ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY: BOOKS OF INTEREST TO STUDENTS AND PARENTS
College Search Process
Greene, H. & Greene, M. (2016). The Hidden Ivies: 63 of America’s Top Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities (3rd ed.). New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
Detailed profiles of these selective colleges constitute the bulk of this dense resource. Organized by identical subheadings (overall features; what the college stands for; curriculum, academic life, and unique programs of study; major admissions criteria; the ideal student; student perspectives on their experience; and what happens after college), each profile is nonetheless distinctive and evocative of the individual spirit of the subject school. Some profiles are notably longer or shorter than others, while still others devote considerably more space to one subsection than others. As a result, each snapshot is written in a lively, engaging, and varied style that holds reader attention. The authors, both long-standing independent college counselors with deep industry experience, go beyond the usual guidebook narrative. They consulted faculty, administrators, and students, together with literature and data relating to special programs, to create these extensive and detailed profiles.
In the introduction, the authors make the case for a broad-based liberal arts education and outline the myriad benefits of attending one of these more selective institutions. Following the profiles section, the authors provide insightful and practical tips for composing effective personal statement and other college application essays. The authors caution students and families to avoid too high a focus on the rankings and prestige factor, yet inarguably, this book contributes to that culture with its choice to spotlight highly selective universities that will admit such a small percentage of student applicants. In this sense, it is the mirror image of Pope’s “Colleges that Change Lives” book. This book is a very useful guide for certain high-achieving students, but I recommend that it be paired with Pope’s work as a comparison.
Pope, L. (2012). Colleges that Change Lives: 40 Schools that Will Change How You Think about Colleges. H. M. Oswald (Revised by). New York, NY: Penguin Books.
If you cheered Bruni’s premise that liberal arts colleges that provide students with a broad-based education with a focus on critical thinking skills, analytical thinking and adaptability are preferable to large research institutions or Ivies, then this source will point you to forty institutions ready and able to deliver. These colleges have a shared mission to educate the whole individual, to cultivate thinkers and doers, and to foster the skills and attributes required for graduates to successfully navigate the 21st century world and global workplace.
Sprinkled with phrases such as independent and critical thinking, boldness, initiative, innovative leadership, collaboration, analytical reasoning, emphasis on cogent writing and oral communication expression, adaptability, interdisciplinary curriculum, curiosity, warm community, and self discovery, the descriptions of these college sound a recurring theme: these schools aren’t interested in churning out a cookie-cutter student who earned a cookie-cutter degree by regurgitating the lecture notes. The liberal arts curriculum and values promoted by these schools bear more than a passing resemblance to the IB programs in a growing number of primary and high schools. Each school also has a long-standing practice of hands-on faculty engagement with the students and availability of a range of undergraduate research opportunities (not limited to the sciences either).
It might be tempting to read only the descriptions of the schools located in your family’s region, but the lively prose and unique attributes of each of these schools seem designed to spur a reader to devour them all. Indeed, many students and their families may find themselves drawn to schools or locations they might previously have never considered. It’s possible, even likely, that you won’t have heard of all or many of these schools, but these engaging narratives will almost certainly motivate you to learn more. Pope, long active in the field of higher education and college consulting, wrote these inspiring narratives after considerable research and interviews with students, faculty, and administrators.
Tanabe, G. & Tanabe, K. (2016). The Ultimate Guide to America’s Best Colleges 2016. Belmont, CA: SuperCollege, LLC.
Much of the data and statistics included in this guide of 300 “best colleges” can be found online. However, there’s something to be said for having a physical book in hand, a resource that can be easily thumbed through for fast reference, and it would take a good bit of time to locate each piece of information on the unique website for each school of interest. The introductory material is very generic, but the lists of schools (grouped by popular majors and price points) are reasonably useful. The individual college narratives are divided into overview, academics, student life, student body, little known facts, alumni, and admissions and financial aid. The sidebars include raw data, including total numbers of students, total undergraduates, percentages of various ethnic groups, the male/female ratio, and similar facts relating to admissions criteria, aid offered, etc. This reference is visually appealing and thus attractive to certain students/parents, and it can be a useful starting point, as long as readers keep in mind that only 10% of the nation’s colleges and universities are profiled. In addition to its limited content, this source is quickly outdated with the release of the next year’s edition and the bulk of its material can be found in free resources online. I would only recommend this resource (and those like it) to students who prefer to have a large chunk of data available in a single physical volume (though I would caution them to confirm deadlines and other critical information on each school’s website).
Playing the Admissions Game
Bruni, F. (2015). Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.
