining prerequisite roles as a volunteer at a hospital and as a researcher in a lab can be another obstacle. Higher education and postgraduate work can be so exclusive that they eliminate highly qualified applicants, whose grades simply fall in the top 10 per cent of their class rather than the top five. 

Among all undergraduate students, medical school applicants are most known for their well-roundedness, accomplishments, and perfect GPAs, yet the stress surrounding résumé boosting opportunities can affect all students. 

Despite whatever career path one might have planned, knowing what the best students are accomplishing can make one feel inadequate and disadvantaged.

 

The reality of competition

Among the U of T students who have oriented themselves toward post graduate success is a recent computer science graduate Evan Kanter. Kanter has a 4.0 GPA, is a former UTSU governing council member, a member of U of T’s mock-trial team, a computer science teaching assistant, and North American Model UN staff. He signed a contract to work for Meta — the company that owns Facebook — after he graduated this June. 

Since 2017, Kanter has worked in 15 roles related to computer science. His past employers include the City of Toronto, RBC, U of T, and various startups, such as Enginehire. In the summer of 2020, when COVID-19 disrupted Kanter’s plans to work as a software engineering intern at Ross Intelligence, he instead took on three part-time professional roles. 

Kanter acknowledges that internships often lead students to obtain a related job in their industry. “Being able to have those couple of lines of experience on your resume from internships is what gets you past the resume screen and gets you an interview at other companies when you’re applying for those roles,” Kanter wrote.

Kanter also provided insight into the work ethic expected of students aiming to secure their careers upon completing their degree. When it comes to securing work, Kanter suggested that students should sharpen their interview skills, master technical knowledge in their field, and craft an attractive resume. He explained that focusing on building marketable skills through personal projects or other forms of work experience is also crucial.

However, for students who have only just begun planning their career paths, the act of getting a meaningful job involves effort that could amount to years of work. 

When asked for his opinion on whether U of T has encouraged a competitive atmosphere between students, Kanter answered that such generalization is best avoided. He instead credited U of T for supporting his success and offering a range of extracurricular opportunities.

“There are lots of great communities that are not competitive [at U of T],” Kanter wrote, adding that, on campus, he is a member of Trinity College, a participant in Greek life, and had made a couple of friend groups with students in his program. 

In an interview with CNN, director Melissa Benca of Career Services at Marymount Manhattan College shared that graduating students with paid or unpaid internship experience have a “much better chance” at securing a full-time position after graduation. Benca added that, because students are doing internships as undergraduates, it is “not unusual for recent grads to take an unpaid internship with hopes of turning it into a permanent position or at least making some contacts and building their résumé.” 

In addition to obtaining internships, a study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers demonstrated that leadership experience and extracurricular involvement are also crucial factors to being hired after completing an undergraduate degree. The survey of 201 employers found that, when using a five point scale, a student’s leadership experience was valued at two points above their GPA, while extracurriculars were valued one point greater than a student’s GPA.

 

The luxury of time

Though an internship may not be the be-all and end-all of student success, without additional volunteerism and community involvement, a student’s academic achievement is likely no longer impressive enough to guarantee the career of their dreams.

For Kanter, sacrificing one evening spent with friends would be worth it to study toward admission into the professional field of computer science — and there is an overwhelming number of students who would make the same decision. 

The changing criteria for entering the workforce indicates that if students want to demonstrate they are serious about establishing a successful career, they will forgo the traditional experiences of youth, such as “finding oneself” on vacation in the summer in lieu of working in an office. In 2014, it was estimated that students who had past internships roles were 14 times more likely to be hired three years post graduation. 

Increasing competitiveness and expectations additionally burden students paying their own tuition, rent, and groceries, which in 2018 amounted to $20,000 on average for domestic Canadian students. These students cannot sacrifice valuable time that must be spent working part time to instead join an intramural team or book club to showcase their interests and involvement. Students without financial support must then work harder to earn the same role as someone with financial support who did indeed work hard, but had the time to involve themselves in extracurriculars.

Students working less professional roles, such as part-time jobs, have less professional status despite developing the soft skills that the National Association of Colleges and Employers ask for in their employees, such as — teamwork, problem solving, communication, and initiative. Upward movement and success post undergrad may depend on luck and privilege when employers and admissions offices are looking at similar stacks of qualified and impressive résumés.

I often wonder if it would be in my better interest to be a happy participant in U of T’s grind culture. However, although I feel like an imposter in a lecture hall full of perceived geniuses, I would be more of an imposter if I’d forgone my happiness and became absorbed by anxieties about my professional success. So, when I clicked the button on the keyboard to confirm booking a flight to Europe, I was certain of the decision to pursue my unconventional dream.

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