An Excellent Book on Getting a College Education You Won’t Read

Welcome to my review of Prof. Andrew Roberts’s excellent book, The Thinking Student’s Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education. Calmly, sanely, and intelligently, Prof. Roberts dissects the various elements of choosing a college, choosing your classes once you’re there, how to interact with professors, learning outside the classroom, and then going to graduate school. Here you will find no breathless descriptions of residence halls, no hints on positioning yourself for admission to “top” colleges, no guide to the “fast track” to med school or your MBA. Instead you will be beguiled by sober and clearly written ideas related to the collegiate experience. Unfortunately, these very wonderful qualities will make it a book loved only by those of us who would like to see our students fully engaged in their academic work, striving to become mature, thoughtful adults who might have a shot at running the world properly.

Prof. Roberts is an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University and a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research. He has also written a book entitled The Quality of Democracy in Eastern Europe. In other words, he didn’t have to write this book–he’s got two jobs and plenty to think about already, yet he took the time to give us the benefit of his observations in a way that neither insults our intelligence nor talks down to us from the ivory tower. And who’s going to read anything like that?

In a world full of “getting into college” drivel, there’s very little room for the basic message of “work hard, do your best, and think.” People want easy answers, the “secrets” of admission to “prestigious colleges,” and shortcuts that enable students to avoid actually studying. The books range from the particularly egregious, such as What High Schools Don’t Tell You (And Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know): Create a Long-Term Plan for Your 7th to 10th Grader for Getting into the Top Colleges to the bearable, of which there are several, to the very good such as Colleges That Change Lives and College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family.

What sets Roberts’s book apart is that he actually considers a college education, a liberal arts education in particular, as worthwhile in itself: Tip #38 is “Don’t Worry Too Much about the Job Prospects of the Major” will cause most parents, at least, to throw the book down right there (if they manage to get past Tip #1: “You Can Get an Equivalent Classroom Education at Most Reasonably Selective Colleges and Universities.”) The point is to learn things, kids, not simply to credential yourself.

In my six years on the high school side of the college process, I still remember one visiting college representative vividly. He was a PhD student at Cornell, and he spent most of his session with my students talking about the work he was doing and how exciting it was to have the resources of a major university at his disposal. He didn’t talk about social life or residence halls or how to get to med school in three years; he communicated the pleasures of the life of the mind. In the same vein, Tip #14 is “Take Classes with Heavy Writing Requirements,” the first two sentences of which are, “While college is not primarily a place to learn practical skills, there is at least one skill that you need to pick up as part of your education. That is the skill to write quickly and well.” It’s not for nothing that Tips #69-75 are about graduate school, not jobs.

Although the book is mostly about how to behave in college, early chapters touch on what colleges want and how to choose one. Although the standard answer to the former (which a lot like Freud’s remark about women) is “a well-rounded class,” Roberts’s answer is more unconventional. He writes,

The one aim that drives most colleges and universities,…, is a desire to increase their prestige. Universities wish to be viewed as the best in their line of work. They want to achieve the highest esteem among the general public and their peers as they can. To put it bluntly, everyone wants to be Harvard, and Harvard wants to make sure that no one else is Harvard.

Suddenly the groves of academe look more like a gym full of ninth graders at their new high school. Basically, it’s not about you, college applicant. That in itself makes this book required reading.

Following soon after this takedown are several tips that smooth over the usual panicky bunk about micro-researching everything to come to the perfect “fit.” Even as someone who advocates the “match/fit” idea to a great extent, I appreciate Tip #9: “Don’t Worry; Most Students Are Happy with Their Choice.” Heresy! And yet most students really are happy after a few weeks at their college, even if it wasn’t their first choice. (One college recently did a survey of incoming freshmen, the majority of whom said it was NOT their first choice. Surveyed again at the end of their freshman year, a majority said it WAS their first choice.) Rather sweetly, Prof. Roberts writes, “I feel a little bad about this tip…While I don’t want to say that your choice of college is insignificant, I do want to take some of the anxiety out of it.”