Drawing on anecdotes and academic research data, Bruni makes a persuasive case for students to ignore the flawed and subjective college rankings lists and decline to participate in the manic elite admissions scramble. He notes that too many people, particularly parents, have gotten swept up in the names game, elevating the prestige factor far beyond more compelling criteria. Though written well before the recent college admissions scandals of criminal fraud and bribery, Bruni highlights the uneven and opaque admissions process, noting that at least 55% of admitted students may have received special consideration or privilege. Rankings lists don’t consider a host of intangible but valuable factors that most students might weight more heavily in making a decision. The most engaging sections in Bruni’s book, however, are those in which he makes a passionate case for a broad-based liberal arts education that emphasizes critical thinking skills, adaptability, collaboration, and wide-ranging intellectual exploration. Motivated students will excel in a range of college experiences; a college education is, according to Bruni, an “active experience” and ideally “disruptive.” Bruni’s conclusions are supported by extensive industry interviews and his review of data and academic studies. This is an ideal resource to suggest to clients and families who express concern about including only name-brand prestigious institutions on a student’s college list.
Newport, C. (2010). How to be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out). New York, NY: Broadway Books.
Newport, founder of a popular student advice blog Study Hacks and author of several other books targeted at helping college students improve their study skills, turns his attention to high school students in this book. Marketed as a counterpoint to traditional advice that results in overworked and over-committed college-bound students, Newport’s book makes a persuasive case for a more relaxed approach. His advice is to scale back from the rat-race of spreading themselves thin in multiple extracurriculars to instead explore interesting things in unstructured time, focus on cultivating one deep interest, and transforming a stand-out interesting accomplishment from that deep interest. He cautions that students should continue to keep their grades and test scores high enough to keep realistic reach schools and perhaps even a dream school in play but they can forego the laundry list of clubs and activities that are endemic among college applicants. He posits that an authentic passion will naturally shine through applications if the student has developed and nurtured a deep interest that sets them apart. Having counseled enough students and families in this approach over the years, Newport addresses the objections and arguments against this approach with clear guidance and tips. Many students (and particularly parents) may find the approach to be too great a gamble in a high-stakes game, but I believe some students could leverage this advice into a personally fulfilling high school experience topped with admission to their colleges of choice.
Application Process Resources
Chisolm, A. & Ivey, A. (2013). How to Prepare a Standout College Application: Expert Advice that Takes You From LMO (Like Many Others) to Admit. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
While the substance of Chisolm and Ivey’s advice is also top-notch, this book’s greatest strength is its organization. Structured around lists with tips and rules that are highlighted with all-caps headings and utilize ample white space, this step-by-step guide to creating the best possible overall application package is exceptionally user-friendly. The authors stress that the single most important key to designing a winning application package is authenticity. Telling an authentic and cohesive story through the application materials will inevitably allow admissions officers to see a student’s passions and strengths. Chisholm and Ivey caution, at multiple points, that working through this guide in chronological fashion is critical; while tempting to skip straight to the chapter on crafting the personal statement, the work and reflection done in the previous chapters is the foundation to everything else. These two former seasoned admissions officers in various institutions team up to provide students with a wealth of insider information and practical tips to assist in creating a winning application.
Lau, K.M. & Muir, J.W. (2015). Finding Your U: Navigating the College Admission Process. Houston, TX: Bright Sky Publishing.
Tables, charts and text boxes present dense information in a user-friendly format in this comprehensive resource designed to be used by both parents and college-bound students. Excerpts from sample essays that include comment bubbles from the authors are very effective. The resume section has particularly strong advice presented in a visually appealing table, followed by examples. While the authors likely intended to distill a large volume of broad-ranging advice into a shorter reference book to account for attention span issues as well as students or families leaping into action at the eleventh hour, my sense is that they gave short shrift to substance in favor of brevity too frequently. The financial aid section is remarkably brief, given how important the topic is for most families. For students who have the time and/or are completely unfamiliar with the jargon, processes and timeline of the college admissions process, Mamlet and VanDeVelde’s book may better serve their needs.
Mamlet, R. & VanDeVelde, C. (2011). College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Though it is a bit dated in some respects, this is an outstanding guide for any prospective college student. Its thoroughness, clarity, and exemplary organization make it an indispensable resource, especially for an eldest or only child or first-generation college families. Anecdotes and advice from admissions officers add depth to supplement the authors’ narrative. The brainstormed questions in various scenarios (how to create an initial match list, how to brainstorm application essay topics, etc.) are unique and thought-provoking. The authors make effective use of text boxes and clearly-marked asides to highlight the most important information. They also provide a clear and consistent message throughout the book: colleges value and are focused on authenticity. In addition to references scattered in the body of the book, the authors have included handy timelines, charts, worksheets, and other resources in the appendices. Though somewhat similar to Chisolm and Ivey’s How to Prepare a Stand-out Application, this resource is broader, covering the admissions process rather than Chisolm and Ivey’s focus on the application itself. While I would recommend Chisolm and Ivey to any rising senior, Mamlet and VanDeVelde’s book will get the nod for all high school students (and their parents) as a very solid big-picture view of college admissions from start to finish.
