Three college admissions books
All, Book Reviews, College Admissions

College Admissions Books Parents of High School Students Should Read

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.

TEDx Houston: The Power of Vulnerability
TED 2012: Listening to Shame

I hope you find these college admissions books helpful. If you have other favorite resources, I’d love to know about them.

All, Book Reviews, Military

Military Leaders Are Readers – Reading List for Future Officers

Most high school students only have a vague idea about the life of a commissioned military officer. Even students from military families experience military life at one degree of separation. What’s more, they are usually watching a parent who has spent a dozen or more years gaining both experience and rank — two qualities they will lack if they join the military.

Military Reading Lists

I am a big reader, which leaves me prone to thinking that a book might just be the solution to most problems. While that might not be true for every situation, I do think books offer a chance to walk a mile in someone else’s boots. A memoir lets the reader, experience some of the thoughts and feelings of a new leader. This can help students decide if joining the military is a good choice for them. Most commissioning programs require an interview. These books can give a student a reference point when explaining why they want to become an officer.

In 1989, USMC Commandant General Al Gray issued the first Marine Corps Commandant’s Reading List. He viewed reading as a means of honing professional skills. Since then, military professional reading lists have proliferated. Most services have a robust list, sometimes several (service chief, senior enlisted, combatant commanders). I’ve gone through the current lists, older lists, recommendations from shipmates, and my personal favorites. I picked titles that might appeal to and inform someone who is young and new to the military.

The list is heavy on memoirs, fiction, and engaging unit histories. It is intentionally light on strategy and lengthy biographies (with apologies to my Naval Academy classmate who suggested Corbett’s Principles of Maritime Strategy). My hope is that reading some of these will help high school students consider if military service is a path they want to pursue. They may also help future midshipmen, cadets, and junior officers remember they are not alone in needing to make hard decisions with inadequate information under stressful situations.

Many of the books above can be found on audio, which might make them easier to fit into a busy schedule. These suggestions lean towards the Navy and Marine Corps team, because that is where more of my personal reading has been concentrated. I’d love to hear other suggestions if you have a favorite read you think captures part of the experience of junior officer experience.

Histories and Military Memoirs

Stephen Ambrose, Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest – The story of Easy Company from training through D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and combat through Germany. Based on extensive interviews and research, the book shows the combat experience of soldiers who are determined, but not career Army. This book was the basis of the 10-episode Band of Brothers miniseries directed by Tom Hanks. It would be hard to pick an episode of the series that is most impactful, but future officers would be well served to watch at least the first two episodes, Currahee and Day of Days.

The US Naval Academy Class of 2002, In the Shadow of Greatness: Voices of Leadership, Sacrifice, and Service from America’s Longest War – This is a compilation of essays written by members of the Naval Academy Class of 2002 that was published around the ten-year anniversary of their commissioning. They were first class midshipmen (seniors) when the September 11, 2001 attacks occurred. Chapters include stories of combat as well as life outside the Navy, each from the viewpoint of fairly recent graduates. The strengths of this book are the variety of voices and the fact that time had not yet softened their experiences when they sat down to write.

Nathaniel Fick, One Bullet Away – Fick became a Marine Infantry Officer in after graduating from Dartmouth University. The book describes his experience at Marine Officer Candidate School (OCS) in 1998 and deployments as an infantry officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the War on Terror. The audiobook is read by the author.

Military Fiction

Sharon H. Disher, First Class: Women Join the Ranks at the Naval Academy – Disher graduated from the Naval Academy Class of 1980, the first class to include women. This fictionalized account of the experiences of the first group female midshipmen holds lessons for any student on what it can be like to transition from inexperienced high student to young officer.

