Must Reads for College-Bound Students

Female student sitting on library floor at college campus
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If you're getting ready to head off to college, it's time to create a pre-college reading bucket list. Great works of literature will prepare you for all aspects of the journey ahead, from new roommates to difficult assignments to major life decisions. Before your schedule fills up with required reading, spend some time immersing yourself in transformative novels, essays, and works of non-fiction. Not sure where to begin? Start with this list.

"The Naked Roommate," by Harlan Cohen

The Naked Roommate book cover

"The Naked Roommate" is the most obvious selection for any pre-college reading list. Harlan Cohen's exhaustive guide to every aspect of college life addresses everything from passing classes and forming good friendships to doing your laundry and cleaning your dorm room, and doesn't shy away from tough subjects like mental health and STIs. The book is full of bite-sized tips and stories from current students that emphasize the most important advice to remember. Unlike other college guidebooks, Cohen offers unvarnished truths about the college experience and writes from the perspective of an irreverent relative a few years your senior. Plus, it's a fast, funny read that you can skim over a weekend or flip through all year long. It may well become the most valuable reference book on your shelf.

"Outliers: The Story of Success," by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers book cover

In "Outliers," Malcolm Gladwell explains his theory for becoming an expert in any field: the 10,000 Hours Rule. Gladwell uses engaging anecdotes and scientific research to argue that anyone can develop mastery with 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. The successful artists and professionals he describes have wildly different backgrounds, but they share at least one common trait: those trusty 10,000 hours. Gladwell’s writing is accessible and entertaining, and the individuals he profiles offer helpful suggestions for integrating practice time into your daily life. No matter what you plan to study in college, "Outliers" will give you a boost of motivation to continue working towards your goals.

"The Idiot," by Elif Batuman

The Idiot book cover

Photo from Amazon

Elif Batuman's "The Idiot" captures, with incredible precision, the specific oddities and small victories of life as a college freshman. The novel begins with narrator Selin's move-in day at Harvard and spans her entire freshman year, down to the most minuscule details. "You had to wait in a lot of lines and collect a lot of printed materials, mostly instructions," she says of her first few moments on campus. After attending an introductory meeting at the student newspaper, she describes, with some surprise, the aggressive attitude of one of the editors: the newspaper is "'my life', he kept saying with a venomous expression." Selin's deadpan observations and occasional genuine bewilderment will be relatable and reassuring to any current or soon-to-be college student. Read "The Idiot" to remind yourself that college culture shock is totally normal.

"Eat That Frog," by Brian Tracy

Eat That Frog book cover

If you’re a chronic procrastinator, now is the time to kick the habit. College life is busier and much less structured than high school. Assignments pile up quickly, and extracurricular commitments (clubs, work, social life) demand much of your time. A few days of procrastination has the potential to produce a whole lot of stress. However, by working ahead of schedule and strategically managing your time, you can avoid overwhelming all-nighters and cram sessions. Brian Tracy’s "Eat That Frog" offers practical suggestions for organizing your daily schedule and maximizing your productivity. Follow his advice to reduce deadline-related stress and make the most of your time in college.

"Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood," by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis book cover

If you’ve never read a graphic novel, Marjane Satrapi’s memoir, "Persepolis," is a great place to start. In "Persepolis," Satrapi recounts her experiences growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. She shares vivid, funny, and heart-rending details about family, Iranian history, and the sharp contrast between public and private life. Satrapi's sly humor will make you feel like a friend, and you’ll fly through the beautifully drawn pages. Luckily, there are four books in the series, so you’ll have plenty left to read after you finish this first volume.

"How to Be a Person in the World," by Heather Havrilesky

How to Be a Person in the World book cover

For most students, college marks a period of major identity development. You arrive on campus and suddenly, you're asked to make weighty decisions – what should I major in? What career path should I choose? What do I want out of life?  – while simultaneously navigating an intense new social environment. Even though so many students struggle with these challenges, it's not uncommon to feel totally isolated in your stress, sadness, or anxiety. "How to Be a Person in the World," Heather Havrilesky's collection of letters from her smart, tender-hearted advice column, will remind you that you're not alone. Here's what she tells a reader who worries about choosing the wrong career: "No matter what you do for a living, the only thing you’ll get more and more and more of is hard work. So figure out what kind of hard work feels satisfying to you." From bad breakups to big career decisions, Havrilesky applies her style of thoughtful reality checks to every issue you might face in college. Consider this one required reading.

