I commenced my bachelor of math 8 years ago and at the same time I was diagnosed to have cancer. Because of the treatment process and the emotional state that I was in, I only completed 3 subjects in the first year, 1 subject in the second year, no subjects in the third year and only 1 subject in the fourth year. By this time, I was feeling well, and I enrolled full time in the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th year and I just graduated recently with a 4.0 GPA (out of 4.0 GPA). My academic transcript does not show my withdrawn subjects and it only shows my completed subjects.

So my first question is that should I tell in my application about this history? will it have any negative impact on my application? I am afraid that if I tell the admission committee that I suffered from cancer, they will reject me because they may think that if it comes back during my graduate studies, then the same thing could happen. Will it look really bad that I only completed very few subjects in the first four years?

How important is it for graduate admission committee that how long it took you to complete your undergraduate degree?

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    Hi Jessica and welcome to Academia SE. Have a look at these related questions, even though they refer to different levels, they may be of interest to you: academia.stackexchange.com/q/34630/20058 academia.stackexchange.com/q/34566/20058 Jan 5, 2019 at 9:25
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    This is not an answer to your question, but I feel it must be said: If you really want to do graduate studies, don't let anyone hinder you for unfair reasons. Also, find the people who value you as you and can support you, whether or not you eventually do graduate studies. Saying or doing 'the right thing' to get accepted is not actually the most important thing. Doing what you enjoy with peace of mind is more important. All the best! =)
    – user21820
    Jan 5, 2019 at 12:03
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    Without delving into an answer because I'm not an academic... wouldn't "I'm so passionate about this subject that even cancer didn't stop me!" be a huge selling point?
    – WernerCD
    Jan 5, 2019 at 17:13
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    @JessicaLee Congratulations on beating the dragon. May you live long and prosper.
    – Ian Kemp
    Jan 6, 2019 at 21:28
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    @WernerCD Yes it definitely is good selling point for proving being a strong person. But it may make them fear what if she won't be able to finish because she gets sick again. It will be bad for institution to have unfinished students. Jan 7, 2019 at 10:51

7 Answers 7


First of all, I’m happy you’re doing better! It would take a truly heartless committee to ignore the circumstances. In the US it’s illegal if I’m not mistaken, but from a recruiter’s perspective I would definitely see the fact that you overcame adversity and managed to graduate with a good GPA as a point in your favor.

Mention this in your statement of purpose. Don’t be melodramatic, just state that you had to take a break from your studies to fight cancer, and then got back into it once you were done. I’d see that as a sign of fortitude and perseverance!

Good luck!

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    It's possible that you don't even need to explicitly state it was cancer. Just refer to it in more general terms such as a medical condition that is now resolved. This may be preferable for privacy reasons, or to avoid potential bias, if any of those are a concern. Depends on how the OP feels about making this information relatively public.
    – Ulysses
    Jan 5, 2019 at 15:48
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    Agree with Spark and @Ulysses. I don't think anyone will look at it negatively. At least, I can't imagine it influencing a committee in any way by positively (in the US, not familiar with other cultures). Jan 5, 2019 at 15:54
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    @Ulysses I believe there may be more unconscious bias against someone who says "medical condition", which could cover mental issues, than with "cancer" (I would honestly expect a positive bias in this case, actually). YMMV, and of course it depends on what the OP is comfortable sharing. Jan 5, 2019 at 23:11
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    @Paul discrimination based on health reasons. HR is not allowed to even ask about it.
    – Spark
    Jan 6, 2019 at 4:34
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    @Spark It's more nuanced than that. It is perfectly legal to ask and discriminate on health issues if it is relevant to the job and the same criteria is applied to all applicants. For example, a job operating heavy machinery can disqualify applicants with a history of seizures. The key is that the OP's previous cancer is not relevant to the job.
    – user71659
    Jan 6, 2019 at 19:20

I feel obliged to provide an answer to this question, as I have literally gone through the same thing. In the beginning of my 4th year as an applied math major, I was diagnosed with leukemia. While I initially hoped that I could avoid changing my class schedule and deal with cancer "on the side," it soon became clear that this was not going to happen. I dropped every class I was taking except for senior design (which the school thankfully worked very closely with me on), failed my MATH GRE subject test, and canceled both my application to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program and applications to math graduate schools in general. After 8 months of hardcore chemo treatments and 2 years of monthly chemo, I finished my treatments, and was ready to apply for graduate schools again. [I had a nearly full-time job for those 2 years in a somewhat related field]

When I was applying to grad schools, I confronted the cancer topic in the opening paragraph of my personal statement. I didn't present it as a reason for someone to take pity on me though. Rather, I presented it as a personal challenge that derailed my initial plans, but ultimately made me a better researcher (nay, person!) after I overcame it. I briefly mentioned how the experience forced me to alter the courses I was enrolled in, explaining the WITHDRAWS on my transcript, but focused more on how during these treatments, I still came to campus as an academic tutor for fellow undergrads.

I am afraid that if I tell the admission committee that I suffered from cancer, they will reject me because they may think that if it comes back during my graduate studies, then the same thing could happen. Will it look really bad that I only completed very few subjects in the first four years?

The professors who read your application are not heartless. They'll understand that your first few years aren't representative of your potential. Your 4.0 and consistent academic progress after you defeated cancer are proof enough that you are serious about your studies. Focus on this evidence and talk about your passion for your math interests, and you should be fine. Getting cancer doesn't ruin your life forever, I promise.

