Will a medical leave impact admit chances into a highly selective school?

By Maxine Seya

Will a medical leave on a high school transcript negatively impact the chances for acceptance into a highly selective school?

– parent in Connecticut

SocratesPost.com ad-free college admissions newsletter how a medical leave in high school impacts college admissions

No, not just on the basis of the medical leave. If the student’s credentials match what the school is looking for, a gap in his transcript won’t necessarily prevent him from getting in.

A medical leave can show college admissions officers that the student has taken steps to regain health and is thus prepared to handle college academically, mentally, and socially.

If, however, a medical leave indicates chronic health issues, the student may want to be proactive and upfront about it with the admissions officers and ask about campus resources for his condition. Like we learned from our conversations with admissions officers at Whitman College and Lynn University and Colorado School of Mines, many admissions officers keep track of every interaction, in-person or virtual, with prospective students. Because many schools need and want to protect yield, it’s in their interest to admit the students who seem so committed and excited about their school that the admissions office feels confident they’d matriculate if accepted.

As a former college consultant, I’ve also encountered several instances of students using their medical leave to their advantage. It’s hard for any teenager to be away from school and their friends for extended periods, especially if they’re simultaneously dealing with health issues.

Having to take a medical leave is a challenge that many high school students will never experience. If the student in question is reflective and positive, overcoming such a challenge and articulating it can show the grit, perseverance, and purpose that colleges want to see in their freshman class.

Some counselors have seen their students succeed by writing and reflecting upon their medical struggles. They encouraged their students to focus on these experiences on the college application instead of brushing them aside.

One counselor recounted: “I had a student spend a few months in in-patient treatment for anorexia. While she tried to stay up on homework, her grades suffered (not all her teachers were willing to be flexible). I encouraged her to be transparent about the situation in her applications, and she chose to include her battle with anorexia as part of her main essays. I encouraged her to focus on the character traits she developed in battling her illness—traits that made her a compelling applicant. We also chose to convey that she had made a lot of progress, when the family knew she still had a lot of progress left to make. She is currently attending a top public school.”

That said, the student should determine what defines him and what does not. If the medical leave does not define him as an individual, and there are other experiences or traits that speak more to who he is, focus on those instead. You can always address the medical leave in the “additional info” section of the application.

Another college counselor stated: “I had a student who literally missed two years of school after a severe concussion. His test scores were excellent but his transcript was unusual and he has almost no extracurriculars. I had him write about it in the Additional Info section but not his Personal Essay. He has been accepted to one of the most selective colleges in the country – best admission decision I’ll see all year!”

If the student’s medical leave was sudden, take time to rethink how well his college list fits his new set of health challenges. Could he be too intent on going to a college that won’t support his health needs?

This is an opportunity for your student to seriously research schools; get in touch with current students, faculty, and admissions officers; and understand the local college community and resources there.

A different counselor shared: “the student missed a full semester and actually repeated the full year (11th grade). She also chose to write about her battle as part of her personal statement. She did a lot of research to find schools that had wellness housing and good support for students with eating disorders. She is now attending a small LAC and is doing great so far!”

Some colleges, such as Columbia College in Chicago, will go as far as reaching out to the student after seeing a transcript gap and asking him or her what resources he or she needs on campus. (We recently conducted an exclusive insider interview with one of the admissions officers there…stay tuned to read it.)

Additionally, many admissions officers want to see an upward trend. Did your student’s grades and engagement drop before he went on medical leave? If so, that’s okay. But did they improve after he returned? That’s crucial.

Admissions officers also like to see commitment to one activity, not surface-level participation in eight. Will your student use the time away from school to reconsider all of his extracurricular commitments and only continue with the one that truly matters once he is well enough to return?

Ultimately, a medical leave is not grounds for rejection, as long as the student has the requisite qualifications: improving grades, solid test scores, extracurricular engagement. It can, in many ways, help his admissions chances if articulated properly, whether in the personal essay or additional information sections of the application. It can also be a great opportunity to really discover schools that meet not only the student’s academic needs, but also health needs.

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Maxine Seya
Maxine Seya is a former investigative journalist, college consultant, and admissions interviewer. She studied at Peking University (Beijing, China) and Université Paul-Valéry (Montpellier, France) and investigated for CNN and Huffington Post before graduating from Northwestern University. She founded SocratesPost to share the human stories behind the admission gates and offer parents clarity as they help their teens with college.