"1984," by George Orwell

1984 book cover

Big Brother, thought police, doublethink: chances are, you’ve already heard some of these famous terms from "1984," Geoge Orwell’s classic dystopian novel. "1984" is one of the most frequently referenced novels in academic writing, and the political implications of the novel remain relevant decades after it was first written. Naturally, it’s a must-read for any college-bound student. You’ll quickly lose yourself in the compelling story of Winston Smith, the everyman who confronts the authoritarian surveillance state known as Airstrip One. Plus, after you’ve read it, you can wow your professors with sly references to the novel’s most iconic scenes.

"Exit West," by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West book cover

Set in an unnamed country closely resembling present-day Syria, "Exit West" follows the blossoming relationship between Saeed and Nadia as their hometown falls to a brutal civil war. When the young couple decides to make an escape, they enter a secret door and land, magically, on the other side of the world. A slightly fantastical journey around the globe begins. As refugees, Saeed and Nadia fight to survive, build new lives, and nurture their relationship while coping with the near-constant threat of violence. In other words, "Exit West" tells the story of two young adults whose experiences in no way resemble life on a cloistered college campus, which is exactly what makes it such a valuable pre-college read. College campuses are often insular, and while it's important to immerse yourself in college life, it's equally important to step back from your immediate surroundings and look outward. The situations in "Exit West" may be so different from your own that they seem to take place in another world, but they don't – lives like Nadia's and Saeed's are being lived now, in our world. Before you go to college, you should get to know them.

"The Elements of Style," by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

The Elements of Style book cover

Whether you plan to major in English or engineering, you will have to write a lot in college. College writing assignments differ significantly from typical high school coursework, and your college professors may have higher expectations for your literary abilities than your former teachers. That's where a trusted style guide like "The Elements of Style" comes in. From constructing strong sentences to making clear arguments, "The Elements of Style" covers the skills you'll need to ace your writing courses. In fact, students have employed tips from "The Elements of Style" to improve their writing and raise their grades for more than 50 years. (The guide is regularly edited and re-released, so the content is up to date.) Want to get ahead of the game? Read it before your first day of class. You'll impress your professors and everyone at your school's writing center.

"Leaves of Grass," by Walt Whitman

Leaves of Grass book cover

New friends, new ideas, new environments – college is an undeniably transformative experience. As you enter this period of self-discovery and identity formation, you'll want a literary companion who totally understands how wild and amazing and overwhelming everything feels. Look no further than Walt Whitman’s "Leaves of Grass," the poetry collection that captures the bold, brilliant feelings of youth and possibility. Start with “Song of Myself,” the poem that perfectly encapsulates the mood of those late-night dorm-room conversations about life and the universe.

"The Importance of Being Earnest," by Oscar Wilde

The Importance of Being Earnest book cover

If your high school English teacher didn't include any plays on the syllabus, spend an afternoon with this classic comedy. "The Importance of Being Earnest" is often called the funniest play ever written. This silly, frivolous story of manners set in the English countryside is likely to make you laugh out loud. It’s a much-needed reminder that the so-called great works of literature are not all stuffy and inaccessible. Many of the books you read in college will be fascinating page-turners that transform your worldview. Others (like this one) will simply be downright knee-slappers.

"This Is Water," by David Foster Wallace

This is Water book cover

Wallace wrote "This is Water" for a commencement speech, but his advice is perfect for any incoming college freshman. In this short work, Wallace reflects on the risk of living an unconscious life: moving through the world in a “default-setting” and getting lost in the rat race mentality. It’s easy to slip into this mode on competitive college campuses, but Wallace argues that an alternative is possible. With casual humor and practical advice, he suggests that we can live more meaningful lives through disciplined awareness and attention to others. College is the best time to start grappling with these big ideas, and Wallace’s advice is an excellent tool to add to your philosophical toolbox.

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Valdes, Olivia. "Must Reads for College-Bound Students." ThoughtCo, Aug. 1, 2021, Valdes, Olivia. (2021, August 1). Must Reads for College-Bound Students. Retrieved from Valdes, Olivia. "Must Reads for College-Bound Students." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).