Preparing for College

How Will Admission Committees View Applicant Limited by Illness?

Question: I have an 11th-grade daughter who has been fighting auto-immune disorder. She has had several flareups which were very severe during the junior year. Because of this condition she has not been able to engage in any extracurricular activities except for volunteering at the library and hospital for almost 200 hours. She has not been able to participate in club activities as that requires her to stay after school when she is always very tired. She has a 4.0 GPA and has taken 4 AP courses at the end of the Junior year and has an SAT of 2200s and SAT subjects (math, chem and bio) in the 700s. Can she even consider to apply to Stanford? How are her chances for UCLA? Will the colleges consider her in a separate category or will the colleges judge her with the rest of the healthy children?

Many college and universities, including Stanford and even giant, public UCLA, practice “holistic” admissions, meaning that they look at a broad range of factors that affect each applicant, not just grades, test scores, and résumé items.


So when your daughter applies next year, she should use the “Additional Information” section of her applications (or a separate letter or extra essay) to explain the limitations imposed on her by her illness. This explanation should stress what she has accomplished, despite the obstacles she’s faced, rather than dwell on what she has been unable to do. Note, however, that extracurricular activities are not a mandatory part of a successful application. Admission officials want to see that a student has been engaged in some way outside of the classroom, and your daughter’s volunteer work will certainly qualify. Nonetheless, there may be concern among admission officials that a student who is too tired to take part in after-school clubs may buckle under the pressure of a highly demanding college environment. So your daughter might want to also provide a letter from a doctor that points out that she is prepared to handle a challenging academic program. (Your daughter’s good grades and high test scores should help to corroborate this, too.)

It would be impossible to predict your daughter’s admission odds based on the very little you’ve told me about her, but, from what you’ve presented, I would guess that Stanford is a huge long shot. Stanford is a “Reach” school for almost all students, and those who are admitted are typically academic superstars who have also made their mark in some other arena. This “other arena” need not be school activities. In fact, commonly, these students stand out because of achievements in the “real world,” not just in their high school. Some have conducted scientific research, others have published novels or written symphonies. So, even though the admission committees will take your daughter’s illness into consideration, if they don’t view her as a potential world-beater, then her chances of acceptance won’t be good.

UCLA also has high admission standards but these are not as exacting as Stanford’s. If your daughter is a California resident, she should be well in the running there. (Again, it’s irresponsible to say without knowing a lot more.) If she’s not a CA resident, the going could be a bit tougher because so many slots in each class must be saved for in-staters.

So do encourage your daughter to explain her illness in her applications but to emphasize what she has been able to achieve in spite of it rather than what she has been unable to do because of it.

(posted 5/27/2011)