These are some of the best college admissions books I’ve found to help parents better understand the current college landscape. They will help you put sensational articles about a small number of colleges or well-intentioned but misleading online advice into context. Where possible, I include links to an excerpt or interview to give you a taste.
The prospect of college scares and overwhelms many parents. College admissions may seem confusing and random. Paying for college may feel impossible. The stories that make a big splash in the media are often outliers, that don’t represent typical outcomes. Advice from parents on social media often lacks the context that made it true in their specific situation.
Some parents react by pushing their kids into “getting ready for college” years before it’s appropriate (sixth graders don’t need to be picking a dream college). Others choose to avoid the topic, which leaves them scrambling when senior year arrives. The books and other resources on this list should give you a better foundation for approaching college admissions with your student.
What Does College Cost and What Value Are You Getting?
The Price You Pay for College by Ron Lieber, a NY Times financial columnist, gives both broad and specific information about college costs and the decisions families have to make about value. The chapters are short and topical. Part II addresses the role of emotions in thinking about colleges – specifically Fear, Guilt, and Elitism. I won’t say that reading this will erase all negative emotions from the experience, but you will at least be prepared to recognize them when they start to take over. If you only have time for one college admissions book, this would be my highest recommendation. I recommend the full book, but this interview gives you a taste of his style.
How Do Colleges Pick Students?
Who Gets In and Why by Jeff Selingo, a former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, describes a year in college admissions. He was allowed to sit in on application reviews with three colleges and also interviewed high school seniors about their experience. In my work with families, I find that parents often assume college admissions today is the same as what they experienced decades ago. They may be shocked to find that their alma mater is now much harder to get into, that colleges have extensive marketing budgets, or that financial need plays a role in who is admitted.
One of the best take aways in Who Gets In and Why is his concept that colleges are Buyers or Sellers. In short, Buyers are colleges that need to make an effort to enroll a full class of incoming freshmen. They have higher admissions rates and often give tuition discounts to encourage enrollment. Sellers have many more applicants than they could ever enroll. They turn down large numbers of highly qualified students and usually limit their financial aid to students with demonstrated financial need. I read this book over a couple months with a small group of college admissions professionals. You can read my reviews from that book club here: Part 1 and Part 2. If you’re short on time, the article The Secrets of Elite College Admissions by Jeff Selingo, is based on the research he did for the book.
Does Where You Go to College Matter?
Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be by Frank Bruni rebuts the idea that only a handful of colleges offer an education that prepares students for adult success. This is a destructive idea that causes many teens to feel like failures before they even graduate high school – simply because they didn’t gain admission to one of the most celebrated, most selective colleges. This excerpt is from the beginning of the book. I especially commend the letter Matt Levin’s parents wrote him as a model of what I think most of us want for the children we love.
What Other Colleges Should You Consider?
Colleges That Change Lives by Loren Pope and Hilary Masell Oswald is one that I hope will get you excited about the opportunities and culture of education that exist at many colleges you’ve never heard of. In 1995 he wrote a book Looking Beyond the Ivy League to encourage families to do just that. So many readers asked for specific examples of colleges they should consider that he wrote Colleges That Change Lives to profile colleges he felt “do as much as, and perhaps even more than, any name-brand schools to fully educate students and to give them rich, full lives.” The colleges in the book are mostly small, liberal arts colleges that concentrate on teaching undergraduates.
The book has been revised twice, most recently in 2012, with Oswald as co-author. While some changes have occurred at the 44 colleges featured over the years, I still find the descriptions of possible college environments are useful, especially for students who only have a vague sense of what they might experience as a college student and what factors they really care about. There is also a consortium of the colleges featured in the book. They do joint college fairs around the country and additional information about the schools can be found on the CTCL website.
When Your Student Feels Vulnerable and Ashamed
Finally, I encourage you to watch two TED talks from researcher/storyteller Brené Brown. She sometimes refers to herself as a “shame researcher,” who has spent several years exploring how issues of shame and vulnerability affect our perceptions of self-worth and relationships to family and friends. The reason this topic is relevant is that students sometimes feel that certain admissions outcomes represent “success” and other outcomes mark them as unworthy. It’s important that we as parents keep lines of communication open, attentive to both the unintended messages we are sending and the feelings our kids may struggle to articulate.
I have recommended these talks for many years in my parent resources. In the last few years, mental health concerns for high school and college students have swelled. I think students today feel they are under intense pressure, and don’t know how to ask for help. I hope that these presentations by Brené Brown (or one of her many books and outstanding podcasts) will help you support your student.
I hope you find these college admissions books helpful. If you have other favorite resources, I’d love to know about them.