In the realm of crafting my culinary-inspired blog posts, a pattern seems to have emerged, one that I’ve unconsciously adhered to. So, if the title of this particular blog post conjured thoughts of the iconic Big Mac from McDonald’s, I beg your indulgence, for it has no connection to the world of cuisine but rather finds its roots in the intricate tapestry of mentoring relationships. As the cerebral wheels turned and research questions swirled within the crucible of year one of the research seminar on Mentoring Meaningful Learning Experiences, curious parallels began to emerge. These familial terms of mentoring exhibited intriguing resemblances in their mentoring styles, sparking a fervent quest to distinguish and delineate their nuances.  

Unraveling the Enigma of the Big M.A.C  

In our daily discourse, we often find ourselves using the terms mentoring, advising, and coaching interchangeably, like elements in a grand symphony of life. But beneath the surface, how do we truly distinguish these terms? What sets a mentor apart from an advisor, and an advisor apart from a coach? These are the intricacies we shall embark upon unraveling in the following narrative. My aim is to dissect, analyze, and ultimately fashion a distinct tapestry of meaning that separates these three critical components of our personal and professional growth.  

Exploring the Diversity of Academic Guidance  

As we delve deeper into the realm of mentoring and its intricate connections, it becomes evident that throughout undergraduate schooling, many students are presented with the opportunity to form meaningful relationships with mentors, advisors, or coaches. However, the landscape of guidance in academia often lacks a shared understanding and clear terminology to distinguish these roles.  

In our educational journey, students may be assigned or choose advisors and mentors, while the introduction of coaching has added a layer of complexity. Yet, the distinctions and potential overlaps among these roles are often left unclarified. Advising, coaching, and mentoring represent distinct approaches to providing guidance, each with its specific purpose, demanding different yet sometimes overlapping expertise, and employing diverse strategies. For further insights into the pathways to mentoring relationships, you can refer to the CEL blog, which features research conducted by Elon University on this topic: Mentoring for Learner Success: Multiple Pathways to Mentoring Relationships.  

The Essence of a Mentor  

In the academic realm, mentors stand as revered figures, often regarded as the architects of a student’s professional journey. For a deeper understanding of this multifaceted role, you can explore the insights provided in this CEL blog post: Mentoring for Learner Success: Defining Mentoring Relationships, which sheds light on the various dimensions of mentoring. Their significance transcends the mere imparting of knowledge; they play a multifaceted role in shaping students’ lives. Within the hallowed halls of academia, mentors celebrate not only academic accomplishments but also nurture job satisfaction and mold professional identities. Yet, their influence extends far beyond these conventional dynamics.  

Mentorship fosters personal and professional growth by acting as a conduit for transferring wisdom, sharing experiences, and delivering expert insights. It is a relationship that encourages holistic, long-term success for the mentee. However, mentorship is not solely about the professional realm; it encompasses psychosocial well-being and adds depth to the mentor-mentee connection (Santiesteban et al. 2022).  

At its core, mentoring embodies a profound and enduring relationship. It goes beyond the conventional mentor-mentee dynamic, offering experiential wisdom to help build the many facets of a learner’s career (Marcdante and Simpson 2018). This enduring bond between mentor and mentee serves as a cornerstone in the journey toward academic and personal satisfaction.  

The Guidance of an Advisor  

Academic advisors can serve as specialized guides, skillfully navigating the intricate pathways of a student’s educational journey. Their expertise extends far beyond mere course selection; they play a pivotal role in shaping a student’s experience, from helping craft study schedules to assisting in charting career milestones (Marcdante and Simpson 2018). Advisors function as a compass, providing essential guidance to ensure students remain on the right course.  

When students encounter questions or challenges, advisors become invaluable resources, capable of offering direct answers or potential solutions. Their advice is rooted in a wealth of institutional and national guidelines, drawing from a deep well of expertise (Santiesteban et al. 2022). Whether it’s assistance with program-specific tasks or clarification on complex academic issues, advisors consistently provide unwavering support to their students.  

It’s important to note that the advisor-student relationship is not one-sided. Advisors offer strategies and suggestions, with the understanding that the ultimate decision rests with the learner (Marcdante and Simpson 2018). It’s a collaborative exchange where advice is provided, and students may choose to follow or adapt these recommendations based on their unique circumstances and aspirations. Through their expertise and steadfast support, advisors empower students to not only navigate the complexities of higher education but also to thrive in their chosen fields and beyond.  

