People frequently ask me how I balance and manage so many conditions while taking on college too. There are many strategies, but these are some of the best, most practical tips.
1. Meet with the disabilities office on your campus a few months before you are scheduled to start classes as a freshman. Every university in the United States, under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), is required to provide such services. Meeting before the start of the academic year is an excellent opportunity to get to know your disabilities counselor. They will more than likely ask for medical documentation from your doctor to determine what accommodations are reasonable. Even if you have no intention using accommodations, I strongly urge you to register anyway. That way, if anything unexpected comes up, your information is already on file, which saved everyone the headache.
2. Check in with your disabilities counselor via email, phone, or in-person meeting every few weeks, even if it is only to say that everything is going well. This allows them to track your progress. My semester of my freshman year, I met with my disability counselor once a week. Now as a rising senior, I go to an in-person meeting with my disability advisor once a semester in the beginning, and I email her academic and medical updates every two to three weeks.
3. I have found that having a paper calendar/planner is very useful. On the big calendar, I write down major assignments, exams, doctors appointments, the days I have to work, and the days I am scheduled to volunteer. That way I can see all of the major stuff in relation to appointments, treatments, and hospitalizations. On the single pages, I write everything else about my day.
4. Like many people with chronic illnesses, I struggle with "brain fog," which complicates my academics. Here are some of most effective study strategies:
a. Flashcards- Not only is making flashcards an excellent way to learn information that is not super conceptual in nature, but writing out the information is also another way to retain information. Studies have shown that the more ways one learns their material, the more likely it will be remembered. If writing is not an option for you, there are free flashcard generating websites like Quizlet.com that allow you to type in the information for the front and the back; then you print them. The site can automatically create tests and study guides, which is also helpful.
b. Color Coding Material- This can also help. I use yellow for the primary terms/definitions, orange for little critical thoughts, blue for statistics/numbers/dates, green for conceptual ideas, and pink for any miscellaneous information of importance. This is my system, but any color can be used for anything. It is another method to ensure information retention.
c. Get a tutor or go to office hours- As freshman, we hear it over and over."Go to office hours", "Get to know your professor," "get a tutor." Yet, most people, chronically ill or not, don't take advantage of these resources. Most teachers love it when students email with questions, stop in for office hours for clarification and make an extra effort to do well. Freshman year, I did not go to office hours regularly, and it showed in my grades. Now my grades are much better because I work with my professors regularly. There's no shame in getting extra help if you need it. It is better than failing the class, losing money, and having to retake it.
d. Highlighters- I separated this from color coding because the strategy is a little bit different. Highlighters help me keep my place and focus while I am reading. On bad days, I highlight the whole page just to keep my place.
e. Mnemonics- The sillier or more ridiculous the mnemonic is, the better I remember it. It can be an advantageous strategy.
f. Reading out loud- Sometimes reading aloud can help to focus on the material, especially when there are hundreds of pages you need to read. It keeps you from going on autopilot and merely skimming the material.
g. Study group- Studying is less miserable with friends, and you can quiz each other, which helps both of you to study because it forces on to answer the question and one to explain why the answer is what it is.
h. Don't cram!- Our brains are taxed enough as it is, there's no reason to exacerbate your conditions by overworking yourself. A little bit every day goes a long way.
i. Make a study timetable. Fill in doctors appointments and treatments in first. Then add the things you want to do, hobbies, sports, clubs, volunteering, etc. Next, add in work, and the time you will be studying. If you add the studying in first, you won’t have time for other things, which means that the study plan will go out the window faster.
j. Take a reasonable amount of credits. I always say I would rather take 12 credits a semester and end up with a 4.0 and on the Dean's List versus taking 18 credits, getting a 3.25, and not doing anything fun. If you can't take a full load, that's perfectly fine! Slow and steady gets the diploma!
k. Time management is so important in the life of a student. We only have so many spoons a day to accomplish everything we need to, so it is important to ensure that we are maximizing our chance to succeed.
5. I also find that I have to be as comfortable as possible while studying. I keep my medications, some water, and my heating pad nearby, so I don't have to get up once I'm comfortable. Bear in mind that sitting at a desk many not be comfortable for everyone. I love studying on the couch, and when I am awful, I do all my work in bed.
6. Plan for the worst and hope for the best. Make sure that you are making your professors aware of your conditions as they change and that they are unpredictable. You can be fine one hour and in a life-threatening crisis the next. I always let my professor know up front that I am in the hospital a lot and that I have frequent treatments and doctor's appointments. While I try to schedule this stuff outside of class time, sometimes it is not up to me. It is critical to tell them all of this upfront, so if something does happen mid-semester, they've been warned, and they have no reason to think you are "making it up" to get out of something.
7. If your mobility is impaired, locate the most readily available entrance BEFORE you need them. There is nothing worse than being late to class because you couldn't find the handicap accessible ramp, the automatic door wouldn't open, or you couldn't find an entrance with without several flights of stairs. The same goes for elevators. Know where all of them are located on campus.
8. Get sleep. Most people can pull an all-nighter without issues, but for college students with bodies that are constantly at war, sleep is a must-have. Seven to nine hour each night may be unrealistic from a medical perspective and an academic demand, but seize any opportunity you have to get some sleep.
9. It is okay not to be involved with every single club or organization on campus. Pick one or two and focus on them. This is also an excellent way to get some leadership positions if that so interests you and make some friends.
10. The alcohol and the parties are not all they are made out to be. For many (in addition to being minors), mixing alcohol with medications can be very dangerous and even fatal. This is why, other than the fact that I am not 21 yet, that I do not partake in alcoholic beverages, nor do I attend parties where people would attempt to tempt me. The key is not putting yourself in a situation where alcohol is present. I am perfectly happy with my ginger ale or lemonade, and my friends understand that.
College is supposed to be the best four years of your life. For many, it is the first time we are leaving home, and we are forced to rely on ourselves with the support of friends and family. With the proper accommodations and strategies, we can get that degree!