Should I Disclose My Chronic Illness?

May 27, 2024

Dr. Vicki Johnson, a mid-age white American woman with straight brown hair and a green blouse. She is a graduate school admissions expert. The words, Ask Dr. Johnson are on the left-hand side.

Dear Dr. Johnson,

I am applying to Master’s programs with the hope of being more prepared for a PhD at a later stage. I love research and won awards for some of the papers I wrote during undergrad. However, overall, I have only a 3.0 GPA because I was unable to complete work to the best of my abilities due to a chronic illness that caused brain fog and extreme fatigue. I never shared with my professors or advisor what I was going through because I didn’t have a diagnosis, and I just tried to deal with it without medication. I asked for extensions and tried my best to meet deadlines but the GPA stands as my record. Now I am applying to graduate school and I want to explain why my GPA was low but I now worry that I could be discriminated against since I would need to disclose this ongoing illness. What would you do in my situation?

– Recovering


From Dr. Vicki Johnson:

I am very sorry to hear you struggled with an undiagnosed illness during your undergraduate studies. For a situation like yours, reflect on the ultimate outcome you want to achieve; in your case, a PhD. To get into a PhD, you’ll want to achieve a strong GPA and faculty relationships in a Master’s program. Therefore, it’s important you find a Master’s program that will support you both academically and personally if you anticipate that your illness could impact your studies as it did during undergrad.

Lots of people on the Internet advise that you should not disclose an illness or disability until after you receive an acceptance to a program because of the risk of discrimination. I disagree.

If you disclose, it’s possible you may be rejected from programs because they are unable or unwilling to support a student with a chronic illness. But when your goal is to achieve a PhD, would you really want to be in an inflexible program? Long-term, this could work against your goals. By disclosing, you can identify allies.

Before applying to any program, speak directly with Admissions representatives to learn if a program will be supportive. Share the nature of your illness and how it might impact your ability to meet deadlines. Let them know your goal is to work hard and maintain a high GPA in this next step towards a PhD. Talk about how much you enjoyed undergraduate research and the awards you achieved. Then, take note of how they respond. Hopefully, most programs will be transparent about their ability to support you. The best case is that they will provide examples of other students in your situation and how they were supported. Look for these signals and ask lots of questions.

In regard to your application, now is the time to reconnect with your undergraduate professors, especially those who oversaw the papers for which you won awards. It is not too late to explain to them what you were grappling with and how you are treating your illness now. Let them know you are applying to Master’s programs and want to achieve your PhD. I think you’ll find many professors who will empathize with you and provide advice on your next steps. In your recommendation letters, make sure they detail the work that you put into your award-winning papers. The recommendation letters are the best place to receive validation that you are a strong candidate and committed to your academic goals.

You can also discuss the reasons for your lower GPA in your personal statement or optional essay. However, in your essays, do not spend a lot of word count on this – let the recommendation letters speak on your behalf. This is because your essays need to highlight your strengths, career goals, and motivations for graduate study – the future you – and not the details of your illness and former struggles. Explain clearly why you are applying to their specific program and how it will help you achieve your career goals.

While you might face discrimination as you apply to Master’s programs due to your chronic illness, don’t fall victim to assumptions and the opinions of others. It is absolutely possible to find one or more Master’s programs that will be thrilled to have you as a student and support you both academically and personally – what I call a “best fit” program. Many graduate school applicants I have mentored in my Fully Funded Course and Mentorship Program have faced and overcome this challenge. Through hard work on their applications, networking, and optimism, they are now in the perfect program for them. This can be you, too. Best of luck!

Dr. Vicki Johnson is the Founder and Director of ProFellow, the world’s leading online resource for professional and academic fellowships. She is a four-time fellow, top Ph.D. scholar, Fulbright recipient, and an award-winning social entrepreneur. She is the creator of the Fully Funded Course and Mentorship Program, which helps graduate school applicants enter top graduate schools with funding awards. 

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