A few days ago, I was notified of my degree award, and my imposter syndrome kicked in - trying to see if I've done anything to not warrant earning it. I found myself looking through good academic practice guidelines and noticed something I'd previously overlooked -- that it was considered exam cheating to attempt to look at another candidate's exam paper even if nothing was gained from it. I'm pretty sure that on at least one occasion I've looked at another person's script while they were taking an exam. To be honest, I have no clue which exam(s) I would've done this on (although I know this wasn't a very common behavior of mine) and, again, I've never been able to benefit from it as I've never been able to actually read anything from anyone's papers (My conscience wouldn't have let me forget this) -- so all my work on my exams are my own knowledge and not gained from anyone's scripts. I also can't remember precisely if my intentions in doing so were to try and get answer from him/her or to see which part of the exam script they were on to judge whether I was behind or not and should pick up the pace (although there must've been some instance where I actually tried to get an answer but couldn't make anything out) - I just have a feeling that I've looked at a person's script before and specifics are pretty hazy.

What should I do about this? My friend told me that he himself and friends he knows (who I know as well and are high achieving students) have been guilty of this and most students are and that this isn't a big deal. I also fail to recollect when this would've happened, and how often (although it couldn't have happened more than a few times as I think I would remember an incident more clearly if it happened more often). Should I tell the college about this, or take it as a learning experience and move on? Part of me doesn't want to penalize myself if this is a fairly common thing, and I worked very hard to get the degree award I have.

  • 107
    The way you frame this makes it sound like it's a pattern for you to try to undermine your own accomplishments. That is not healthy mental behavior. I'd recommend seeing a professional about this. Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 20:20
  • 4
    You should probably not tell this to your peers, because they might suppose you will hold them to same standards. I.e. "I looked at Josh's paper to see if I will finish before him. But impost saw it and will probably report me as a cheater now."
    – Džuris
    Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 23:58
  • 1
    You didn't cheat like they are doing here, so there is nothing to worry about. Commented Jun 26, 2020 at 0:08
  • 36
    "trying to see if I've done anything to not warrant earning it. I found myself looking through good academic practice guidelines and noticed something I'd previously overlooked " This is not a healthy behaviour, so I second the above comments about seeking professional help. You will always find something if you look hard enough, so there's no point in doing so. Enjoy your accomplishment and move forward. Congratulations on your degree!
    – user347489
    Commented Jun 26, 2020 at 0:43
  • 3
    Look, people need to stop with this impostor syndrome stuff. It's not healthy. It's in the past now and is minor, enjoy your work and stop searching for reasons why you secretly don't belong.
    – Tom
    Commented Jun 26, 2020 at 19:54

12 Answers 12


What you should do, is precisely nothing. Take a deep breath. Have a culturally appropriate beverage and celebrate your finishing.

We are human. None of us is perfect. We fall. We get up. We move on. The past is past. Most of us here would probably not like to see a complete rerunning of our past selves in every respect.

But, since it bothers your conscience, vow to do better in the future so you have less to be worried about.

  • 37
    The degree was earned. You are an alum. An you are punishing yourself. Let it go.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 16:16
  • 29
    @GrayLiterature the alleged "misconduct" is so minor and irrelevant that the college would surely just dismiss it. "You must retract my degree because I am pretty sure I looked at another student's paper from afar during some exam that I can't exactly recall."
    – Džuris
    Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 23:54
  • 3
    I agree 1000%. It’s so minor the university would probably not even take the “complaint” seriously. But OP doesn’t want to acknowledge. Commented Jun 26, 2020 at 0:42
  • 3
    @GrayLiterature I understand your point (re: your first two comments) but considering everything the OP wrote it seems your irony might do (much) more harm than good.
    – 11684
    Commented Jun 26, 2020 at 0:44
  • 17
    @impost: please, please, forget about this. How are you supposed not to look in the general direction of the exam paper of another candidate in a full exam hall? Unless you did it intentionally and gainfully (and on both points you are on the safe side it seems) nothing happened. In fact, so little happened that you can't even recall a specific instance. You are deceiving yourself. Heed the advice of transitionsynthesis.
    – 11684
    Commented Jun 26, 2020 at 0:44

It can be hard to have perspective on one's own actions. Let me tell you how this sounds to readers: "I went looking for any tiny reason to disqualify my accomplishments or prove to myself that I didn't deserve them, and even with perfect knowledge (up to memory) and motivated reasoning I can't find a clear example."

