This is a list of books, websites, films, and other resources I’ve found interesting, helpful, and/or illuminating around the topics of college admission, adolescence, adolescents, American culture (especially consumerism and class), higher education history, and related issues. You’ll find something interesting in any one of them. I haven’t included the standard college admission books or guides; they are useful or not depending on your needs and are generally available. These resources deal primarily with ideas and phenomena surrounding and influencing the American college admission complex. Also, you can follow me at Forbes.com, where I write a college admission column.
A History of American Higher Education by John R. Thelin
A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind. Suskind follows a poor African American student through high school and the college process. At times a bit too condescending and not always as clear as Suskind probably intended, but a worthy read.
Admission by Jean Korelitz. An amusing and intriguing novel about a Princeton admission officer and her intertwining personal and professional troubles. Made into a bland rom-com, Admission, starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. Fey’s various moments as an admission officer are funny and accurate, though, and it’s worth the rental just for her performance (and Lily Tomlin’s as her 60s-era mom.)
The Admissions, by Meg Mitchell Moore. A wry novel with college admission as its context, but with much more than college admission in mind. Everyone has a secret! A good read.
Affordable Colleges Online Although I’m a pretty sturdy traditionalist when it comes to going to college (classrooms, professors, late-night studying in the dorm, visits to the library, etc.), I recognize the landscape is changing. For many people, studying online at a recognized, accredited institution’s site can be a big boost to academic aspirations. This site is one of the most comprehensive I’ve seen and offers many other resources besides a list, including access to experts, lists of majors, where to get FA, and more.
After Admission: From College Access to College Success by James E. Rosenbaum, Regina Deil-Amen & Ann E. Person. Focuses primarily on community college issues but has many good insights about achieving success in college.
**Animal House, with John Belushi. Let’s face it, this movie probably has done more to establish attitudes about college among those who saw it as teens than just about anything else. I feel bad including it here, but its power has to be acknowledged even if you hate what it says. And it set the stage for any number of vastly inferior college-kids-versus-the-dean films that followed.
Are You Smart Enough? How Colleges’ Obsession With Smartness Shortchanges Students, by Alexander W. Astin. Prof. Astin is founding director of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute and he knows whereof he speaks. This small but powerful book looks at the numbers involved in college admission (test scores, GPAs) and shows us that they don’t really say anything about how well a college educates its students, just how well they acquire them. It also traces what he considers the reasons for that focus: professors who want students as smart as they are. A bracing tonic in the world of college admission books.
Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture by Juliet B. Schor
Beyond College for All by James Rosenbaum. Although its primary subject is those NOT planning to attend college, this book takes a look at how high school and post-high school are and aren’t connected. Rosenbaum is a sociologist at Northwestern; he offers theories about how and why the connections work or don’t work, in the process illuminating some of the complexities of the college admission process itself. Clearly written and accessible.
**Breaking Away (1979), starring Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid. A classic tale of college kids and “townies” with lovely, sympathetic performances all around.
Campus Life by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz. A wonderful and sometimes eye-opening survey of college life over the years. Amazingly, it seems that students and college faculty and administrators have been in conflict since the early days of the university. One of my favorite books about collegiate life. How little it’s really changed over the years….
Choosing Elites by Robert Klitgaard
Class by Paul Fussell. A send-up of our obsessions with class, including a funny chapter on colleges. Biting and very revealing. You’ll keep assessing your own behavior as you read. Generally very funny.
Class Warfare: Class, Race, and College Admissions in Top-Tier Secondary Schools by Lois Weis, Kristin Cipollone and Heather Jenkins. Although the authors focus narrowly on students at three high schools, they reveal a lot about how race and class influence college admission and those students’ outlooks and behaviors at their “top-tier” secondary schools. Also interesting is the discussion of how class anxiety affects the ways people see college and college admission. Mercifully free of charts and tables, it is still a complex but humane look at how students from non-majority populations deal with being in a majority environment.
