15 books on going to college

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Going to college is an experience loaded with tremendous meaning and symbolism. It represents the opportunity to reinvent yourself or to escape. College can be the way to change socio-economic status. For a legacy student, it’s about reinforcing the status quo. For many, college is freedom: the freedom to pursue ideas and goals and a casual love or two. With all of these opportunities comes the cost. Financial strains, immense stress and questioning one’s lifestyle choices are typical experiences. It’s no wonder there are so many books on college.

I present a list of books presenting a wide range of experiences in college, both fiction and non-fiction. I also draw on my experience as a university education advisor to provide a heartfelt recommendation to anyone trying to get the most out of their studies. So let’s go into the books!

Adult books on college studies

The idiot by Elif Batuman

Set in 1995, this book is, believe it or not, historical fiction. Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, went to first year at Harvard. The novel is very slice of life, following the ups and downs of the University of Selin. It’s also in part about the narrow window of time that going to college meant having access to an internet very different from what we know today. This Internet made communication easier without broadcasting to your friends, subscribers and family what you were doing. Before people checked reading receipts on their texts, they used the “finger” protocol (yes, that is as rude as it sounds) to check if a user on their college network had recently logged in and presumably, had seen this email. Selin’s intense interiority fits perfectly with this more underhanded internet age.

Covering the Secret History

The secret story by Donna Tartt

Here it is, the model of the dark academia phenomenon. The story follows Richard, who is an alien figure at the elite fictional college in Vermont where he transferred. In this school, a cult clique was formed around a professor of classical letters in particular. Richard is caught up in their obsession with going too far in their love of classics. This novel captures the feeling of being completely in love with the college experience, as well as what happens when the sparkle wears off. It’s one of my all-time favorites, and like the best books, proofreading always produces new layers.

As a lie is to smile by Siméon Marsalis

There are many books on how to go to college and find the community you are looking for, but it is not the universal experience. How a lie is to smile touches on the isolation that can be part of college for people belonging to a very visible minority. David, a black student at the predominantly white University of Vermont, is one such person. He works to connect college history, African American history, and his personal history. It is a dreamlike journey, often funny and often heavy through the eyes of a very singular character.

Books for young adults about college studies

Every body looking by Candice Iloh

If you are looking for a verse novel among the books on going to college, here we go. It is a strongly autobiographical novel about Ada, the daughter of a Nigerian father and an African-American mother. Ada becomes herself as a freshman at an HBCU, battling parental pressures and questioning her sexuality. While college offers an opportunity to be herself, Ada still has to reckon with difficult memories that accompanied her in college. The book covers heavy topics including drug addiction and childhood sexual abuse, so sensitive readers should be aware of this.

Check it out, please! Book 1 by Ngozi Ukazu

College is equivalent to sport for many people. This graphic novel, from a webcomic of the same name, follows Bitty as he goes to college and joins a much more intense hockey team than his co-ed club at home. He also meets Jack, the moody captain, who stirs up romantic feelings in Bitty. Read this one for an upbeat take on the sweet romance and new friendships that can be a part of the college experience.

Virtually Yours by Sarvenaz Tash

Virtually yours by Sarvenaz Tash

Ailments that are lingering for a boyfriend or girlfriend from high school can certainly carry over into college. This was the case for New York University rookie Mariam Vakilian. She decides to participate in a virtual reality dating service to free herself from her past. Problem is, she matches the high school sweetheart, as well as her new best friend Jeremy. If you like the love triangle, this book is for you, but it’s not just that. Virtually yours Also examines issues related to modern internet dating, including cat fishing and malicious uses of personal data.

cover image of The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

The black flamingo by Dean Atta

This verse novel features Michael, a half Jamaican and half Greek Cypriot boy living in London. College is his chance to discover himself, and he finally finds her with The Drag Society. There he boldly and cheerfully finds his power, a common theme in drag books. In the end, I can’t say it better than the book: “This book is a fairy tale / in which I am the prince / and the princess. I am / the king and the queen. / I am my own wicked / witch and fairy godmother. / This book is a fairy tale / in which I am cursed / and blessed by others. / But ultimately I am the fairy / finding my own magic.

