12 Best College Guides: Must-Read Admissions Books for Parents and Teens

July 17, 2022

Prior to the advent of the modern internet, data-starved applicants had to head over to Barnes & Noble or another, now defunct retailer (remember Borders and Waldenbooks?) to find insights beyond those contained in the official glossy brochures that arrived in the mail. The internet has made some of these extra-thick volumes a bit less essential. After all, finding basic admissions data like SAT range, average GPA, tuition costs, and acceptance rates can be done through a fast and free Google search. Yet, even so, college guides remain quite relevant as their benefits and insights go well beyond sheer basic stats.

The 12 books highlighted are texts that we genuinely believe will help students and parents in the following areas:

  • Big-picture perspective about a college education
  • Adopting a consumer mindset
  • Widening your college search
  • Understanding the true nature of selective college admissions
  • The nuts & bolts of getting in—tips and strategies

Note #1: The numbers 1-12 are not representative of any type of ranking.

Note #2: Just to be upfront, we did include our own two guides on this list (as one entry). While this is clearly an act of self-promotion, we do, of course, genuinely believe in the value that these two books offer to readers.

1) The Princeton Review: The Best 388 Colleges

Author: Princeton Review and Robert Franek

Since 1992, The Princeton Review has released its “Best Colleges” annual editions. The contents are based on surveys of over 140,000 students at institutions across the country.

This guide is an excellent starting point for any college-bound high school student. It covers many, but certainly not all, of the finest institutions in the United States, placing a spotlight on top programs, popular majors, and notable campus attributes. Its wealth of lists will also help students looking to find like-minded peers by highlighting schools that are known for their: LGBT friendliness, religious student bodies, intramural sports, quality college towns, study abroad opportunities, Greek or non-Greek-dominated social scene, and so on.

Purchase: The Best 385 Colleges

2) The Fiske Guide to Colleges

Author: Edward Fiske

Now in its 36th edition, this annual, authored by Edward Fiske, former education editor of The New York Times, highlights those institutions that he deems to be the “best and most interesting” schools in the United States. Typically, around 320 colleges and universities make the cut.

The Fiske Guide is extremely well-written and the school profiles are a pleasure to read. Incisive quotes from students and professors are interspersed throughout each school profile. Rich descriptions of the overall academic milieu, programmatic offerings, and notably unique extracurricular/recreational opportunities give the reader an excellent overview of the strengths of each school. In addition to detailed profiles of hundreds of colleges and universities, there are also some helpful lists breaking down the included schools by cost as well as by graduate debt load.

Purchase: Fiske Guide to Colleges

3A) Colleges Worth Your Money

Authors: The College Transitions Team

Our brand new guide, Colleges Worth Your Money, provides the most up-to-date, accurate, and comprehensive information for gauging the ROI of America’s top schools, including:

  • In-depth profiles of 150 of the top colleges and universities across the U.S.
  • Over 75 key statistics about each school that cover unique admissions-related data points such as gender-specific acceptance rates, early decision acceptance rates, and five-year admissions trends at each college.
  • The solid facts on career outcomes. This includes the school’s connections with recruiters, the rate of employment post-graduation, and where students land internships. Additionally, you’ll see the companies most likely to hire students from a particular school, and much more.
  • Lastly, data and commentary on each college’s merit and need-based aid awards, average student debt, and starting salary outcomes.

We wholeheartedly believe that you won’t find a more data-rich or consumer-friendly guide on the market. Booklist called it “succinct, affordable, and highly readable” and “superb choice” for anyone seeking to expand their college knowledge. Nationally recognized college expert, Lynn O’Shaughnessy, encourages teens and parents to “use this book as your college lifeline” and Rick Clark lauded it as “a refreshing combination of data and insight.”

Purchase: Colleges Worth Your Money, 2023 Edition

See additional reviews of the 2022 Edition.

3B) The Enlightened College Applicant

Authors: The College Transitions Team

We authored The Enlightened College Applicant book to fill what we saw as huge gaps in the guidebook literature: What can academic research in the field of higher education tell us about college selection? How can we measure return on investment by undergraduate institution and major? How can teenagers, even those unsure about their future paths, make decisions about college that will keep their lives flexible enough to pursue their dreams, as they begin to take form?

Since we wrote this book, we’ll let the national book critics speak to its worthiness. As Kirkus stated, our book is a “destressing trove of data that will help readers make more well-rounded college decisions.” It arms families and students with research-based advice to help make their college decisions more “rationally and reasonably,” to quote The American Library Association (Booklist). We think our text should be the first college book you read, as it will provide you with a framework and philosophy to guide your search for an undergraduate home. Publisher’s Weekly agrees that The Enlightened College Applicant is “a voice of reason” that will “provide comfort and direction to those starting the application process.”

Purchase: The Enlightened College Applicant

New edition is due out in January 2023!