C. S. Forrester, The Good Shepherd – You may be more familiar with the 2020 Tom Hanks movie Greyhound that was based on C. S. Forrester’s book. Both the movie and book are superb. As a former Surface Warfare Officer, I would say each is the best depiction of underway watch standing that I’ve seen/read.  The book naturally goes into far more detail. One cool aspect of the book is that each chapter covers a one watch rotation, and the entire book occurs over just three days. I also appreciate the fact that the main character is not a superstar officer. Devotion to duty is also the preserve of those who don’t have Early Promote fitness reports.

Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers – Heinlein was a 1929 Naval Academy graduate who served in the Navy before World War Two.  Published in 1959, Starship Troopers was one the works of military science fiction and shows up on many military reading lists. The story describes Juan “Johnny” Rico’s service in the Mobile Infantry in an interstellar war against aliens. [I do not recommend the movie of the same name, which is widely regarded as a satire and has little resemblance to the book.] While obviously not a first-hand account of space infantry tactics, it has been on many military reading lists and led the pack when I asked friends and shipmates for recommendations. Perhaps the reason for it’s longevity is that Heinlein had a good sense for what motivated many to commit themselves to military service. Even if you aren’t borrowing his tactics for powered armor, it may help you see inside the heads of those you serve with.


One of my favorite midshipmen reminded me that spare time is a luxury for students, so I suggest a few podcasts. These may stand in the gap if getting through lots of the books doesn’t seem possible.  There are several high quality military podcasts, with more cropping up as time passes. Give a listen to a few and find what appeals to your interests.

Center for International Military Security (CIMSEC)

Service Academy Sorority

US Naval Institute Proceedings Podcast

War on the Rocks

More Military Book Suggestions

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Other good military books for future officers include
The Caine Mutiny
All the Ships at Sea
The Return of Philo T. McGiffen
Brave Ship, Brave Men
I Love My Rifle More Than You
The Things They Carried

Furthermore, you might investigate the suggestions at DOD Reads or any of the service reading lists. What’s more, Admiral (ret) James Stavridis wrote The Leader’s Bookshelf, an annotated reading list full of books suggested by prominent military leaders. Because there are so many options, it might be best to just pick one that sounds interesting and get started. Take note of what you learn and what you might have done differently in a similar situation. If you find one you think I should include in a future list, let me know. I’d love to add it to my own To Be Read stack.

All, Book Reviews, College Admissions

Review: Who Gets In and Why (Part 2)

This is the second half of a book review of Who Gets In and Why, by Jeff Selingo (Scribner, 2020).

In Part 1 of my review of Who Gets In and Why, I discussed the labels that author Jeff Selingo uses in to categorize colleges (Sellers and Buyers) and students (Drivers and Passengers). These contrasting labels for colleges and students are just two of the insights Selingo brings to college admissions. The main part of the book describes the “Reading Season” in which each college admissions team reviews applications and builds an incoming class. Each chapter focuses on a factor that might contribute to admitting or turning down an applicant. Understanding these factors and how they apply to specific college/student combinations will help families understand the admissions prospects in their situation.

In the chapter “Playing the Odds” Selingo dives deep into the use of Early Decision applications to protect college enrollment percentages. Early Decision is an application option that looms large with students applying to the most selective colleges. Students submit their application months earlier than Regular Decision and also sign an agreement committing to attend the college if they are admitted (the high school counselor and a parent are also required to sign the Early Decision Agreement). A student may only apply to one college during an Early Decision round. If they are admitted by their Early Decision college, they are expected to withdraw any other pending applications (submitted under Early Action or Regular Decision) and deposit at the Early Decision college – without waiting to learn if they were admitted and without the ability to compare financial aid offers or final cost of attendance. The only release from the binding Early Decision commitment is if the financial aid offer from the Early Decision college does not make attendance possible, in which case the student may decline their offer of admission in order to pursue admission to other colleges.