Cover of the book American Panda by Gloria Chao

american panda by Gloria Chao

Balancing the weight of parental expectations with one’s personal outlook on how life should turn out is a daunting task for many students. This is the case with Mei, a 17-year-old freshman at MIT who discovers that the plan to become a doctor isn’t so good for a germaphobe who falls asleep in biology class. Add to that a budding affection for a boy who wouldn’t win parental approval, and Mei found herself in deep trouble. It’s a story that many people can relate to, told with humor and heart.

We're fine by Nina LaCour

We are fine by Nina LaCour

This beautiful and melancholy novel focuses less on plot to investigate relationships and emotions in depth. As other college leaving books have pointed out, this is rarely an effective way to move past your past. And even if you stay in college for a break, as Marin does in this book, it only gives more room for reflection. Returning to California and returning to the quiet New York campus, Marin unveils the mystery of his relationship with Mabel, his best friend who could be something more.

Non-fiction books about college education

I am where I come from: Native American students and graduates tell their stories by Andrew Garrod, Robert Kilkenny and Melanie Benson Taylor

There is no unified experience when it comes to being Native American, and this book emphasizes that. These stories chronicle the struggles many Native Americans face, including the proximity of poverty, violence and drug addiction. They also reflect the complexity of these students’ lives and how they use education to improve their lives and that of their families. Ultimately, some students’ stories also look to the future, regarding the needs and promises of future generations.

I don’t want to die poor: essays by Michael Arceneaux

For so many people, college equates to a monumental never-ending debt. If you contemplate this reality, this book might make you reconsider your options. If it’s too late and you’re already writing those endless checks, you’ll feel less lonely. Arceneaux explains in detail how his debt affects all aspects of his life. It’s both funny and heartbreaking. Arceneaux also talks about the intersections of race and class with debt, and the American dream has been shattered under a failing system of education funding.

Undocumented: the odyssey of a Dominican boy from an Ivy League homeless shelter by Dan-el Padilla Peralta

As a child, Dan-el Padilla Peralta accompanied his mother to the United States from the Dominican Republic on a tourist visa. She came to seek medical treatment, but eventually exceeded her visa and became undocumented. The author traces his path from poverty to Princeton. He is careful to highlight the support system he had given to his unique situation as well as the systemic obstacles he faced. Through it all, his love of learning and collegial experience shines through.

Cover They said it would be fun

They said it would be fun: running, campus life and growing up by Eternity Martis

The red solo cuts on the cover of this book are such a potent symbol of what for many of us was college’s worst. These beer-soaked parties are a lot less fun when white college students arrive in blackface, as Martis, a black woman from Western University in Canada, witnessed. She recounts the complexity of her university experience in this thoughtful dissertation. For her, finding a community of other women of color was integral to her resilience in the face of the challenges she faced on her way to graduation.

Straight A’s: Asian American Students in Their Own Words by Christine R. Yano and Neal K. Adolph Akatsuka

This book provides perspectives from Asian American students attending Harvard. They relate their experiences of discrimination and discuss mental health issues. The themes of parental expectations and the immigrant experience are also recurring. This book is a good choice for a high achiever who could use the perspectives of others who have been under the same kind of pressure. It is also useful for better understanding the label of “model minority” that Asian American students often grapple with.

A special recommendation

become a learner blanket

Becoming a learner: seizing the educational opportunity by Matthew Sanders

Here is my last pick of college books. I sincerely recommend this little book which emphasizes the importance of taking responsibility for your own education. I have worked with thousands of students during my tenure as an academic advisor and know how easy it is to be appalled when comparing yourself to others. It can lead to giving up and accepting less of oneself. I know how it goes; I did it too. This book helps the reader to adopt a really healthy attitude towards college. He recognizes that the circumstances are often not ideal. Yet reframe the way we think about a challenge can help students get the most out of their studies.


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