April 26, 2017
By Willard Dix
Amazon lists 6,533 results for “college admission books.” That includes test guides, college guides, “Teen & Young Adult SAT Study Aids,” how to write the college application essay, education workbooks, higher & continuing education and more. So there’s plenty to choose from when starting the college process.
I keep my own list of books that I’ve found interesting and useful when thinking, writing and counseling about college admission. They provide context, historical perspective and sometimes just a good surprise.
I’ve listed some volumes here that offer those qualities even if you don’t write about college admission for a living. They’re not “how to get in books;” instead, they provide some perspective on the whole enterprise, offering a way to come up for air when you’re feeling totally consumed by the craziness. It’s an idiosyncratic list, I admit, but you may find nuggets of wisdom in any one of them.
1. 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, so he knows whereof he speaks. The real issue isn’t about being “smart,” as measured by GPAs and test scores, but about the very narrow definition of “smartness” that colleges and universities depend on in admission. He believes (as do I) that professors are often looking for graduate students who have already made their marks instead of curious students who arrive at college ready to learn.
2. Beyond College for All by James Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum looks at how high school and post-high school are and aren’t connected, relating that to the connections students need to make once they’re in the job market. A sociologist at Northwestern, he offers theories about how and why the connections work or don’t work. His perspective on the links from high school to college to work are eye opening.
3. Campus Life by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz. If you think “kids today” have abandoned the sober and studious life of the mind that their predecessors took seriously, you’ll be surprised by Horowitz’s revelations. And you’ll be glad today’s students only complain about grades to their professors instead of beating them up. Entertaining and highly readable.
4. College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family by Steven Roy Goodman and Andrea Leiman. This one is about how to go through the college admission process, but it’s also a thoughtful and humane look at how to work together as a family. A lot of my own perspective on the dynamic there comes from this book.
5. Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of American Universities by Craig Steven Wilder. We tend to idealize higher education institutions as beacons of enlightenment, but their histories are more complex than that. Prof. Wilder’s look at the intersection of higher education, race and slavery provides plenty of thought-provoking moments. It’s not an indictment, per se; it’s a sobering and balanced look at the realities that accompanied the founding of many of our most revered institutions.
6. The Thinking Student’s Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education by Andrew Roberts. There are plenty of silly books about “surviving” and “thriving” in college that attempt to reach students by adopting the hip language of the moment, but they usually come off as parents trying to look “cool” as they brutally embarrass their children in front of their friends. This book doesn’t insult anyone’s intelligence and spends plenty of time on the real reason students should be in college, not just about social and personal issues.
7. Standardized Minds: The High Price of America’s Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It by Peter Sacks. A good analysis of how testing has deformed education. Sacks is a good researcher and storyteller.
8. Taking Time Off by Ron Lieber & Colin Hall. Ron writes a financial advice column for the New York Times and is a fellow Amherst alum. If going right from high school to college seems too overpowering for your student, this book might be the one to read.
9. The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy by Nicholas Lemann. A fascinating look at the origins and rise of the SAT. Intertwined with early 20th century ideas about IQ and racial differences, it also began its life in college admission as a way to discover and admit boys (always boys way back when) out of the usual orbits of Harvard and Yale. Now, of course, it’s become just the opposite: A way to weed out applicants.
10. The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager by Thomas Hine. It’s hard to believe, but at one time there was no such thing as a “teenager.” You were a kid, then you went to school for a while, then you were an adult. Hine illustrates the evolution of the term and the forces (particularly marketing) that shaped our understanding of it. More recently, we have “tweens,” another variant. Entertaining and well-observed.
Bonus: Three Novels
If you want to leave the college admission process behind for a while but worry you’ll feel guilty about it, let me recommend three novels about college and college admission:
1. I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. A working class undergraduate makes her way through a university very much like Duke. Wolfe’s sharp eye for detail and various types – the athletes, the nerds, etc. is in evidence and Charlotte is an interesting character. A hefty tome, but highly readable.
2. Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Much more interesting than the Tina Fey/Paul Rudd film of it (although Fey’s Princeton admission officer role is painfully accurate). Korelitz knows the world of college and invests the novel with some good characters, twists and an improbable but compelling finale. (Her new novel, The Devil and Webster, comes out May 2. Amazon says it’s “a twisty new novel about a college president, a baffling student protest, and some of the most hot-button issues on today’s college campuses.” So, just riding the crest of the news.)
3. The Admissions, by Meg Mitchell Moore. “Admissions” means a lot more than college admission in this one, but the multiple intertwined meanings within the “have it all” Hawthorne family provide plenty of interesting twists.
The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel. A jaw-dropping book. A meticulously researched history of college admission at three of our most revered higher education institutions. Reading this book is like turning over a shiny, beautiful rock to find a mass of writhing worms and rotting debris. It’s the “exclusion” part you’ll find most shocking. Karabel includes letters and memos from college presidents and deans that are shockingly racist and even brutal when referring to “undesirable” candidates or social/cultural groups. It’s a huge undertaking at 736 pages, but as the Amazon description says, “No one who reads this remarkable book will ever think about college admissions – or America – in the same way again.”