Toor, R. (2017). Write Your Way In: Crafting an Unforgettable College Admissions Essay. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Hands-down, this concise resource contains the strongest and most accessible advice for crafting compelling college admissions essays. As an added benefit, Toor’s practical writing tips will continue to inform and improve the writing of any college-bound student. Toor eschews including full-length exemplar essays in favor of broader-ranging advice that should spark the unique stories that make tired admissions readers sit up and take notice. She stresses that the underlying nuggets of the best essays come from trials and tribulations and the attendant growth from those experiences, rather than from a student’s successes. Her focus on “both/and” rather than “either/or” sets up the winning component of any writing, whether essay or novel: conflict. Toor also makes a critical distinction between revising and polishing; taking a first draft essay to the next level involves a brutal revision process, maybe even a realization that your piece didn’t actually start in the right place. Whether a polished or reluctant writer, all students will walk away with stronger and more confident writing skills for having read Toor’s stellar guide. The author’s experience in both college admissions and creative writing makes this an outstanding resource for aspiring college applicants.
Affordability & Financing College
Zaloom, C. (2019). Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Zaloom's central premise is that skyrocketing college costs and stagnant wages affect a wider universe than just the young adults who too often leave college saddled with an enormous, crippling debt load that limits their promise and potential. The American dream, our deeply-rooted ethos in the socioeconomic mobility that accompanies higher education, motivates many parents to sacrifice their own financial future to assist their children. Family and even friends beyond the nuclear family often pitch in resources, and yet, it is often never enough to avoid student or parent loans to finance a college degree. As a bachelor's degree becomes essential in securing and holding employment that will yield a comfortable middle class lifestyle, families find themselves caught between rising costs and less institutional or government aid resources.
For Zaloom's purposes, "middle class" are those families who make too much money to qualify for needs-based financial aid (roughly any household income less than $50,000 per year) and those families who cannot, from income and/or savings, pay the full "sticker price" for a college education. Costs for in-state residents at public universities have risen threefold since 1987, and private college costs have increased even more. Even for families who were diligently saving, their plans cannot accommodate such steep and unpredictable cost increases. Zaloom highlights and decries the financial morality that underpins so much of the current college finance system. Too many families face the impossible choice between funding their family's current needs or saving (or investing in 529 and similar plans).
Zaloom's research chronicles a deep commitment across socioeconomic and racial divides to parents providing a leg up to the next generation and to the notion of fulfilling their child's potential to the greatest extent possible. Families will often willingly sacrifice current and future economic stability to assist a child in securing their highest potential. This commitment to realizing a child's "potential" elevates college to what Zaloom posits is its highest value: providing young adults with time and space for exploration, personal growth and reflection, autonomy, engagement, and broad-based education heavy in critical thinking. These skills will serve students far more in the rapidly-shifting and interconnected global economy in which we will live and work in coming decades. Accordingly, as Zaloom emphasizes, the student debt burden (especially paired with parent debt) is untenable to the sort of experiences a student should be making in their college years, for it forces too many students into what amounts to high-level vocational training. Zaloom's work complements the national debate about the role of government in funding access to higher education and creating wider opportunities for all Americans.
Coburn, K. & Treegar, M. (2016). Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to the College Years (6th ed.). New York, NY: William Morrow.
Coburn and Treeger’s work guides parents from a student’s junior year in high school through college graduation day, highlighting not only the overview of the admissions process itself but also the emotions commonly experienced by students and parents throughout this 4-6 year time span. As roughly half the book covers the time leading up to a student departing for college, don’t let the title fool you: it’s a very helpful resource for parents of high school juniors and seniors, particularly those parents walking this path with their eldest child. A college-bound young adult isn’t the only member of his or her family who faces a myriad of choices and emotional adjustments. Coburn and Treegar provide an excellent resource rich with practical tips for managing expectations and avoiding problems, anecdotes that give comfort in shared experience, and psychological insights that demystify and illuminate the emotional ups and downs experienced by parents and children alike. Reading this resource in the summer before my daughter leaves for college is helpful, but again, because it provides so much insight into the emotional ups-and-downs of both students and families in the years leading up to college departure day, I wish I had read it several years ago.