The MCB Undergraduate Experience: A Q&A for New Students and Parents from an MCB Graduate

Outgoing MCB senior Alex Crofts takes a few minutes to provide an informal report, responding to questions about his time at MCB.

Outgoing MCB senior Alex Crofts takes a few minutes to provide an informal report, responding to questions about his time at MCB.

Students.Q: How accessible are professors to undergraduate students?

Professors teaching MCB courses make themselves  accessible to their students in several ways, in order to meet the students' instructional needs.  Professors hold office hours at least once a week, and normally make extra time for students before an exam. Thanks to how the class schedules are arranged, rarely do you encounter a professor availability problem . If you need help on your homework, chances are the professor has scheduled open office hours between the date the homework is assigned and the date it is due. Any drawbacks from being in a large lecture can be negated by the experience of talking one-on-one with a professor during office hours—it is the best interaction you could want with your professor. If there aren't office hours available before your homework is due, there is usually a required small group discussion class that can help with any problems. In case you can’t make it to office hours, professors reply to emails in a respectful and timely fashion, and a surprisingly large number of professors are happy to talk answer student questions by telephone.

Large lecture courses are often run in a way that minimizes the need to see the professor in any case. Lecture notes are provided for almost every lecture, or are available online. Supplemental or required reading in text books help reinforce concepts taught in class, and weekly online quizzes help keep students on track. Few students consistently visit the professor’s office hours every week, simply because there is often no need.

One of the great things about the undergraduate student body is their universal academic strength. You can often seek help from your peers just as confidently as you can from the TA or professor. If I had a question about course material I would always ask a friend or TA first—I’d save the really tough questions for the professor.

Professors know how their students are feeling, and, if a big issue comes up, it is quickly addressed in lecture to avoid confusion. In short, classes are designed to avoid problems only the professor can help solve, and professors are available for those students who need them.

Students.Q: Do you feel engulfed or made insignificant by the hugeness of the university?

The University of Illinois is only as big as you make it. Yes, classes might be a ten minute walk apart, and yes, you may have to take a bus to get from one building to another efficiently. However, the physical space is often not an obstacle for students—it’s the large number of fellow students that can make some uncomfortable.

Although this is a well-known tip, its effectiveness cannot be underestimated—sitting in the front row of a large lecture hall diminishes any feeling of insignificance. The professor makes eye contact with you, sees you every day you come to class, and you avoid noticing the sea of students sitting behind you. You’ll also be the first student to ask the professor a question after class simply due to your proximity. Most large lectures have a mandatory discussion section in a standard classroom, which helps prevent the feeling of being lost in the crowd. You can be in constant contact with your TA and visit the professor after every lecture or during their office hours, allowing you to connect with the teaching staff.

Although all of this helps the feeling of being lost or insignificant, the best way to avoid those feelings is to make and maintain a group of friends within your major.

Sitting with your friends at every lecture may seem like it can only lead to distraction, and even if it does, the benefits far outweigh any negatives. Your friends can serve many important functions that the professor or TA can’t. Meeting up with your friends is an encouragement to actually attend a lecture, and allows you to quietly discuss any questions that arise during the lecture. Outside of class you keep each other on task: ­“Hey, remember we have that quiz on Friday? Want to study tonight?” Your friends are also people who will have the same feelings as you. Having someone to complain about a hard exam with, warn about a boring discussion class this week, or to give you student-to-student advice on what classes to take is psychologically invaluable.

Further, lab courses (which can last up to four hours long) use a partner system, which allows you to work together and spend time with your peers. Lab and discussion sections give you plenty of opportunities to meet and work with your fellow MCB majors, and help you feel more like part of a group. Running into my old lab partners on the quad was always fun, and I knew I could call them if I needed help on any material.

Also, upper-level classes, which deal with the most difficult material, are small and very student-professor oriented. When I took Microbial Physiology as a senior, the class was under twenty students and taught by a microbiology professor in a small classroom. The truth is, large lectures work because the level of material they cover is appropriate to teach to a large group of students. The more advanced the material, the smaller the class size.

Students.Q: What do you think the ideal level of involvement is, if any, for a parent to have with their child’s undergraduate experience?

Parents have the gift of perspective. Every student comes across a hard chemistry or physics exam, and can feel down in the dumps about their academic abilities—it’s easy for students to make typical things into a catastrophe. Parents can understand that one exam is just that: one exam out of 100+ exams the student will most likely have during their undergraduate career. Staying positive and encouraging the student to try their best is more helpful than any direct influence a parent could have with teaching staff or advisers.

Parents should try their best to distinguish what they want for their student (“Wouldn’t that be great if she became a doctor?”) and what suits their strengths the best (“Mom/Dad, I’m getting A’s in all my English courses but I got a D+ on my last physiology exam…”). Encouraging them to pursue what they’re interested in, while keeping in perspective what they can do with that gained knowledge after graduation, is key. Maybe science journalism is a good compromise between this student’s interest in biology and success in English? A student might get tunnel vision heading down particular academic routes, and parents can help them see the big picture and suggest they explore every option they have at the university. Let your students explore different areas while always keeping a path for the future in mind. (1)

Students.Q: Are there counselors/counseling available to help you with academic or personal challenges?

Appointments with academic advisers can be made any day of the work week. The advisers are open to any and all questions pertaining to academics or your career goals, and can offer suggestions on where to look for personal or emotional help. They are also very good at helping you organize your time and study habits.

Extensive personal help and counseling can be found in the university dormitories freshman and sophomore students typically live in. The staff actively builds up a feeling of community and offers opportunities to get to know other students and dissolve stereotypes and social barriers. The dorm I lived in freshman year planned cookouts and day trips to Chicago, games on the quad, and offered coffee and snacks at night during finals week.

Little things like confiding in your peers or taking advantage of planned student-run events can really help you feel part of the campus community. Students should get involved in student groups and campus-sanctioned activities. There are also a number of intramural sports available for all students to help keep them active and meet new people. (2)

Students.Q: How is MCB unique as a major in the biological sciences?

MCB is a unique mix of classroom and laboratory work. With a total of 8 required laboratory courses (3 chemistry, 2 physics, 3 biology) on top of the required MCB lecture/discussion courses, there is a lot to learn and a lot to do. There are a variety of upper-level classes to explore during your junior and senior year, so you can take classes on the material that interests you the most.

I always felt lucky that this major offered a lot of hands-on experience. While other majors are dominated by lectures, discussions, and papers, MCB utilizes laboratory courses to mix it up. You learn something in lecture and then actually apply it in your laboratory class. Instead of writing term papers, you have lab write-ups discussing the data you got from your own experiment in the lab. It’s an interactive way of learning that isn’t found in most other majors.


1. It is important for parents to keep the lines of communication open with their student. Taking a constructive and non-judgmental interest in their activities, course work and grades can help to provide a student with much-needed support. The university adheres to the guidelines of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), so faculty and staff are not permitted to discuss a student's educational record without the student's written permission. The best way to learn about your student's progress is by talking to him or her. Encourage your student to be open and honest with you.

2. The Counseling Center on campus provides free and confidential services to students in need of academic, relational, or emotional assistance. These services include group therapy, individual therapy, referral services, workshops, reading and study skills programs and stress management.

Undergraduate Advising

August 13, 2009 All News