Chronic Illnesses and the College Admissions Process

Hi everyone,

I wanted to create a thread focusing on applying to college with an existing or previously-overcome illness, chronic or otherwise.

I am someone who has a chronic illness (POTS) and is currently in the belly of the decision notifications beast. I, like everyone else, have been having a difficult time with rejections especially. Because of my illness, I had to drop out of a school I loved as a second semester sophomore , I fell behind on school work (then home bound) for a year, and I completed my jr. and sr. years at an online school from my room. During my year-and-a-half recovery phase, I also decided not to take any APs jr. year, as I was still very symptomatic (brain fog, fatigue, dizziness, bp issues—the works), which deviated from the four year plan I had hoped for since freshman year and haunts me to this day as I ask myself “Did I not push myself enough?” or “What if I did take X amount of classes?”

Flash forward to the present, I have applied to some highly selective LACs and am facing rejections and wait lists. I cannot help but think that if I hadn’t experienced my chronic illness, I might have been able to get into certain schools by taking on a more rigorous course load and, you know, being a “regular” high school student. The sense of loss I feel for the life that could have been is overwhelming, and though I also feel grateful for what I have been able to accomplish—an AP-full sr. year, symptom management, finally graduating last semester, and, now, a gap semester at AU—I cannot help but feel a sense of self-pity as well. Additionally, I have intense anxiety about how admissions directors see someone with an illness/previous illness and strike the balance between viewing them differently vs. assessing them through similar applicant criteria.

If anyone is in the same shoes whatsoever, please feel free to add how you are managing the college application process, or how you were able to get through it and find solace at college. Thank you to anyone who read through my thought dump, and feel free to express your frustrations/thoughts/feelings/etc.!


My kids both had POTS from grade school or earlier. By HS, it was so bad they both missed 1/3 to 1/2 their school days and my D was forced to withdraw after JR year. Somehow, S was able to learn to study while lying on his bed on his stomach and his book on the floor.

D took the GED and started CCollege in what was supposed to be her SR year of HS. She was able to visit her HS buddies often after attending her CC courses.

After completing a term at CC where she got a 3.8 GPA, she applied to transfer to a college she wanted to attend. She was accepted, providing she complete 3 semesters of CC, which she did and then transferred for Spring semester. Happily, many of her classmates from HS were at the same great U and were able to help her orient to her new campus, which her older brother had also applied to and was attending.

We did meet with the head of disabilities and at their recommendation, had our kids meet 3 doctors at the med school before school started, so they could get medical care if their needs were greater than what the med school could offer.

They had a pretty good experience at this U. I did call all the Us where S had been accepted to see if they’d work with him and us to accommodate him. One of the Us refused so we tossed their acceptance (even tho it came with many merit scholarships).

D had to stay at the U an extra year due to a bad flare in symptoms after the death of a loved one. She needed weekly B-12 injections to finish her final semester.

I am happy to help if needed.


I have also had medical issues that have caused me to take longer to graduate. I think it’s important to remind yourself that you’re on your own path. It can be very easy to compare to your classmates and friends, but dealing with chronic illness takes up a lot of time and energy that others don’t have to use. I think trying to connect with the disabilities office is also really important so you have support. I’m currently in the process of reaching out to disability services at the schools I’m considering. Good luck with the process! It’s definitely complicated when you have medical issues.


We didn’t find the disabilities office that helpful, though two of my kids registered. Deans and doctors communicated and helped a lot. Generally, in our experience, the disabilities office gives students letters for professors and the student negotiates with professors. When a medical problem arises, the MD can send medical documentation to the dean who then informs the professor that they need to accommodate.

It is probably different at every school.

Did your guidance counselor write an explanation to accompany your transcript? Or did you explain yourself? Colleges generally see the ability to “overcome obstacles” as a plus.

Your feelings are valid and you deserve to feel them, then move on. There are feelings of loss for the years when you are ill, and it can take extra time to finish high school or college. It is hard when so many seem to live “normally” and every day is a struggle.

One accommodation that can be very helpful, besides extensions on papers, is a reduced course load. And take a medical leave that avoids W’s, to preserve your transcript. Finally, tuition refund insurance is a good idea.

Eventually life is difficult for most people, and many people who seem to be okay are also suffering from some loss or trouble. It is hard when you are ill at a young age because peers don’t yet share any experience that resembles yours.


One accommodation that helped our D was being able to live on campus, near her classes. As a transfer student, campus housing is NOT guaranteed but to accommodate her medical need, they found her a space.

It also was a comfort to all of us knowing we had met folks near campus who could attend to my kids’ medical needs.
Agree that the disability office gives students notes to share with the instructor. The student has to negotiate with the instructor—the MDs of the student need to write to disabilities office about what accommodations they recommend.


It has really helped my kids to be able to keep in touch online, by text, email and even zoom. They also kept in touch by phone, but liked the other methods better. This helped them be and feel less isolated. My D went so far as to cultivate friends in Europe so they’d be awake when she couldn’t sleep.

Please know you aren’t alone and they continue to do research to help treat POTS and other chronic conditions. Depending on what area of the country up you live in, Vanderbilt, John’s Hopkins, Stanford and UC San Diego all have programs treating POTS. With people getting long term COVID-19 getting POTS symptoms, perhaps more research will be done with more effective treatments.

