I was worried about whether or not I would have the physical and mental stamina to make it through a semester. I contemplated whether it was worth spending money on a degree that I may not be able to finish. And although I did not want my chronic illness to get in the way of my long-term goals, I also had to be realistic with myself.
Needless to say, I made the leap back into it and couldn’t be happier with the decision. Yes, it’s definitely stressful but it has given me something positive to work towards. When I’m feeling miserable about chronic pain, or when I’m stuck constantly thinking about my physically restrictive lifestyle, I use my college degree as a motivator to keep moving forward.
Last year, I finished my undergraduate degree with a GPA of 6.13 out of 7 (a distinction average in Australia), which I never dreamed possible with brain fog. I have since started my graduate degree in primary education.
I found these tips helped me balance my college commitments with my chronic illness and I hope they will help you achieve your study goals too.
1. Study externally if possible
I can’t begin to explain what a difference external study makes. I completed my undergrad degree externally. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many options for external study in my graduate degree. When studying externally, I was able to sit in on my tutorials and lectures whilst I was recovering in bed or reclined in a chair.
If you have to attend internally, my advice would be to jam as many classes into the least amount of days possible. This may mean attending two or three tutorials in one day. You might start your first class at 10am and finish around 5pm. It sounds like an intense workload but overall this will reduce the amount of energy exerted when traveling. Instead of traveling 5 days a week to college, I only attend 2.
On the days that I do travel to the campus, I don’t study at all when I arrive back home. The exhaustion experienced after an entire day at college can be overwhelming. Rather than push myself beyond my limits and straight into a flare, I use the rest of the night to recover for the next day.
2. Create a study plan
An action plan is critical when studying with chronic illness. Have a clear list of what you need to achieve weekly and break this down into smaller tasks that can be completed daily. This will help you stay on top of your tasks and prevent any unnecessary stress that may trigger a flare.
When it comes to your workload, it’s important to remain realistic. If you can only study 1 unit per semester, that is still an amazing achievement. That 1 unit will be advancing you in the direction of obtaining your degree. If you haven’t studied in a while, it may be best to slowly work your way up to 3 or 4 units per semester. I started at 2 and then moved to 4 and finally 5 units per semester.
3. Utilise the mid-semester break
Instead of using this as a holiday period, utilise this time to catch up on any tasks that may have been overlooked whilst trying to recover.
Last semester, I attended university for 7 weeks without any absences. I pushed myself too far physically and as a result, I started to overlook a lot of my required weekly tasks. My body was in terrible pain and I was experiencing a lot of issues with my tachycardia. The mid-semester break could not come at a better time. I used the first few days to try and rest. The remainder of the time was spent slowly trying to tie up any loose ends from weeks 1-7 and then focusing on revision.
4. Stay organised & stay ahead
It can already be struggle to keep on top of the workload whilst handling symptoms of chronic illness. However, when it was possible, I would attempt to get started on the following week’s agenda and tasks. Our health can often be a roller-coaster. One decent week can be followed by a month or longer in pain and illness. Any chance to stay ahead of your tasks will help you when you experience an unexpected flare and struggle to get out of bed.
5. Assessments are key
Due to my brain fog, I am absolutely terrible at memorisation. I’m talking ‘read a page and understand zilch’ brain fog. The kind of brain fog that tricks you into feeling as though you’ve studied hard enough but when you open your exam, your brain goes blank. Literally blank. It happens.
To combat this, I try and do the best that I can on tasks that don’t involve memorising copious amounts of information. During my last semester at university, I received high distinctions in all but two assignments. This significantly reduced the stress I experienced when studying for finals. For the most part, all I had to do was walk in and just receive 20 marks to pass the entire unit.
It isn’t always easy to achieve though. Writing papers can be just as exhausting as studying for an exam. With your assignments, it’s best to –
- Start early and work on them for an hour each week. Even if they are due in week 8, get started on them in week 1.
- Check the marking criteria and make sure you are addressing everything your lecturer will be looking for when marking.
- Make sure you leave time to edit your work (at least two days).
- Reference correctly. It seems tedious to make sure your commas and footnotes are correct, but these small details can add to your overall grade.
6. Prepare your study notes on a weekly basis
Compile 1-2 pages consisting of only the most important information for each week. I’ve tried to create really thorough notes but when exam time approached, it was almost impossible to remember all of that information.
I limit my notes to 2 pages per week. I create palm cards that I can review whilst I travel. My biggest tip to remembering anything is to use acronyms. Even with brain fog, I was able to recall funny and unusual acronyms I had created. For example, I had to remember the strategies primary school children use for counting. I used the acronym – “Entertaining People Find Cacao Fabulous” to remember – “Emergent, Perceptual, Figurative, Count on and Facile strategies”.
7. Spend the week before your exam re-watching all of the lectures
If your university provides recorded lectures, start re-watching these a week before the exam. They may be an hour or more in length, but if you watch them at 1.25 or 1.5 speed you will be able to get through them a lot quicker. I also like to watch Youtube videos on topics that require further explanation. I’m more of a visual learner, so I tend to recall information better when I watch a lecture or see images – instead of reading large blocks of text. Brain fog can be debilitating so studying a week or two beforehand instead of cramming information in the night before will prevent cognitive overload.
8. Know your limits
Finally, it’s important to know your limits. Pushing yourself too far on one day can see you out of action for weeks and even months. If you are struggling with anything, university support is available. They may be able to provide you with leniency on attendance at internal tutorials or provide extensions to assignments when necessary. Four ways I effectively monitor my chronic illness can be found here.
I hope the following tips help you manage your commitments at university/college whilst dealing with chronic illness. Don’t be afraid to pursue your goal of a degree, it is achievable even with chronic illness. Preparation, pacing yourself and organisation are paramount. Chronic illness may affect the way we live but we shouldn’t let it become an obstacle to our dreams.
What are your best tips for balancing college with chronic illness?