This means that you deserve your degree. Even an honor code, which may seem to be black and white, invariably involves some judgement in practice, and not all violations are equal. For example, imagine a student who in the process of turning in their exam catches a glimpse, without even wanting to, of another student's exam as they do the same. This would also be a violation of the letter of your honor code, but not one which any reasonable authority would hold against them.

Listen to Buffy, and maybe reflect on the roots of your desire towards self-sabotage.

  • My self-sabotaging streak is something worth thinking hard about. To play devil's advocate, however, I feel the example you painted is a bit more innocuous. Although my memory on an occasion is fuzzy and I can't find a clear example, I do feel there was at least some instance where I tried to glance at another's paper to get an answer on an exam albeit to no avail. Regardless, would I still be able to treat this with the same idea that this wouldn't be something any reasonable authority would hold against even with it being written as forbidden?
    – impost
    Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 20:05
  • To be fair, an honor code which includes this as a violation seems silly to me and would hopefully not be used in an institution
    – user111388
    Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 20:14
  • 3
    @impost The heart of the problem here is that you are looking to an exterior measure- conferral of your degree- of your self worth, when it is not designed or intended to judge this. Furthermore, when you disagree with the judgement it produces, you are trying to "appeal the verdict" to the honor code. But this is all wrong. Whether you judge your actions as good or bad is one question, and whether they violate the honor code is another. And a supposed violation of the code that may have occurred at some indefinite time unknown to anyone is completely unenforceable and therefore meaningless.
    – Rococo
    Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 20:39
  • 4
    As it happens, I don't think you are ethically culpable in what you describe here either. But even if you decide that you are, that doesn't mean your degree should be revoked, because your degree is not a judgement in either direction about whether you are an ethical person.
    – Rococo
    Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 20:41

You are off by a few orders of magnitude regarding severity of your transgression. It seems like part of you is trying to self-sabotage here.

For calibration:

Scenario 1: If I am proctoring an exam, and spot a student briefly glancing in the direction of another exam, I'd tell them to not do that again – and that is the full extent of what is going to happen (assuming I don't see the same person doing it again). Even if I were to bring this up as academic misconduct, it would quite certainly be thrown out immediately.

Scenario 2: Let's say a student approaches me after an exam, and confesses to having glanced at an answer from another student. The most likely outcome is that they would lose the points for that question. The realistic worst-case is that they get a 0 on the exam, and have to resit it. If the confession happens after the grades for the year have been confirmed, I don't suppose anything would happen.

Ok, so what kind of misdeeds would you need to confess to in order to get your degree revoked? For most universities, cheating in an exam just wouldn't cut it. Something like "I paid another person to attend all exams in my place" or "I completely plagiarised my dissertation" would probably do it.


Everyone else has done very well pointing out to you that this is not at all an issue and you shouldn't consider it cheating. I would like to add one more point: the reason that "attempting to look at another candidate's paper" is on there is to cover for cases where the examiners know damn well that someone was cheating by looking at someone else's paper, but can't guarantee that they saw the answers because they caught the cheater before they could write it down. It doesn't actually mean that the attempt is in itself cheating.

Calm down, you deserved your diploma. Have a nap, call a family member who'll be appropriately proud of you, and listen to the friend who pointed out that this is very common.


Take yourself out of the equation. Pretend for a moment that you're talking about your classmate Bob, not about yourself:

I'm pretty sure that on at least one occasion Bob has looked at another person's script while they were taking an exam. To be honest, I have no clue which exams he did this on. ... I just have a feeling that Bob has looked at a person's script before and the specifics are pretty hazy. ... I also fail to recollect when this would've happened, and how often.

Now, imagine that you're on an honor council and the above complaint was submitted to you. There's no chance that you'd investigate that complaint. There are zero details, only a vague hunch, so you really couldn't investigate it if you wanted to. It comes across not as a genuine report, but as a poor attempt to slander another student that the submitter doesn't like. The only thing to do with such a report would be to throw it out (and possibly have a stern chat with whoever filed it).

There's no point in trying to report something unless you actually have something to report.

Hopefully, looking at it from another angle also makes it clear how unreasonably malicious you're being to yourself. It wouldn't be appropriate to treat someone else that way, so it's definitely not appropriate to treat yourself that way.