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So sorry to hear about both of your kids’ experiences with the unaccommodating U and the rough final year at school, but I am glad both were able to get through it and that your daughter was able to finish CC and U successfully! Wonderful to hear.

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Thanks for your response, and I’ll keep the accommodations advice in mind! Have your kids had success negotiating with professors for accommodations (sorry to hear about the lack thereof w/the office)? I ended up explaining myself, the bulk of which occurred in the Common App section discussing reasons for school changes/time off from school. I am just worried I did not explain my illness enough, although my counselor seemed to think I provided adequate info. (I also did not want to focus on it too much, above my other experiences).

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thanks so much for the kind words, and good luck to you as well! hope you are able to connect with a helpful, understanding services office!


love how your daughter was able to make friends in Europe; any support system, especially across seas, is amazing! I have definitely heard about Hopkins’ research, and I will look into the other Us. I find the connection between COVID-19 and POTS symptoms so fascinating, so I hope some more extensive research arises soon as well.

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I don’t believe either of my kids spent much time and energy talking about overcoming their POTS, but neither of them let me see their essays nor their applications. D only applied to one U—a highly competitive one and was accepted, to her old HS counselor’s great shock. He suggested she have 2 solid years at CC before he would deign to help her apply to some U. Her old HS was shocked she was accepted as a transfer after applying upon completion of only 1 semester.

She did have several of her good HS friends critique her app (one of those friends is a professional editor in nyc now).

I know that pacing yourself is crucial for folks with POTS and similar chronic illnesses.

Because of very limited stamina due to POTS, both my kids had very limited ECs, but honestly both were very happy with their college. S did get accepted at several Us, with merit awards >50% tuition, so he wasn’t terribly hampered by the limited ECs.

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My daughter has a chronic illness which has affected her physically and academically since elementary school. She’s been through every iteration of schooling, from traditional, to hybrid, to fully online, and ultimately homeschool for the past three years.

She was accepted to University and, barring any major flares in her illness, she will be attending next fall.

It was somewhat challenging to explain her non-traditional path through middle and high school, but maybe since I was the one who wrote her counselor letter, I was able to do it better than an outside person.

She did not focus her essays on her illness except to use it as a jumping off point in one of her essays to talk about how ready she is to branch out into the world after being so careful and protected for so long.

Before she started homeschooling, she had to deal with a lot of different teachers and their reactions to meeting her accommodations ran the gamut from teachers who were extremely sympathetic to those who could barely be bothered or were even resentful. Most were ultimately helpful. I teach at the college level and, in my experience, professors are the same way. Personally, I’m very supportive, but some of my colleagues are not.


Congrats on your daughter’s acceptance! It sounds like she has come such a long way. Also, love the essay topic. I did not focus on my illness experience for my essay either, as I did not want it to envelop my application/identity too much, but I am still nervous about my high school pathway explanation. I second the different teacher reactions; I once had a school administrator tell me “Everyone doesn’t feel good sometimes.” Real fun.


The Dean at the private HS D and s attended, who I had to meet and negotiate with has not been sick a day in his life, so he couldn’t identify with my kids’ chronic illnesses. He did his best to be “fair” as he saw it but those HS years definitely weren’t as rosy as one would have liked.


I don’t think that chronic illness is viewed as a negative at all, though you have to show you can do the work, with accommodations. Since your record shows you “recovered,” it would seem clear, I think, that any illness is not now impeding your ability to do work.

Colleges will understand the impact on course choices and even grades for those years when you were impacted. For others, I will say, the public schools can be expected to provide a package every day of work done in class, work assigned, tests and even exams etc. so a student can keep up at their own pace. Online classes can help too, especially if they are flexible on deadlines for passing in work and timing of tests.

If you did a “gap semester” at AU are you considered a transfer student? Is that impacting admissions in any way?

Accommodations in college, combined with medical leaves when needed, make it very possible to get through college with a chronic illness, even if it takes a little longer.


Hi, thank you for your response! Sorry, I should have clarified: I am currently in AU’s gap program for the spring semester, which is catered toward recent high school graduates taking a gap year/semester before entering college, since I graduated late last semester due to my illness delaying everything. I do hope it will help prove to colleges that I can handle a full course load, and that I am ready to take on whatever may come, but we shall see! Since I will only need very basic accommodations, I am staying hopeful about accessing them next year.

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I think D getting 4As and a B in CC was a big plus in D’s application to the U she attended. Even with those grades, theU wanted her to complete 3 semesters before entering their U as a (transfer) student.

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You should be really, really proud of yourself.

My daughter was unable to sit for the SATs because of the pandemic. I believe taking a semester-worth of dual-credit CC courses since last summer (and doing very well in them) made a big difference in her application.

There’s nothing that says you’re ready for college-level coursework that doing well in college-level coursework. And completing the program shows your commitment.

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My daughter has been battling POTS for 7 years. She has found some relief with dance and use of the migraine drug Aimovig. I hope you find a college sympathetic of your condition, it is a very hard battle.

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For my D, heat and humidity is a POTS trigger. She does better in air conditioning and cooler less humid than Honolulu, sadly. It’s good to develop strategies because for many POTS is sadly pretty long term.