Getting a Degree with a Chronic Illness 

Hi there!

My senior year of college, I worked at a tutoring center, privately tutored two students on the side, was undergoing physical therapy post-ankle surgery, applying for full-time jobs, and trying to complete my engineering degree. All the while, I suffered from chronic daily headaches and chronic migraines. I honestly still don’t know how I did it. Now I know I’m not unique- lots of people work multiple jobs while in college. However, I do believe that suffering from an unpredictable chronic illness has given me some insights into how to get organized, and some tips and tricks that I can pass on. Even if you’re out of school and are working a part-time or full-time job, I think this post could help you get organized!

Organization is Everything

Organization is key in almost any situation. But when you suffer from an illness that could render you bed-ridden in any time, I found I was much more successful when I stayed ahead of schedule.

  • Use an organizational system that works for you. I use iCal, with color-coded calendars to help keep track of doctors appointments, work, tutoring sessions, tests, project due dates, physical therapy sessions, etc. My calendars look a little different now that I’ve graduated, but I’ve stuck to this same system because IT WORKS! The best part about iCal is that I can share my doctors appointments with my mom, and that way we’re on the same track and we don’t make conflicting appointments. I am also a visual person, so the color-coded calendars made it easy for me to keep all my different commitments in one place.
  • I also recommend keeping track of all syllabi that your teachers usually pass out the first day of class. This way, even if you miss a class or two due to illness, you’ll never have a test or quiz sneak up on you. I would highlight test days, project due dates, etc.
  • As well as my iCloud calendars, I used a physical planner to keep track of my daily to-do list, such as homework problem sets, errands, meal planning (when I didn’t just eat takeout lol), etc. Teachers obviously don’t allow phones in class, and many of my engineering professors didn’t allow the use of laptops. So this Agenda I used to use provided a tech-free method for me to keep track of my schoolwork

Get Help

  • Talk to your professors about your condition. A doctors note explaining your condition and how it affects your studies goes a long way as well
  • Always go to your teachers office hours. Extra bonus points if you come with questions or problems that you have already attempted. When I went to my teacher’s office hours, they got to know me as a person, as opposed to another face in the crowd. This also helps because they are more likely to give you extra help if they can tell that you genuinely care about learning and doing well in their class.
  • Disability Accommodations are available through your school’s administration. I highly recommend reaching out to them to discuss your disability and ask what they can do to help level the playing fields for you academically. At my university, they offered additional time on examinations, communication services, note taking assistance, etc. I personally was offered additional absences, and extended time on project deadlines.
  • Make a few friends in each class. I had a few people that I could always count on for neat, detailed notes that they could send to me on days I simply couldn’t make it to class. I would review them, and then go to my teachers with questions, showing them, once again, that I was taking the time to make up for my absence(s)
  • When I was on crutches pre- and post-ankle surgery, I took advantage of the golf carts that transported injured or disabled students around campus. There was a number you could call, tell them where you were parked or what building you were outside of, and they would take you there free of charge! I highly recommend asking about a service like this if you are disabled in any way that affects your mobility

Get Ahead

Living with an unpredictable illness means that we are forced to plan around the bad days. I found that in college, if I didn’t stay ahead I could very quickly fall behind.

  • Do a little bit of work each day- yes even on the weekends! Especially senior year, I got into the habit of having chill nights in and doing homework- even on the days that I didn’t have an assignment due the next day. This way, even if I have a migraine the day before something is due, I’ve at least made a start on the assignment
  •  Break reading assignments into smaller chunks. I had some English or social sciences classes that would assign 50 to 100 pages per class of textbook reading. This can be incredibly daunting, especially all at once. However, I found that if I broke this up to 10-15 pages each night, the assignment was less stressful, and I usually ended up reading more than I needed to and finishing the assignment early
  • Start studying your test material weeks in advance. I had a couple incredibly challenging classes my last few years at school. We had so match material we went through that even studying a few days in advance like I usually did, I was unable to master the material. I started reviewing my notes from class each night after class. This way, I could rework problems gradually and bring up questions to my teachers way in advance. I found my professors had a lot of respect for my work ethic and it made them much more willing to offer me extensions- even if I didn’t need them!


Here I am working through problems on a Sunday with my kitty!

I hope that some of these tips are useful, and that they make getting a degree while suffering from a chronic illness easier! But honestly, most of these are great tips whether you have an illness or not. Let me know any organizational tips you’ve implemented that make your life easier in the comments.


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