Colleges like Early Decision because it not only spreads their admissions reading season out over several months, but also gives them an applicant pool that has assured them of their intention to attend if admitted. Yield rate (or enrollment rate) is the percentage of admitted students who enroll and is often seen as a measure of how well regarded a college is. Stanford has a yield rate of 82%, while Tulane has a yield rate of 28%. Colleges like Tulane are sensitive to being viewed as fallback options, so they tend to look more favorably on applications from students they know will attend (ED applicants) if admitted. As a result, they fill around 40% of their incoming class via Early Decision. Admissions rates can vary widely between Early Decision and Regular Decision (Jeff Levy and Jennie Kent of Big J Consulting compile annual statistics on ED vs RD admission rates that are eye-opening).

Students aren’t stupid; they can see the game theory at play with Early Decision. Some students spend a lot of time trying to figure out where to apply using Early Decision, hoping to get a leg up on admission to a highly selective college. The significant increase in ED applications in Fall 2020, when many highly selective colleges were forced to use test optional applications, was a result of this pragmatic gamesmanship.  ED can feel like a token that is wasted if it’s not spent. What often gets missed by students who feel pressured to apply to an ED school is how much advantage the college holds. Not only does the college get to pick which students to admit, but because the ED agreement is binding, they don’t have to entice them with generous financial aid offers. The student not only loses the opportunity to compare admissions choices and net costs, but also has to pick a first-choice college months earlier. Students who attend high schools where many students apply to selective colleges often feel pressure to apply ED, whether it fits the individual student’s needs or not. It is worth remembering that around 95% of students do NOT apply using Early Decision. I think parents and school counselors are wise to help a student understand the different application options, so they can consider what they trade away when they use Early Decision and if it makes sense in their situation.

Other chapters are equally compelling. “Finding and Edge” explores the boost that legacy and athletes may see in admissions (the Varsity Blues admissions scandal broke during Selingo’s research). Sports parents may be surprised to learn just how few athletic scholarships exist at top-ranked colleges or that their student may have to choose a less well-known college to be able to compete at the collegiate level. The chapter “Comparing Grades” discusses how much the high school environment affects college admissions results. It would be especially useful for parents of younger students, who may not understand how middle school course selection can result in closed doors years later. The location, size, and demographics of a high school also affect which college reps visit and how much understanding a high school senior brings to the admissions cycle.

“Shaping a Class” is a revealing look at the conflicting priorities that influence final admissions decisions. (This essay in the Wall Street Journal is adapted from this chapter.) Institutional priorities like bringing in enough students interested in humanities or prepared for engineering compete with the need to fill the roster of the college sports teams, orchestra, and drama department. A desire to increase ethnic or economic diversity, to enroll more first-generation students, or to expand geographically beyond the local region may conflict with the need to balance the college operating budget, especially at colleges where revenue is dependent on annual tuition. An ideal class might not be the class the college can afford to admit. While a student’s application is intensely personal, there are many reasons why a student might not be admitted – often unrelated to the quality of their application or their potential as a student.

During my IEC group’s final meeting of 2020, Jeff Selingo himself joined our conversation. One observation he made was that college rankings have power because they confirm what readers already think is true. A ranking that puts Harvard, Stanford, and other well-known colleges at the top of the stack will be believed. If a ranking puts a little-known college towards the top, like Money magazine’s Best Colleges in America Ranked by Value which includes UC San Diego, UC Davis, Texas A&M, Washington and Lee, Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Virginia Tech, University of Delaware, and James Madison University alongside Yale, University of California – Berkeley, and MIT as schools that return high value for tuition costs, parents are prone to disbelief. Reading Who Gets in and Why in advance of the college admissions season offers an antidote to this brand-conscious approach.

Review: Who Gets In and Why (Part 1)

All, Book Reviews, College Admissions

Review: Who Gets In and Why (Part 1)

Part 1 in a two-part series reviewing Who Gets In and Why by Jeff Selingo (Scribner, 2020).

Twice a month I meet with a group of other educational consultants to discuss trends in admissions, how to better serve our clients, and other professional development topics. This fall we’ve been discussing the book Who Gets in and Why by Jeff Selingo (Scribner, 2020).