(This seems off-topic, but was too long for a comment.)

Quoting some of your comments:

I shouldn't feel like this degree was unearned or forsaken by this?

but wouldn't the far more self-sabotaging choice be more "honorable" or the right thing to do?

It seems like your question is less about the practical matters, and more about whether it is morally right. I don't know if I am interpreting correctly, but it seems like you feel like you did wrong and you find it difficult to forgive yourself, so you are trying to redeem yourself by punishing yourself.

My two cents:

  • Forgiving yourself will not come from giving up the degree or otherwise punishing yourself, nor from strangers on the internet saying you did nothing wrong; it will only happen if you forgive yourself.

    • (To be clear, I'm not implying that the reason you need to forgive yourself is because you did something wrong. Forgiving oneself has to do with perceived fault, and is independent from actual fault.)
  • Redeeming oneself is a fallacy, implying that one is not worthy and must suffer to become worthy. In my opinion, every person is intrinsically worthy; no one has to suffer to "prove" it. Nor do shame and suffering help someone improve; they are often even counterproductive.

Lastly, I second the comments' suggestion to see a mental health professional. I wish you all the best.


I agree with the other answers here about the self-sabotage behaviour you're experiencing, but would like to address one thing nobody else has quite mentioned.

...if I've done anything to not warrant earning it.

This statement works under the premise that a single (in this case inconsequentially tiny) flaw, undoes all the work I assume you have done to earn the degree.

I worked very hard to get the degree award I have.

How many hours of work have you put into the degree? How many hours of sleep have you lost? How many exams did you pass using your brain alone?

At the end of the day, the qualification is a document that says you are qualified to practise in the field. You passed all the requirements without any external help and are a fully capable professional in your field.

If I asked you to solve a problem in this field, would you no longer be able to solve it? Does the fact that you glanced at other exam papers a couple of times means that you actually are incapable of doing the work? You have earned the qualification entirely under your own merit.


Some of the psychoanalytics say. Don't lie. But, if you lie you should know why you're doing it. I.e. if you cheat - you should know why you're doing it, but don't cheat yourself. There are exceptional cases where individual should judge and balance.

It's up to you to be aware whether you deserve award.


Some things in life are a big deal if you are about to do them, but not so much if they happened along time ago, and with no bad consequences. I would give a good slap to anyone who was about to do what you did. But I wouldn't bother someone who had done it a long time ago and obviously learned their lesson and then some. I don't know a single human being who has made it to 25 years of age without doing something they weren't too proud of. No one got hurt. You don't owe anyone any damages. You learned your lesson. Forgive yourself.


Actually cheating is bad. Trying but failing to cheat is still bad, but not so bad. But you are not asking about that. Rather, you are asking whether you should attempt to destroy your degree. You can think about the ethics of doing that. Would it be ethical to choose to make such an attempt or not? If most people are more ethical than you, and would be disadvantaged by you having your degree, maybe it is slightly justifiable. But if most people are more unethical than you, you would be doing the world a very big disservice if you actually manage to put yourself out of the job market! I would rather you build the bridge I walk across, than someone who cheated on exams and think there is nothing wrong with that!


Let me just quote "A Mathematicians Miscellany" by Littlewood, where he describes his experience with an examination:

"There is only one other question I am sure of having done, and for the following reason. I began on a question on elementary theory of numbers, in which I felt safe in my school days. It did not come out, nor did it on a later attack. I had occasion to fetch more paper ; when passing a desk my eye lit on a heavy mark against the question. The candidate was not one of the leading people, and I half-unconsciously inferred that I was making unnecessarily heavy weather ; the question then came out fairly easily. The perfectly highminded man would no doubt have abstained from further attack ; I wish I had done so, but the offence does not lie very heavily on my conscience."

So at least you're in good company:-)


it was considered exam cheating to attempt to look at another candidate's exam paper even if nothing was gained from it.

I would imagine that clause is largely there as to be something easier to prove than full-blown copier cheating when cheating is suspected. A lot of pressure goes into proving people are cheating (Loss of employment, Loss of Visa, Lots of wasted money) and it may be a way to prove some academic misconduct in the case the professor can't explicitly prove you were cheating to the evidence standard needed but can show that you 'glanced at your neighbor's paper'. The reason that's there is they can do something lower like throw out the test or take some points away as opposed to a full-blown expelling or something of the like. o

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .