Are college guidebooks useful?
Two decades ago, opening a college guidebook made you feel like the ultimate insider—suddenly, you were holding in your hand data that felt like classified information. Only fellow purchasers of these phonebook-sized texts were privy to these “secrets” of the college application process. 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 rate 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.
What follows are College Transitions’ reviews of some of the most popular college guides on the market, with some of the pros and cons of each text. It is important to note that our “cons” are not necessarily criticisms (although sometimes they are). Rather, this is our analysis of what each source lacks so that you can properly identify the correct complementary source to fill in the gaps. After all, your own learning process for a subject this expansive and important should involve more than one book.
Princeton Review’s The Best 381 Colleges
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.
Pros: 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.
Cons: Anecdotes and generalizations of a less-than-helpful nature abound in this guidebook. Examples include statements such as “hard liquor is popular on campus” or “no one cheats.” In reality, there are students at every school who are more focused on illicitly purchasing bottles of hard lemonade than attending class, and someone at even the allegedly most honest campus is plagiarizing a term paper on the resurgent popularity of Alexander Hamilton as we speak.
The Best 381 Colleges is available on Amazon.
The Fiske Guide to Colleges
Now in its 33rd 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.
Pros: 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.
Cons: Do you care that Brown University has “a building that resembles a Greek temple and buildings in the Richardsonian tradition”? Me neither. There is a healthy dose of space devoted to campus architecture as well as the same type of generalizations about the student body that are spewed by the Princeton Review (i.e. students are happy, preppy, leaders, world-citizens, etc.) that may or may not be helpful to your college search.
Fiske Guide to Colleges is available on Amazon.
Colleges That Change Lives
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.
Pros: 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.
Cons: While this book is undoubtedly a worthy read and was groundbreaking in leading the charge encouraging high schoolers to consider less-prestigious but excellent colleges, there are some negatives. Many of the school profiles are purely observational and some of the anecdotes get a bit repetitive. For example, Pope will stroll by the library at night, see a pack of students studying and conclude that this affirms an atmosphere of serious scholarship. One other important note is that some of the material is outdated, and was so even at the time of publication. Most egregiously, Antioch College, included in the 2006 edition, actually shut down for a four-year period due to financial difficulties just months after the book’s release.
Colleges That Change Lives is available on Amazon.
The Enlightened College Applicant
We authored this 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?
Pros: 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.”
Cons: None, because we wrote it! Just kidding. Our guidebook does highlight colleges that excel in particular areas (i.e. Top Feeders to Med School) but is not a comprehensive list of hundreds of schools with institution-specific admissions data. For that, we recommend Fiske, The Princeton Review, or any number of free internet sites.
The Enlightened College Applicant is available on Amazon.
Other books about college admissions on our shelves
The College Solution, by Lynn O’Shaughnessy, 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.
How to Raise an Adult, by Julie Lythcott-Haims, is a well-crafted argument for an end to helicopter parenting from a former dean of freshmen at Stanford.
The Gatekeepers, by Jacques Steinberg, 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.
Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Easy Steps, by Alan Gelb, is a pocket-size manual that directly and succinctly walks you through the basics of college essay composition.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).