The Role of a Coach  

In the diverse landscape of learning and personal development, coaches are often associated with realms as diverse as business and sports. Their primary mission is to act as guides, steering individuals toward the acquisition of new skills, fostering profound personal insights, and providing essential tools to manage the pressures of life (Marcdante and Simpson 2018).  

Coaches are catalysts for introspection, encouraging individuals to delve deep within themselves and embark on a journey of self-discovery. They do so by objectively assessing a trainee’s skill set, offering an unvarnished reflection of their strengths and areas for improvement (Santiesteban et al. 2022). This commitment to self-awareness is complemented by practical support, as coaches stand by their trainees through practice and the meticulous analysis of performance metrics.  

By explicitly stating their position as a “coach,” they signal their commitment to aiding the learner in identifying specific goals and devising solutions through insightful questions (Santiesteban et al. 2022). This approach fosters an environment of active learning, where individuals take charge of their own growth and development. Coaches’ expertise extends beyond imparting knowledge; it lies in their ability to guide, motivate, and inspire individuals to reach their full potential.  

Life with the Big Mac  

As a sophomore embarking on my journey at Elon University, I stood at a pivotal crossroads. It was a juncture where I had the remarkable opportunity to immerse myself in two of the three distinct roles highlighted in this exploration: that of an advisor and a mentor. Little did I know that the research journey I was about to undertake would cast a spotlight on the subtle but profound differences between these roles, ultimately illuminating their unique contributions to my academic life.  

One cornerstone of my academic adventure at Elon was my acceptance into the Odyssey Program, a gateway to a distinctive form of mentorship. In this setting, one mentor guided a close-knit group of five mentees. My Odyssey mentor was not just a source of wisdom but also a kindred spirit, sharing striking similarities in career aspirations, academic interests, and even personal and geographical backgrounds. Her guidance proved to be my compass in navigating the uncharted waters of university life. This mentorship was not limited to smoothing the high school-to-college transition; it was a guiding light throughout my undergraduate years.  

In contrast, my relationship with my academic advisor took on a different hue. As a sophomore, I am still in the early stages of forming a distinct connection with my advisor. Nevertheless, their role had already proven indispensable. My advisor diligently ensured that I remained aligned with my course requirements and credit obligations. Even in my relative absence, they worked to provide the academic information necessary to keep my academic journey on course.  

While I hadn’t engaged formally with a coach in the traditional sense, I began to discern elements of coaching embedded within my interactions with both my mentor and advisor. What crystallized from these experiences was the realization that time is a precious currency in the cultivation of meaningful relationships. Titles alone could not define the depth of these connections; rather, it was the investment of time, effort, and genuine care that truly set each role apart.  


As we have unraveled the distinct roles of mentors, advisors, and coaches, we can attest that, while they share a common goal, each plays a unique and indispensable role in the realm of academic mentorship. However, avoiding broad generalizations of these roles is crucial to prevent misconceptions. Establishing precise definitions for each guidance method is paramount, enabling customized and effective mentorship relationships that benefit both the mentee and the mentor. By formalizing these roles, we have established the groundwork for personal and profound mentoring experiences, where the nuances of mentorship, advising, and coaching combine harmoniously to create a rich tapestry of academic growth. Much like the layers of a Big Mac come together to form a satisfying whole, these roles interweave to enrich our educational journey and leave an enduring impact on our lives.  


Marcdante, Karen, and Deborah Simpson. 2018. “Choosing When to Advise, Coach, or Mentor.” Journal of Graduate Medical Education 10 (2): 227–228.  

Santiesteban, Luis, Eric Young, Georgina C. Tiarks, Maria Giulia Boemi, Raina K. Patel, Kyle A. Bauckman, Lauren Fine, Maria E. Padilla, and Vijay Rajput. 2022. “Defining Advising, Coaching, and Mentoring for Student Development in Medical Education.” Cureus 14 (7): e27356.

Tiffanie Grant is a 2023-2026 CEL Student Scholar, collaborating with participants in the 2023-2025 research seminar on Mentoring Meaningful Learning Experiences. Learn more about the current student scholars. 

How to Cite this Post

Grant, Tiffanie Grant. 2023. “The Big M.A.C of Academic Mentorship.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. December 12, 2023.