10 Best College Guides: Must-Read Books for Parents and Teens
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, guidebooks remain quite relevant as their benefits and insights go well beyond sheer basic stats.
The ten books highlighted are texts that we genuinely believe will help students and parents in one (or more) of 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 1-10 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 385 Colleges
Author: Princeton Review and Robert Franek
Since 1992, The Princeton Review has released its “Best Colleges” editions each year 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) 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
3B) Colleges Worth Your Money
Authors: The College Transitions Team
Our forthcoming 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, including the school’s connections with recruiters, the rate of employment post-graduation, where students land internships, the companies most likely to hire students from a particular school, and much more.
- 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.
Preorder: Colleges Worth Your Money, 2021 Edition
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. She presents ample research to support her thesis and also provides sound replacement strategies that parents can use to build their child’s resilience and confidence. A parent’s role in the college search and admissions process is critically important and Lythcott-Haims provides the perfect 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. Tremendous information about 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 College Transitions’ own philosophy, Clark and Bernard encourage students and parents alike to become better higher education consumers, seeking answers to tough questions like, “Why do students leave?” a given school. Without question, 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) College Essay Essentials
Author: Ethan Sawyer
An absolutely wonderful, easy-to-digest guide that focuses solely on the craft of composing the college essay—often one of the most challenging and pitfall-laden components of the college application. Sawyer writes in a fun, humorous style that, along with the excellent step-by-step guidance, helps to demystify the dreaded Common App essay. He makes things simple by encouraging teens to think deeply about a) challenges they have encountered in their life and b) what they want to do in the future. This is an easy read that will get your teen on the path toward penning a college essay that is personal, sincere, and memorable.
Purchase: College Essay Essentials
8) 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 and relatable 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
9) Colleges That Change Lives
Author: Loren Pope
Loren Pope, another New York Times education editor, penned this classic as well as 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.
There are two groups of students that can benefit from this book—those with Ivy tunnel vision who can be enlightened about amazing schools that have been off their radar, and solid but not spectacular students who may be unaware of the incredible and one-of-a-kind educational opportunities that are actually within their reach.
Purchase: Colleges that Change Lives
10) 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,” 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
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).