Diving into academics at a world-class institution like Illinois can be pretty intimidating. Don’t be scared; it’s part of the fun! The best way to get the most out of your time as a student at Illinois is to start planning as early as possible.
I started exploring my options in the middle of April 2017, about a month after Illinois accepted me. Since then, I have spent an embarrassing amount of time browsing the Illinois Course Catalog website. I love putting together future schedules on the Illinois Course Explorer. Sometimes, I’ll procrastinate on current coursework by reading the descriptions of future classes! Ignore that, it’s bad advice.
If you’re an incoming freshman or transfer student or even a prospective student who feels lost when it comes to academics, keep reading. I got you. Below, I have broken down parts of the academics section found on the Illinois Admissions website. I’ve shared general information, tips and suggestions from my own experiences, and personal anecdotes. I hope you’ll find something to take with you into your next few years here!
I remember the car rides to family gatherings that happened in the fall and winter of my senior year. I would spend at least 15 minutes rehearsing my answer to the question, “What do you want to study?” Here are two common problems students run into when answering this question, for both family members and for themselves.
1. “People tell me my intended major is silly, non-lucrative, and a waste of time. I keep hearing how hard it is to get a job with a liberal arts or performing arts degree. Are they right?”
As a theatre major, I relate. In fact, I feel it in my chest. During my college search, about 75% of people who found out I was planning on studying acting would say something like, “Oh, how fun!” or “So, are you going to do a second major?” or, my personal favorite, “I love the aesthetic of being a starving artist!”
Yeah. That last one actually happened, and it got me pretty good.
Now that I’m 3/16 of the way through my theatre degree, I am certain that I made the right choice. It is a choice I have to make every single day, though. Studying to become an actor is hard. It is difficult in a different way than the way engineering is difficult, but it is still difficult.
Performing arts majors spend just as many hours on their degrees as STEM majors. Depending on the student, the number of hours could be even more. Still, as a theatre major, it is probable that I’ll make fewer lifetime dollars than a STEM major. This does not mean that my life will be less fulfilling than it would be had I chosen something in STEM. I have chosen what makes me happy, and happiness appears in different forms for different people. I know some very happy engineering majors and some absolutely miserable performing arts majors.
College is about exploration, growth, discoveries, and taking it all in. When in doubt, study something you love, and throw your whole self into it. The money will follow.
Liberal arts and humanities majors are not useless. I promise. No matter what you study, you will develop skills that you can use in pursuit of all kinds of careers. What you get out of your education correlates to what you put in. This is true whether you major in computer science, classics, or ceramics.
If you are experiencing pressure from your parents to major in something considered “practical,” I encourage you to leave me a comment. If your parents are footing the bill for your education, they might expect to have some say in what you study. Even if it seems like your parents will not budge, I would be happy to help you make your case. Studying something you enjoy is almost always the better option. Sometimes, it takes a while for the people who love you most to understand that.
2. I have no idea what I want to major in.
I have a secret, and it’s one that the world doesn’t want you to know:
What you major in (kind of) doesn’t matter.
What you’ve done, who you know, and how you market your skillsets matters as much, if not more than your degree. The certificate bearing B.S., B.A., B.F.A., B.M., or whatever, will soon gather dust in the frame in your guest bathroom. Your actual experience, though, will stay with your forever.
This four-year educational undertaking gets a meager three-ish lines at the top of your resume. You’ve got about thirty lines left. At least when considering resume space, what you do outside of the classroom matters a whole lot. To get the most out of both your academic and your extracurricular experiences, you must find a way to meld them together. This will propel you into a future of doing something you love.
“Well, what about computer science and engineering degrees?! Those programs are prestigious, and they must mean something,” you wonder. I bet you can imagine that a degree College of Engineering at Illinois is darn near a golden ticket to a six-figure job in Silicon Valley. Still, the most successful graduates in any field achieved deeply in areas related to but still outside of their required courses. That’s the kind of work that leads to a successful, enjoyable career.
Now, the pressure of choosing the “right major” or the “best program” is off. It’s time to figure out how you like to spend your time. Even if you haven’t found the pursuit that you love more than anything in the world, you can still figure out the kinds of things you like to learn.
The Division of General Studies (DGS) can be a fantastic program for students who can’t make up their mind at this stage in the game. Check out their website for resources that will put you on the path to making a plan. My favorite tool of theirs is EPICS: Exploring Pathways in Career Success. It sounds dry, but it works. I took it again the other day, and it confirmed what I have been learning about my likes, dislikes, goals, and skills.
On my first day of classes this semester, I attended two courses. I returned to my dorm that night and promptly dropped both of those courses.
It was rough, but sometimes, you know. Neither class was the right fit for me.
Other times, a class is a better fit than you ever could have imagined. Last semester, I took a one-credit seminar class called CHP 199: Special Topics – Mass Incarceration. I knew almost nothing about the topic before taking the class. Now that I’ve explored and engaged, I’ve developed a fresh viewpoint that I didn’t have before I took the class. I’m much more civically engaged than I would have been without this class. I am thankful to my professor and my fellow students for the discussions and the leaps forward in our understandings of ourselves, each other, and the world we live in together.
So far, I have yet to take a class that I didn’t like. I was especially surprised at how much I enjoyed the gen-ed classes that have nothing to do with my major. I’ve even been able to apply what I learned to my everyday life. For example, I took ATMS 100: Introduction to Meteorology as a science gen-ed last semester. The course opened my eyes to the basic concepts of the earth’s atmosphere and the weather that happens within it. I’m not exaggerating when I say that every time I go outside, I think about something I learned in that class.
In general, I prefer the classes within my major. After all, I am lucky enough to get to major in something I love. Homework for me is often reading a play, memorizing a scene, writing a journal entry, or taking small steps to achieve my personal goals. In my acting class, we spent two whole classes discussing goal-setting. Our professor continues to hold us accountable for our semester goals, as well as our five-year and ten-year goals. He reminds us daily, saying, “I remember what your goals are.”
All in all, it is pretty easy to find classes you like at Illinois. With over 5,000 to choose from, you get to design your own curriculum (as long as you eventually decide on a major and complete the requirements). Many programs offer lots of flexibility, especially in the junior and senior years. So, go ahead! Take ice skating and flower arranging. You’re in college to learn and to have fun. Who says those things can’t happen at the same time?
The academics menu of the University of Illinois website greets visitors with the following sentence:
Learn to dance from a Broadway veteran, hone your writing skills with a Pulitzer Prize winner, learn about engineering from a MacArthur genius or learn physics from a Nobel Prize winner.
I’m only a freshman, and I already get to study with one of the professors described above. Hint: It isn’t the physicist. It’s Endalyn Taylor, the Broadway veteran! I’m taking DANC 210: Intermediate Jazz Dance. From the first day of class, I could tell that Endalyn is humble, encouraging, and fantastic at what she does. She’s been on Broadway three times, and she’s an expert in her field.
Illinois has some extraordinary faculty members. Every professor I’ve encountered so far is an expert at something. Most of them love to teach, and students like us are the reason for that. Take advantage of everything they have to offer. Get yourself to class, attend office hours, and build personal relationships with them. They might even offer to write you a letter of recommendation or support you in a research project if you take the time to get to know them. Beyond any superficial benefits, building strong relationships with professors will enhance your educational experience tenfold.
Illinois has pretty much everything you could want when it comes to academics. If you have any questions, feel free to leave me a comment. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll connect you to someone who will!
Until next time,