**College (1927), starring Buster Keaton. Bookish Buster tries to impress his girl by trying out for every team on campus, with predictably amusing results.
College Access & Opportunity Guide. A college guide geared specifically toward first generation and lower income students and families. Terrific guidance for those looking for schools that have strong programs for those students.
College Admissions and the Public Interest by B. Alden Thresher. The best. most thoughtful book ever written or likely to be written on what college admission is, or should be, all about. Currently out of print, unfortunately. If you can get your hands on a copy, consider yourself lucky. Should be required reading for every admission person and college counselor. (Amazon.com has a few copies available through third party sellers for as little as $5.00 including shipping.)
College Admissions for the 21st Century by Robert Sternberg. A good short history of college admission in the US plus some ideas about how to incorporate alternative ways of knowing into the admission process in order to get beyond the test scores and grades. The author is a professor of psychology and former dean of arts and sciences at Tufts.
College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy, edited by Lloyd Thacker. A publication of the Education Conservancy, with essays by admission deans and others about resisting the competitive and commercialized world of college admission. There’s a certain quixotic atmosphere here but it’s worth taking a few moments to step out of the craziness to read these selections.
Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole by Benjamin R. Barber
**Dear White People (2014), another rare look at college life from a primarily African American perspective. Not quite as incisive as School Daze, but has its moments.
The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch. One of the great writers about American education does a 180.
Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents by Zac Bissonnette. A cheeky, no-holds-barred look at financing a college education, with more than a little emphasis on state institutions and community colleges. The author is currently an undergraduate at the U of Massachusetts–Amherst. If nothing else, it will change how you think about borrowing for college.
Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream by Suzanne Mettler. A look at how changing economic and social policies have made the promise of education as an equalizing force less achievable than ever. An eye-opener for those hoping to change the landscape of education for the better.
Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of American Universities by Craig Steven Wilder. A thorough and readable look into the connection between some of America’s great institutions of higher education and the slaves, slave owners, and slave traders (Northern as well as Southern) that helped create them. Fascinating and long-hidden or ignored details of some of our most honored colleges and universities.
Ethical College Admissions, a blog written by Jim Jump, longtime college counselor and former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). He’s written widely about college admission and the issues surrounding it. He’s also written for major publications including the Washington Post and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
**Everybody’s All-American (1988), starring Dennis Quaid and Jessica Lange. A terrific film about a ’50s football star at LSU, his rise and fall from grace in later years. John Goodman gives a solid performance as Quaid’s best friend.
First in the Family. A pair of guides for students as they approach high school and college preparation. Solid and not condescending.
**Good Will Hunting (1998) starring Matt Damon and Robin Williams. A feel-good movie that takes college seriously. Damon is an outsider who also happens to be a math whiz; Williams is the MIT professor who discovers his talent and helps him develop it.
Harvard, Schmarvard by Jay Mathews. C’mon, people! Slap yourself out of Ivy obsession by reading this book in conjunction with Colleges That Change Lives. (Never mind Harvard’s 94.1% rejection rate.)
Higher Learning, Greater Good: The Private & Social Benefits of Higher Education by Walter W. McMahon
The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II by Roger L. Geiger. A new book (2014) about the founding and progress of American institutions of higher learning. From their origins as primarily religiously based colleges to the addition of professional schools and the rise of student organizations, it presents a focused view of one of our great achievements without leaving out the warts and the awkwardness.
Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students, and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty, by Beth Zasloff and Joshua Steckel. A well-written memoir of one college counselor’s work with students at a Brooklyn public school, their struggles and his realizations about what it means for them to go to college. May be ungallant to say that the authors are husband and wife…
**Horse Feathers (1932), the Marx Brothers. Groucho is the new president of Huxley College. He’s there to save the sinking school by hiring ringer footballers. The behemoth athletes morph into Chico and Harpo, and the rest is insanity, including Groucho’s hilarious wooing of the campus widow. The fourth Marx Brother, Zeppo, plays Groucho’s idiot son, in his 12th year as a Huxley undergrad.