Well, good luck with that, but it’s really true. Many of us in the college access business (of a certain age, perhaps) joke that we picked our colleges randomly, or nearly so, and we’ve managed fairly well. So while there’s no reason not to do all the research before putting a list together, it’s not a life or death decision, either. And Roberts isn’t just making nice; he means what he says:

Within a few weeks of showing up at a college, any college, you will learn a whole new way of living…You will not only learn a new way of life, but you will identify with it. You will wear sweatshirts with your college’s insignia, root for your football team, and defend your college against its rivals. In short, you will feel that you belong there. And this applies to just about any college you choose. In a New York Times survey of recent college graduates, 54 percent viewed their undergraduate experience as excellent, 39 percent as good, and only 7 percent as fair or poor.

I’ve had students (and parents, for that matter) sit on my sofa and weep because they can’t decide between Tufts and Brown or because they might have to choose one of several excellent non-Ivy League colleges. My counselor self is making sympathetic noises but in my head I’m thinking, “Boo-hoo! Just pick one!” If we were to adopt Prof. Roberts’ outlook, a whole industry would topple–in the long run, most people turn out just fine.

And that, of course, is why this admirable book is doomed to be unread. It’s too hard to accept many of its rules and observations and too much in it challenges the reader’s need to panic about getting into college and the colleges’ pleasantly constructed view of life once there. It advises the reader to “Write a Senior Thesis” (#43) and to “Learn the Rules of Critical Thinking and Apply Them Constantly” (#50). Seriously?? Well, yes. (In the immortal words of Monty Python, “My brain hurts!”)

The Thinking Student’s Guide to College strips away the blather of most pre-college admission books and gently takes us beyond the viewbook images of effortless existence in a sylvan glade. College is work, really, terrific work that expands your mind and puts you in touch with all kinds of greatness, but only if you let it. Andrew Roberts’ 75 Tips can help you get there. But, aside from my colleagues, you probably won’t read it, will you?

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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4 Responses to An Excellent Book on Getting a College Education You Won’t Read

  1. I am ordering the book RIGHT NOW. Thanks for the great review. As a reluctant member of the crazy “get into college” industry, I find your insights and perspective refreshing. My company, Wow Writing Workshop, teaches students to write application essays; as a result, we meet many anxious, overwrought parents and students. Writing is at the heart of what we do; we believe that every student has a story to tell, and that the story need not be monumental or astonishing to share something meaningful about the student. Our favorite thank-yous come from students who are deep into senior year or already off at college. “I didn’t know I could write,” they tell us. We wish they had been encouraged to express themselves so confidently earlier in their education.

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    • Will Dix says:

      HI Susan– It’s really unfortunate that so many students seem to get real essay writing lessons only when it’s time to do the college essay. Seems like something should happen before then. Even worse, I think many parents prefer their children’s stiff, unfortunate “good” essays to others that better reflect the applicants’ personalities and ideas. Many times I’ve had to convince parents that a more adventurous essay is better. (When students do write good ones, they know it.) Well, we’ll keep at it, I guess. THanks for your comment.

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  2. Nancy W. Body says:

    Thanks Will for more good information! This will make a great Christmas present for our oldest. I have appreciated all of your columns, and I try to stick by your advice in this crazy college application process. Luckily for us, the search process was easy and limited her choice—-her major dictated where she will apply. Finally, I keep reminding myself that she is the one going to college and it is up to her to get it all done (as hard as that is for me!) Keep the columns coming—we have at least one more to get through this process in a couple of years.

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  3. Joyce Grattan says:

    Thanks for bringing the book to my attention, Will. I am going to order it, at least for my own enjoyment. I increasingly feel like the dinosaur that I am in this business. Occasionally, I do meet a few parents and kids who recognize the absurdity surrounding the circus that surrounds us in the process today.
    JOyce Grattan

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