College and Chronic Illness – How One College Graduate Made Good Grades

college and chronic illness

1. I wrote down all due dates for assignments – preferably in more than one place.

     Managing my fibromyalgia and arthritis has always been a difficult task. I’m frequently tired, sore, and experiencing something of a “brain fog”, where it can be difficult to concentrate and remember important facts. It’s easy to see why it was hard for me to remember all of the due dates for a barrage of papers, exams, individual projects, group projects, and study groups.
      So I didn’t. Instead, I purchased a large purple desk calendar from my college bookstore. It was horribly overpriced, heavy, and difficult to lug all the way back to my dorm room. But it was worth every cent.
      I wrote down the due date for every assignment, paper, project, and exam. I used highlighters to color code assignments so I would know – just from glancing at the calendar – if an assignment was due immediately or at a later date.
      A day planner can be an important tool for staying organized, too. I opted for a free tool that was included on my Apple MacBook Pro. The Calendar tool allows me to schedule events weeks, months and even years ahead. I can also program “reminders” to go off at certain times, such as a week before the assignment or project is due.

2. Whenever possible, I went to class.

      Actually attending college classes helped me to build a solid foundation for earning good grades. Unfortunately, getting myself to class proved to be a more difficult task, initially. Early morning classes were more of a problem than afternoon courses, in part because of the morning stiffness and soreness I frequently deal with.
      There are benefits to attending class that aren’t available if I were to ask a classmate to record the lecture or take notes for me, for example. Because I’m an audio learner, often times just the act of listening to my professor’s voice while taking notes helped to reinforce the information that I had (hopefully) already covered on my own.
      Being present in class also allowed me the opportunity to ask important questions and pick up on other information, such as the location of study groups and any available extra credit.
      So how did I manage to get myself to 8 AM classes on time and prepared to be an active learner?
      Getting plenty of sleep the night before does two things for me. It allows me to be as rested as I can possibly be. It also offsets probably the biggest trigger for my fibromyalgia, which is lack of sleep. I’m less likely to be symptomatic after a restful night.
      Does it do anything for my arthritis? Sometimes. Most of the time, no. On days when my arthritis is especially painful, I choose comfort over everything else. I get up early so I can take my medication before leaving for class. I style my hair comfortably (no tight buns or ponytails, for example) and don’t even bother with make-up. I wear comfortable clothes and if it’s cold, I wear warm gloves on my hands and fuzzy, soft socks on my feet. I make sure to pack extra Eucerin (for my dry skin), prescribed medications, OTC meds that I may need (including things like Pepto-Bismol for an upset stomach, eye drops, etc.) I leave early to give myself plenty of time to get there, since it’s difficult (and also dangerous) to rush myself in the morning.
      I usually find myself a quiet spot towards the back of the class to set-up camp. On bad days, I can be grumpy and I usually have a hard time concentrating, so I try to keep to myself when I feel like that. I bring my laptop, pens, pencils, plenty of paper for notes, any textbooks I need (although ebooks are looking more and more like a great idea) and a bottle of water. I keep my other necessities in a backpack close by. A rolling backpack is also a great idea on days like this – or any day, for that matter!

3. I figured out what my learning style was, and found a studying system that worked for me.

      In an ideal world, I would be able to read all of the expected material before class. I personally know of one or two students in each of my classes who always managed to read every word before class. I was not one of them.
      Because I couldn’t read each and every word, the next best option for me was to scan the readings. While scanning the material, I grasped the major topics, keywords and ideas from the text. I opted for taking notes of the bolded and italicized words, their definitions, and how they fit into the paragraph as well as the main body of text. Basically, it wasn’t enough for me to know definition of each of the emphasized words or phrases – I wanted to make sure that I understood how they fit into the main text, as well.
      Sometimes I took these notes in the empty sidebar in my textbook, but more often than not I used a separate spiral-bound notebook. If I chose to handwrite these notes, then I would later combine them with notes taken during class, to create something of an unofficial study guide. Using this method, I could expose myself to the material at least five times: while scanning the text, taking notes, attending class, taking notes during class, and making the study guide. I could also use the “study guide” to prepare myself for major exams and even pop quizzes.
      Other students in my classes used different methods, depending on their learning styles. One of my friends is a visual learner. It benefited her more to write down major ideas and important points on notecards and display them on a large surface such as an empty bulletin board. Another girl in my class learned best by taping lectures (with our professor’s permission) so that she could play them back later. Each of them found a method that worked well for them and consistently used it throughout the semester.

4. I knew my limitations and I did not allow myself (or another person) to exceed them.

      For me, not sleeping well is a trigger. If I don’t sleep well, I know that in the morning, my fibromyalgia is going to be active. During college, I made it my life’s mission to get enough sleep. Instead of staying up late and cramming (which usually didn’t work well for me anyway) I would go to bed early and try to get plenty of sleep. During especially busy weeks, I turned down offers for socializing and other unnecessary activities. I prioritized my needs over my wants to ensure that I managed to get enough sleep.
      It didn’t always work out perfectly – sometimes there was no way to avoid being several hours short of what I really need. On the days where I was suffering from a restless night, I focused on eating healthy foods, staying hydrated, taking frequent breaks, and fitting a short nap in where I could.

5. I knew when I needed assistance and/or accommodations.

      My undergraduate college had a lot of resources available to help with balancing college and chronic illness – not just to me but other students as well. I frequently utilized them when I realized that I could not overcome a challenge on my own.
      I attended academic tutoring for more difficult science courses such as chemistry and biology. I found a mentor and kept in close contact with her throughout my collegiate years. I found study groups to participate in. I took advantage of my professor’s office hours to discuss important issues. I asked my professors for extended test-taking time, due to difficulty concentrating in a traditional classroom setting.
      Although though they may seem like minor dents in the resources that a college or university can offer, they really did make a major difference in my grades. Meeting with a tutor twice a week kept my ‘B’ science average from becoming a ‘C’. Once my professor received word from the tutoring office that I was diligent in my efforts to improve my understanding of the subject, he began offering extra credit points for every tutoring session I attended. (He offered this incentive to other students as well.) My mentor was able to provide pointed and specific advice about certain courses. Being able to take my time through an exam meant that I often performed better and earned higher grades.
      Upon learning of my diagnosis, I found the Disability Office on my college campus. I educated myself about my rights and responsibilities, as contained within the Americans with Disabilities’ Act (ADA). Though I never felt the need to contact my college’s’ Disability Office for other accommodations, I felt confident that should I need to, I knew how to do so as well as what accommodations I could ask for.


Do you have a chronic illness or disability? Have you been forced to balance both college and chronic illness? What enabled you to succeed? Feel free to share your tips and advice in the comments!

3 thoughts on “College and Chronic Illness – How One College Graduate Made Good Grades

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  2. Jen says:

    I have hashimoto’s. I’ve found that sleeping at least 9 hours makes me a better student, and eating AIP. Writing down my assignments and sticking to a schedule is important. I know when to push myself and when not to, and I think the most helpful thing I can do is not feel guilty about what I need to do to take care of me.

    • HR says:

      Hi Jen,

      All of those are great points. I used to make getting enough sleep my #1 priority because of how awful I felt when I didn’t sleep well. I haven’t tried the AIP diet yet. It definitely agree that learning not to push ourselves and not feeling guilty for allowing for self care are very important, though!

      Thanks for stopping by!

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