How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overprinting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims. The author is a former dean of students at Stanford who has seen the changes in parenting over the years. She draws on her experiences with overparenting both professionally and personally in ways that bring the problem of helicopter parenting home. With some emphasis on college admission and suggestions for resisting the urge to overparent, this is a good addition to the field.
Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood by Steven Mintz. A wonderful and thought-provoking book about the place of children in American life.
I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. A not very thinly disguised sendup of college life at a place remarkably like Duke University. Not his best work, but still worth reading if you haven’t been on a college campus in a while. My favorite–Bonfire of the Vanities.
Increasing Access to College: Extending Opportunities for All Students by William G. Tierney
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. Classic tale of an outsider looking in at the privileged in university even as he helps build it. See also Limbo below.
Late to Class: Social Class and Schooling in the New Economy Jane A. Van Galen & George W. Noblit, eds.
Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admission and Beyond by Marilee Jones. The former director of admission at MIT (ousted by revelations of resume falsifications) presents some good advice for families approaching the college admission process.
Leveling the Playing Field: Justice, Politics, and College Admissions by Robert K. Fullenwider and Judith Lichtenberg. A careful and thoughtful look at admission in four-year and two-year colleges, how standardized testing is used and other ideas about how to make college admission as fair as possible. They have some nice things to say about testing, which may take you by surprise; it’s a very reasonable book.
Life, the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered America by Neal Gabler. The title is self-explanatory.
Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano. An affecting memoir of what it’s like to feel out of place at an Ivy League/upper class college. Echoes of Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, also worth a read for its portrayal of outsider/insiderness and the desire to better your condition.
Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum. A primer on the topic that’s accessible and thought-provoking. Makes the case that the humanities aren’t just frills but are essential for democracies to work and survive.
Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions by Peterson’s
Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times by Margaret K. Nelson. Why do those parents keep circling?
Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class by Ross Douthat. Less revelatory than it might sound, but an interesting inside look at a Harvard undergrad’s experience (his own). He now writes a conservative-oriented column for the New York Times.
Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn. I love books that challenge widespread assumptions and this one does that in spades. He’s written many in a similar vein and all will shake up your thinking.
Race and Class Matters at an Elite College by Prof. Elizabeth Aries. Prof. Aries studied these topics by surveying and talking with the students at Amherst College. Although many observations seem obvious, there are some surprises and it’s interesting to have this up-close-and-personal study of one of America’s most esteemed colleges. See also the followup to this volume, Speaking of Race and Class Matters: The Student Experience at an Elite College.
Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success by Mandy Savitz-Romer and Suzanne M. Bouffard. A terrific book that puts the college process in the context of adolescent development. It discusses the ways the two intertwine and offers clear descriptions and helpful suggestions about how to make the college process a valuable tool for developing students’ confidence, self-advocacy, goal setting abilities and many more. Well-written, clear and jargon-free, this is an important contribution to the world of college admission.
Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch. Once a supporter of charter schools, Ravitch has done a 180. In this book she takes on the hidden agendas of school “reformers” and demonstrates how their actions put American public education in danger.
Rescuing Your Teenager From Depression by Norman T. Berlinger, MD
**Revenge of the Nerds (1982) starring Robert Carradine and Anthony Edwards. Gilbert! Funny and, while chaotic, a bit less contemptuous of smart guys than Animal House. Lots of good sight gags and playfulness.
Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College, Richard D. Kahlenberg, ed.
**School Daze (1988), dir. Spike Lee, with Lawrence Fishburne, and featuring the Morehouse Glee Club. A rare look at African American college life and the various tensions that go along with it. An excellent soundtrack, with some imagery that might seem shocking in these more tentative days. Based on Lee’s days at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education by David Kirp.A clear-eyed look at how commerce and college intersect more and more in today’s world.
