College Admissions

College Admissions Books

September 9, 2023

These are some of the best college admissions books I’ve read. They will help parents understand the modern college admissions landscape, from how colleges pick students to how to pay for college. 

We often focus on sensational articles about a handful of colleges. This can lead to a lot of doom-casting and despair. In fact, every year I decorate for Halloween with a stack of “scary books” including several about college admissions.

But really, they should help you be less scared, because you’ll understand more. These books are realistic, but also point out that adult success doesn’t depend on attending a college with a single-digit admissions rate. Where possible, I include links to an excerpt or interview with the author so you can decide if the full book would be helpful in your situation.

Cup of coffee next to a stack of books. Text reads Books on College Admissions above the Admissions Decrypted logo.
Reading books about college admissions will help you better understand the current admissions landscape and what college costs.

What Does College Cost and Is It Worth It?

The Price You Pay for College by Ron Lieber, a NY Times financial columnist, is the best book I’ve read about college costs and the decisions families make about value. The chapters are short and topical. If you only have time for one college admissions book, this would be my highest recommendation.

Part II addresses the role of emotions in thinking about colleges – specifically Fear, Guilt, and Elitism. Reading this won’t erase every negative emotion around college admissions, but you will at least be prepared to recognize them when they start to take over.  

This interview with Ron Lieber gives you a sample, but personally I’d read everything he writes about college.

Related: Understanding College Financial Aid Offers

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 sat in on application reviews with three colleges and also interviewed high school seniors about their experience. 

When I work with families, I find that parents often assume college admissions today is just like what they experienced decades ago. They are 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.

I especially like his concept that you can consider colleges as either Buyers or Sellers

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. 

Students shouldn’t make a college list that is mostly Sellers. There is a good chance that they won’t be admitted to any, and will have few college options in the spring. What’s more, students with an eye on college affordability should look carefully at Buyers that offer a good education, but are less well known outside their region.

College Advice for Black Families

The most recent addition to my list is The Black Family’s Guide to College Admissions by Timothy Fields and Shereem Herndon-Brown. They address a lot of topics relevant to American Black families, like choosing between an HBCU or a PWI (aka a Historically Black College or University or a Primarily White Institution), and bring their own experience as former students, parents, and college admissions professionals. 

I appreciated that they didn’t just tell families what they should do, but tried to share information, lay out pros and cons, and give families a framework for deciding what makes the most sense for them. Their section on deciding what K-12 schools your kid should attend is well done and something I haven’t seen other authors address. 

I hope this book sparks interest in creating a lot more specialized guides that focus on specific areas of interest, but they have set a really high standard to follow.

Does It Matter Where You Go to College?

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 Are Some Hidden Gem Colleges?

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 some 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 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. 

While some changes have occurred at the 44 colleges featured over the years since the most recent revision, 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. 

The colleges featured in the book created a consortium to do joint college fairs around the country, so students could get a better sense of what they offer. Additional information about the schools can be found on the Colleges That Change Lives website.

When College Admissions Has You Stressed

Never Enough by Jennifer Breheny Wallace is a recent book that really speaks to the stress students feel as they approach college. She writes about the intense pressure high school students feel as they try to add more and more to their transcript or resume in the hope of being selected for admission by colleges with single digit admissions rates.

It’s not a list of tips or hacks for admission. Instead it gives students permission to care more about mattering rather than measuring success by their college admissions results. It also equips parents and other adults with tools to support students and turn down the pressure they feel.

The Resources section has a list of suggestions for parents, educators, and community members. These include attitude adjustments, conversation starters, and actions to take. For example, many high schools have a “Sweatshirt Day” on May 1 where students where swag for the college they chose to enroll at. This is usually a well-intentioned effort to celebrate students’ next step, but can cause shame for students who weren’t admitted to high profile colleges — or who are going a different direction like gap years, trade apprenticeships, military enlistment, or work.

Bonus: TED Talks to Help You Parent Stressed Students

Speaking of relieving shame and guilt, please watch these two TED talks from researcher/storyteller Brené Brown. She sometimes refers to herself as a “shame researcher.” And she has spent years exploring how shame and vulnerability affect our self-worth and relationships to family and friends. 

This relates to college admissions in a big way. Students sometimes feel that some admissions outcomes represent “success” and other outcomes mark them as unworthy. It’s important that we as parents keep lines of communication open, and stay attentive 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 will help you support your student.

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

College Admissions Books Give the Context You Need

Every year my Halloween decorations include college admissions books (along with algebra and Latin texts) in a stack of scary books. The prospect of college scares and overwhelms many parents. College admissions may seem confusing and random. Paying for college may feel impossible.

But remember that 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 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 a dream college). Others choose to avoid the topic, which leaves them scrambling when senior year arrives. These books and resources on give you a better foundation for approaching college admissions with your student.

A stack of books, including The Price You Pay for College, Who Gets In and Why, College Match, an SAT study guide, a Latin dictionary, and a vintage algebra book. Two beaded spiders are positioned crawling on the books.
College admissions doesn’t have to be scary!

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