Thankfully, I have been in remission for the past 5 years now. But even so, I am confident that both my advisor and grad school would give me the time off to handle health issues if it comes back. I'm sure you'll have the same experience as me, in that regard. Good to hear you're back on your feet, and good luck with your applications.

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    (+1) This seems like exactly the right way to handle it. Glad you're doing well, @NoseKnowsAll!
    – Matt
    Jan 6, 2019 at 17:49

I think that if you mention it it's gonna be a plus. Almost everybody struggle at some point in life, the commission is made by people older than you so statistically even if they haven't been in the same situation of yours, something bad happened to them. It can go from loss of a child or the illness and loss of a parent at a young age, or anything else, anything that drags you down for a long period of time. They most likely know how hard it is to recover from life struggles so they may be fine with the fact that you have been a bit slow in your bachelor degree. In my view 8 years without a justification look bad so I think you should mention it, I'm not sure when and how, maybe in the cover letter.

If the time required to graduate is used as a metric then your life situation during that period has to be taken into account too, it would be a bad metric otherwise. Are 8 years with cancer much slower than 3 years with a perfect life?

Another point is that you showed you've been able to handle very stressful situations which are quite common in the PhD. I think they may consider this aswell since some PhD students suffer form mental issues and sometimes breakdowns which lead them to slow down or quit graduate school. In my view a person that had a life threatening illness and now is fine mentally can be a good candidate, since the ability to handle stress and pressure without breaking down is a crucial skill.

Wish you good luck.


This is more comment than answer, but I can't comment yet so here goes:

The following is a bit blunt: One possibility is that in a twisted(?) way, your struggle with cancer can be viewed as a positive by the admission committee, for their own gains. In this age of diversity, having a student who is a cancer survivor can give the university "inclusivity brownie points".

Regardless, you've already shown how you're academically (and emotionally/mentally) very capable, by graduating with a perfect GPA despite the circumstances.

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    In fact, this is precisely an answer to the question, and not at all a comment. Comments are intended to be used for suggesting improvements to the question, and asking for clarification about the question itself. This is a good answer (or at least the start of one).
    – user8283
    Jan 7, 2019 at 5:06

Well, I have a German background, so I'm not sure whether my answer is true in the US as well, but in Germany it would be clearly illegal to penalize based on predictions of your medical history.

Furthermore, I would explain the situation because it gives a rationale about your past process, and maybe you can add a prognosis of one of your doctors regarding the recurrence of the tumor.

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    I do not think it is wise to mention anything the doctor said, unless explicitly asked and not confidential. Not everyone makes use of information in the right way, so don't provide more than is expedient.
    – user21820
    Jan 5, 2019 at 11:55
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    Of course it is illegal to penalize on that base, but in the US as well as in Germany, there are people in decision boards who negatively weight that in anyway (without telling of course).
    – Aganju
    Jan 5, 2019 at 14:33
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    It is illegal for committees to ask for medical records, so much so that voluntarily providing medical data would make HR freak out about how it might look to have it on file. Don’t do this!
    – Spark
    Jan 5, 2019 at 15:05
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    @alephzero Whoa. Let's say you're told that you have a 50% chance of recurrence within 5 years. Would you attempt graduate school or not? Where do you drawn the line? Hawking was told he had 2 years, and originally wanted to quit but kept going.
    – mkennedy
    Jan 5, 2019 at 19:47
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    It may be illegal to state medical history as a reason for the penalization. But people can be quite creative with coming up with some other more legal reason to state officially while the obvious unofficial reason will still be medical. Jan 10, 2019 at 7:01

Just jumping into the throng here because I can deeply relate to your problem, and in a slightly different manner is something I struggled with when applying to graduate school last year.

Some background: I am a doctoral student (different field, but still). I had medical (not cancer) issues that bogged past as well. I actually dropped out of college with failed classes and resumed with a different major four years later.

As other answers said - mention it in the personal statement, make it matter-of-fact. I woven it in a single paragraph that was structured somewhat like this:

I wanted to to X. Got sick. Tried my best but my medical issues got the best of me for a time. Worked hard to get better. Tried again because the time spent away enabled me to reassess priorities and my academic path shined through. Now I am better and very committed.

In my statement of purpose I decided not to mention any of this. So my advice: Write about it. Only in the personal statement. You don't even have to mention the specific issue (i.e., cancer) - especially if you are better now. It is nobody's beeswax at this stage. When you do write about it (did I mention that you should write about it? ;)), frame it very carefully. DO: The single most important thing you can do is explain, briefly, how your experience made you realize what is important to you (i.e., graduate work). DON'T make this the only core point about who you are, and do not over sell how you overcame adversity - like everything in your statement (personal and research) - show is better than tell. It should be evident, not self-boasting.

Good luck!


I am not US-based, so I'm not sure how relevant my experiences are to you, but here goes. I know several professors here in Europe that have told me that they do consider the time it took you to obtain your undergraduate degree an important factor in your application - they prefer employing people who get things done in time. For that reason, I would recommend offering some explanation as to why it took you 8 years to obtain your bachelor's - you don't necessarily have to go into details, you could for example mention a "serious medical condition" or something along those lines. I'd advise putting something to that effect in your statement of purpose / cover letter.

That being said, completing your bachelor's with a perfect GPA while dealing with cancer to me sounds like something that might happen in a movie, but not in real life. Pulling that off requires enormous resiliency and mental strength - you should be proud, and I'm sure that any admission committee would be impressed by that.

However, I think it is advisable not to write about it in a manner that is too emotional, or letting it take up too much space - you don't want to evoke pity, but simply offer an explanation why it took you longer than usual to finish.

Good luck and take care!

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