Standardized Minds: The High Price of America’s Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It by Peter Sacks. How much more do we need to say? This book sums things up pretty well.
Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton.
Taking Back High School. This resource is a Dropbox file of articles and reports I’ve collected about the issues surrounding high school students, families, and college admission. I will add to it periodically, so check back every few weeks or so.
Taking Time Off by Ron Lieber & Colin Hall. Ron wrote this book with a friend not that long after graduating from Amherst College. It’s a refreshing approach to the idea that taking a year or so off between academic challenges might be OK. He now writes a financial advice column for the New York Times.
Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education by Peter Sacks. A look at how underserved kids get underserved, and some positive approaches to the issue.
Teenagers: An American History, by Grace Palladino
The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy by Nicholas Lemann. A definitive history of the SAT. Like seeing how sausage is made. Excellent.
The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel. Huge but fascinating and at times chilling account of college admission pre-marketing era. One of the best books ever written about the college admission processa and its connection to American culture and its class system. Should be required reading for anyone in the college admission biz.
The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch. Came out in the ’70s and is even more relevant now as an analysis of how we have changed as a culture from being outwardly conscious to being almost exclusively inwardly oriented.
The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere by Kevin Carey. The Internet transforms education around the world and there are no more colleges or “degrees.”
**The Freshman (1925), Harold Lloyd. Harold goes to college, desperate to be popular, in this silent masterpiece, as genuinely side-splitting as it is sweet and charming, whether Lloyd is practicing his goofy, patented handshake or running wild in an uproarious football game.
The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College by Jacques Steinberg. The NY Times reporter follows the admission process at a liberal arts college from A to Z, focusing on one admission officer’s experience. Not a primer for how to get in anywhere, but a sympathetic look at the pressures exerted on the individuals who make the decisions.
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in American Life by Daniel Boorstin. Written in the late 50s, it could have been written yesterday.
The Little College Handbook: A First Generation’s Guide to Getting in and Staying In by Melissa Broughton
The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins
The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager by Thomas Hine. Readable and fascinating account of the creature known as a “teenager.” Surprisingly, the term is relatively recent and more about marketing than anything else. But you probably knew that.
The Thinking Student’s Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education by Andrew Roberts. An excellent, insightful, and urbane look at choosing a college and getting the most out of it once you’re there. Should be required reading, but won’t be.
The Unintended Consequences of High Stakes Testing by M. Gail Jones, Brett D. Jones, and Tracy Hargrove
What Color Is Your Parachute? for Teens: Discovering Yourself, Defining Your Future by Richard Nelson Bolles and Carol Christen. I’m a fan of the Parachute job-hunting guide because it helps the reader face a lot of issues and define his goals through user-friendly activities, exercises, and so on. I’ve used exercises from the teen version to start conversations in classes with high schoolers in the run-up to discussions about college and it usually works out well. Good for all students, whether college bound or not. Has some Christian-based coloring to it, but should not be a problem in a public school classroom.
Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admission Mania by Frank Bruni. NY Times columnist timidly enters the lists trying to comfort the comfortable by reassuring them that even if their scions end up going to the University of Denver they might still be able to teach at Stanford after a stint in the George W. Bush administration.
Why Choose the Liberal Arts? by Mark William Roche. An impassioned plea for the liberal arts as the most genuine and valuable aspect of a true education. Although Roche too often takes himself as the exemplar of how great they are, his reasoning is both sound and lovely, although one hears the jackboots of data-driven consumerized edutainment marching closely behind. Could have used some trimming, but worth a read. He is a professor of German at Notre Dame and received his undergraduate degree from, dare I say it, Williams.
And now that I have a chapter in it about writing the college application essay, everyone should purchase and read NACAC’s Third Edition of Fundamentals of College Counseling: A Textbook for Graduate Students and Practicing Counselors. You can find it on the NACAC website. I hope it’s helpful to counselors and students going through the college application process. 🙂