Selingo spent a year interviewing high school seniors and embedded in three college admissions offices (Emory, Davidson, and University of Washington) as they review applications and selected the incoming freshman class. He uses this access to “pull back the curtain” on the admissions process. One significant contribution the book makes to the college admissions discussion is driving home the fact that there is not a single set of priorities for colleges or a single path to admissions for students.

Buyers and Sellers

Selingo categorizes colleges as Sellers or Buyers. Sellers are colleges that are consistently in high demand. They have large endowments and recognizable names. They turn down far more students than they admit and have no problem filling each freshman class. They are “selling” an education and an experience that commands a high price. The colleges that reported significant increases in early application submissions in fall 2020 were primarily schools that Selingo would label as Sellers.

By contrast, Buyers are less well-known nationally, though they may still offer outstanding academic opportunities. They have smaller endowments and may depend on tuition revenue to fund annual expenses. These schools have to expend greater effort to attract applicants and may use tuition discounts in the form of tuition grants or merit scholarships to “buy” a full incoming class.

Most colleges in the US are Buyers. They tend to have lower selectivity and admit a large number of students in order to enroll each new class of freshmen. While a handful of the most selective colleges like Harvard, Stanford, Tulane, and UCLA get front page coverage for their selectivity, 80% of colleges accept more than half the students who apply. Buyers may include well-appointed public institutions and nurturing liberal arts colleges.

Students who shift their attention from Sellers to Buyers may find an array of colleges that are highly interested in attracting them and connecting them with on campus opportunities. Features like Honors programs, specialized Living Learning Communities, support for undergraduate research, and small class sizes are often benefits collected by students who are willing to think broadly when building their college list.

This category can also include colleges on the edge of viability – low yield (the percentage of admitted students who enroll) and widespread tuition discounts are common traits of colleges at risk of closing. It takes time and effort to distinguish between high value colleges that are less well-known and institutions that are on a downward spiral.

Drivers and Passengers

Selingo’s second pair of labels is for high school students themselves. He describes many as either Drivers or Passengers. Students who are Drivers are focused on college goals well before senior year. They might adopt an earlier timeline for completing standardized testing and may spend the summer before senior year engaged in resume enhancing activities or working on college application essays.

Students who are Passengers often start senior year with a less definitive understanding of the college admissions process, the cost of attendance at typical colleges, or what type of college might fit their needs and goals. They may expect to go to college after high school, but aren’t sure of the steps needed to reach their goal. In mid-November of senior year, Passengers may still be considering where to apply, while many Buyers have completed early applications – which often come with higher rates of admission and stronger financial aid offers.

This is not to say that being a Driver is good and being a Passenger dooms a student to a low-quality education. Drivers can spend a lot of energy prioritizing what they hope will impress admissions officers. They can miss the opportunity to pursue their actual interests, especially those that don’t fit a narrow mold of providing an admissions benefit. Meanwhile, students who were Passengers may take control in college, where they have more room to personalize their education through their choice of majors, minors, and individual courses than was possible in the narrow confines of their high school.

The biggest advantage that Drivers have over Passengers is time. Because they start thinking about college months or years earlier, Drivers have the ability to contemplate what really matters to them and investigate what colleges are most likely to offer what they are looking for. Passengers may miss critical deadlines like priority dates for scholarship consideration or honors college applications. One example of a Passenger in Who Gets In and Why is Chris, a high school football player at a rural high school. Because his school is well off the beaten path for college admissions reps, the spectrum of colleges he considers is fairly small and he probably misses colleges that could have been good options. The lesson for parents and adults who work with high schoolers isn’t that they need to force all students into a Driver mold, but that earlier explorations of college can be beneficial. Students and families who start the college search process earlier have more time to identify high value colleges where there is a strong chance of admission. They also have the ability to choose courses and pursue activities that will prepared them for success as college students.

Read Part 2 of Review: Who Gets In and Why to learn more about the way colleges consider applications.