4) How to Raise an Adult

Author: Julie Lythcott-Haims

Written by the former dean of freshmen at Stanford, How to Raise an Adult is a plea for parents of teens to abandon their helicopters and start preparing their children for real-world success. The author chronicles the detrimental effects of “overparenting” in high schools, college, and the workplace. Lythcott-Haims presents ample research to support her thesis. Further, she provides sound replacement strategies that parents can use to build their child’s resilience and confidence. A parent’s role in the college process is critically important and Lythcott-Haims provides a roadmap for that arduous journey ahead.

Purchase: How to Raise an Adult

5) The College Solution

Author: Lynn O’Shaughnessy

This is one of our all-time favorite books on higher education, as it masterfully argues for families to put undergraduate cost at the forefront of their college considerations. Most books offering “secrets” to finding tuition dollars are full of misinformation and empty promises; yet, O’Shaughnessy’s is—pun intended—right on the money.  The author shows how to find merit-based aid and target schools where you can attend at a fraction of the list price. You can search for private scholarships until you are blue in the face, or you can read about a real “solution” in this phenomenal guide.

Purchase: The College Solution

6) The Truth about College Admission

Authors: Brennan Barnard & Rick Clark

We absolutely love this new release by Brennan Barnard, Director of College Counseling at The Derryfield School and US Performance Academy, and Rick Clark, Georgia Tech’s Director of Admissions. This excellent text covers important topics including the idea of starting one’s college search by asking the simple but critical big-picture question: “Why am I going to college?” Advice for parents includes sound recommendations such as: a) talk honestly about college finances with your child and b) help navigate your teen’s college process but let them steer the ship. In line with our own philosophy, Clark and Bernard encourage students/parents to become better higher education consumers. They seek answers to tough questions like, “Why do students leave a given school?” In sum, this book can help get students and parents in the right mindset to launch into the college process.

Purchase: The Truth about College Admission

7) The Price You Pay for College

Author: Ron Lieber

The College Transitions team are huge fans of Ron Lieber’s column in the New York Times. We are equally attached to this phenomenal book, released in 2021. The Price You Pay for College reveals how higher education has become such an absurdly-priced and complex marketplace. Most importantly, Lieber touches on what research says about what actually matters when selecting a college. He also offers grounded and implementable advice on how to talk to your kids about college finances.

Purchase: The Price You Pay for College 

8) Who Gets In and Why

Author: Jeff Selingo

The author embedded himself in the admissions offices of three highly-selective schools. In short, this book offers a close-up look at the way admissions decisions are actually made in this hypercompetitive environment. The featured schools are Emory University, Davidson College, and the University of Washington.

Purchase: Who Gets In and Why

9) Paying for College

Author: Kalman Chany

Formerly published as Paying For College Without Going Broke, this guide offers short and long term strategies for obtaining financial aid. This practical book includes worksheets to help you calculate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). It also offers line-by-line FAFSA instructions, pros and cons of 529 plans, and how to maximize aid.

Purchase: Paying for College

10) The Gatekeepers

Author: Jacques Steinberg

This timeless classic is the story of a journalist embedded within the Wesleyan admissions office for a full admissions cycle. Lively accounts of the experiences of the admissions officers as well as several applicants make this a highly insightful book. Even though it was written in 1999, what transpired in the Wesleyan admissions war room just before the turn of the millennium remains highly relevant to today’s applicants. Anyone eyeing a highly-selective college or university should read this book in order to obtain a peek “behind the curtain” of an imperfect and subjective process.

Purchase: The Gatekeepers

11) Colleges That Change Lives

Author: Loren Pope

Loren Pope, another New York Times education editor, penned this classic. He is also wrote other worthy reads such as Looking Beyond the Ivy League. Pope’s was the first national voice to popularize the idea that what actually takes place on campus and in classrooms is far more important than name recognition and prestige. In advocating for small, liberal arts schools, he highlighted 40 schools that are not highly-selective but still provide students with a superior educational experience.

In particular, there are two groups of students that can benefit from this book. Firstly, those with Ivy tunnel vision who can be enlightened about amazing schools that have been off their radar. Secondly, solid but not spectacular students can also greatly benefit. These individuals can learn about the incredible and one-of-a-kind educational opportunities that are within their reach.

Purchase: Colleges that Change Lives

12) Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be

Author: Frank Bruni

The subtitle of this book is “An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.” This is actually a pretty great summation of what this text accomplishes. Where You Go succeeded in popularizing the very important message that the hysteria surrounding elite college admission is largely unwarranted and Bruni offers countless examples of individuals who have gone on to great success in a variety of fields despite not possessing elite college credentials. No matter what you dream of becoming “when you grow up,” there are hundreds of pathways (and colleges) that can lead you there.

Purchase: Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be

The 12 Best Colleges Guides

In conclusion, we hope you have found our blog on the 12 Best College Guides to be helpful. You may also wish to check out our free Dataverse, College Investigator Tool, and hundreds of archived blogs.