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  • Writer's picturePhyllis Brust, PhD

Advice for the Underconfident

Updated: Jun 15

Here is my advice for underconfident students and others whether you are starting out or looking back--or whether you are a parent or friend trying to help. It is based on my 30-year career as a college career counselor and director helping students of all backgrounds to find themselves and thrive.

I feel your pain. I was one of you. I was a first-generation college student intimidated by classmates and suffering in silence. (Lacking confidence can affect anyone, but it is a special hazard for first-generation students.) Without confidence, I was on a slippery slope: afraid to take risks, afraid of being embarrassed, and afraid of being punished. Lacking confidence puts you on a path of not achieving your potential or pursuing your dreams.

But, you can change your path. Here's what I learned:

• You are likely to take your gifts and interests for granted. You think that if something comes easy for you, it comes easy for everyone. It doesn’t.

• No journey is a straight path. Embrace your mistakes. The knowledge gained from those mistakes will differentiate you and help further your career, though you probably won’t realize it at the time.

• If a sibling or friend is considered the smart one, that doesn’t mean that you are the stupid one.

• Grades are not necessarily indicative of ability. They could reflect anxiety, a lack of interest, or perhaps even an undiagnosed learning disability. And grades rarely measure such critical skills as empathy and dedication.

• Don’t bury your desires just to please others, including parents.

• It’s OK not to know what you want to do. Learn what you are good at, what you enjoy, and what makes you unique.

• Avoid being a square peg squishing yourself into a round hole. Don’t limit your universe to published lists extolling the best-paying jobs. The world is more complex than "STEM equals success and humanities majors fail."

• People often think they are too old to change. They aren’t. My husband received a PhD in history when he was 68.

• Find supporters. They are there.

• Take risks. At times you will fail. But that beats looking back regretfully.

• Finally, forgive yourself. It’s not easy.

Adapted from, "The Confidence Game," an article I wrote for"The Pennsylvania Gazette," the University of Pennsylvania's alumni magazine (first published August 23, 2023).

About the Author

Phyllis Brust, PhD is an award-winning career counselor and writer who has worked at Yale University, the University of Chicago, and Muhlenberg College. She has written about careers in: sports, public policy, international development, allied health. Phyllis has helped organizations including Fortune 500 companies, leading non-profits, NGOs and the US government to find candidates. But her heart is with animals. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. focuses on pet careers and pet advocacy. See our other blog posts on topics including animal advocacy, networking, animal artists, advice for pre-vets, gaining experience working with pets and more.

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