Getting Sick In College: What Should You Do?

Many students think that when they go to college they will never get sick or suffer any medical condition that might make them miss class. Sadly, this is almost never the case. Whether it is the common cold or a broken leg, there are times when you will have to face missing class due to some medical condition. What can be tough when this happens, is figuring out what you need to do as far as your classes.

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To begin thinking about all of this, I feel that there are several critical questions you need to get answered. First what is your school’s policy concerning excused absences and medical conditions? For example, many schools will excuse you for a medical condition, but you need official documentation of your condition. This documentation is some letter, memo, etc. from a doctor or school health clinic—it is not a note from your parents. To find out your school’s policy on this point and other issues I will discuss you need to check an official school document. This is a case where you don’t just ask a friend or even your Instructor, you need get the official information yourself. I am sure that a quick search of the Internet, using keywords like “excused absence” and your school’s name will lead you to the information you need.

At this point, it is important to note that your school’s policy will typically not distinguish between different medical conditions. This could mean that a cold is typically viewed the same as have mono—sick is sick. The problem with your school thinking this way is that you are probably like most people and think that only some medical conditions are worthy of going to a doctor. That is, if you wake up with a cold it probably does not seem worth taking the time to visit a clinic or paying a clinic fee. Unlike a more serious illness, the cold will likely go away regardless of going to the clinic or not. You can also argue that it is better to hang at home for a minor illness because (a) it will be tough to pay attention when you feel so bad, (b) you want to get better quickly by resting and drinking plenty of fluids, and (c) you don’t may spread your germs to others.

Second, if you are miss class due to an illness are you required to inform the Instructor? Typically, the answer is yes. The reason for this is that being excused from class does not excuse you from the work you missed. Thus, if you do not make sure your Instructor knows why you missed class you will not get to make up any work and your grade of course will suffer. Remember, that just because you have an excused absence does not mean you get a free pass and a score of 100% on whatever graded activity you missed. I will add that (a) your schools probably has a time frame for informing your Instructor and (b) it is a good idea to contact your Instructor (e.g., via email) when you miss class.

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Third, is there any school policy that limits the number of excused absences you can have? You might think that if you have a serious illness and must miss a third of the semester, that’s not your fault and you should be able to make up the work you missed. It is likely, however, that your school has a policy that limits your excused absences to a certain percentage of classes in a semester. If you go beyond this limit you might be able to withdraw from a course or the Instructor may ask you to withdraw.

Fourth, are you always allowed to make up work you missed due to an excused absence? In general, you have the right to make up any graded work (e.g., a quiz or exam) you miss due to an excused sickness in the semester you are taking a course. However, there may be specific rules about this and certain circumstances (e.g., getting sick right before a final exam) may make this impossible. In addition, there is a real problem if the course you are taking has a participation requirement. If you are missing class due to an excused absence you of course cannot participate and your grade will suffer. Your school may have rules about how you can avoid losing points, but it may be that there is no reasonable way to make up participation points; you may lose these points.

Let me add one other very important point about making up work. Having an excused absence does not mean you have the right to receive notes from the Instructor because you missed class. Although your Instructor may give you notes you miss, don’t count on it and make sure you have some alternate plan for obtaining notes from a classmate.

Finally, be very clear what your Instructor has to say about excused absences. It might be that you have an Instructor who is pretty rigid and follows the school policy on all aspects of excused absences. There is really nothing you can do about this, because they are simply following the rules. However, you might have an Instructor who shows more flexibility. For example, I do not require documentation for every illness. However, I expect my students to contact me before or right after class when they are ill. In addition, I keep track of these undocumented excused absences so that I am not allowing students to miss a lot of classes—there is a point where I will need to see documentation.

Related to how your Instructor thinks about excused absences, always make sure you check the syllabus for each of your classes to see if anything is stated about excused absences. Your Instructor may or may not list their unique policies. As always, it is important to keep in mind that your Instructor is not required to list all of the school’s policies on excused absences—you are expected to be aware of these policies.

In closing, let me say that getting sick in college is a drag. It can put you behind and force you into playing catch-up. Still, I hope reading this post will get you thinking about how to deal with any sickness and help you figure out the best way to keep up with your studies.

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