What is imposter syndrome?

According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of imposter syndrome is the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.’

This conversation is one that I’ve experienced more than once in my career:

Candidate: ‘I’ve given it some thought, and I’ve decided that I’m not going to apply after all.’

Me: ‘Why not?’

Candidate: ‘Well…although I meet most of the criteria for that role, I don’t meet all of them, so I’m clearly not what they are looking for.’

A credible candidate with extensive relevant knowledge and experience will get close to applying for a role, only to decide (sometimes at the last minute) that they aren’t sure they have what it takes after all.

The thing is, in many cases they actually do have what it takes – they are exactly the type of person that an employer is looking for ­– they just don’t believe it themselves. After all, if you’re someone looking for stretch, challenge, and development in a new role, why wouldn’t you be going for one where you can deliver 100% on every aspect of the job from day one?

Even when you’re excited about the idea of a new opportunity, the process of applying for one (or several) can be unsettling. You start to imagine yourself into the new role, and all you see is what you can’t do rather than all that you can.

When you’re the one having these thoughts, or if you’re supporting someone who is struggling with them, here are a few things you can try to flip your thinking in a more constructive direction:

1. Focus on what you will bring to the role.

Similar to my advice about drafting a cover letter, have a look at the job description and think about which criteria you do meet for the role. Copy those into a separate document or sheet of paper, and list a few bullet points about your relevant skills and experience for each. Rather than stressing about the criteria you might be missing, focus on all that you have to offer.

2. Consider what skills and experience you would like to develop.

Once you’ve spent some time thinking about what you would bring to the role, have a look at the criteria that you feel you don’t meet. Are these areas in which you’d like to grow and develop in your next role, or are they things that don’t interest you at all? Giving this some thought will help give you a sense of whether this role offers the stretch that you are looking for.

3. Remember that it’s up to the panel.

Ultimately it is the selection panel who will decide whether you are the type of candidate they seek, so don’t count yourself out before they’ve had a chance to consider you! You might be exactly who they are seeking for the role, and you’ll only know if you try.


If there is a recruiter involved in the process, get in touch with them – they will often have a good sense of what the employer is looking for and be able to help you with any questions. It can be surprising how many people choose not to reach out to recruiters when considering applying for a role!

If you’re going to walk away from a new potential opportunity, don’t let it be your thoughts that hold you back. Before deciding you don’t have what it takes, use these approaches and you may find that you actually have more to bring to a role than you first think.


Dr Jenn Allen is a Principal Consultant in our Not for Profit Practice. In addition to being a well-read scholar with both an MSc and a PhD in Education from the University of Oxford, Jenn has a wealth of experience working with foundations and trusts to recruit to both executive and board roles. With a passion for making a difference, Jenn works with her clients to find excellent candidates who are committed to the positive changes they seek to make in the world. You can connect with Jenn on Linkedin or send her an email.