Summer Reading List (College Admissions Books)

Lost in a sea of college admissions books? Below is a list of books I recommend. You can also find them on my Amazon Influencer Storefront (purchases made through the links in this post will generate a commission that helps support the free content on this website!).

Note that I excluded books containing information that directly contradicts how the UCs evaluate applicants. For example, I excluded one book that talked extensively about the importance of AP exam scores, which is not the case for the UCs, and another book that claimed colleges know how difficult individual teachers grade students at each high school, which is likely NOT the case for most colleges, and certainly not for the UCs. I also only picked the books I could find at my local public library systems, which hopefully translates to availability at other public libraries.

Keep in mind that NOT all advice applies to all colleges! Don’t take the advice you get from a book as infallible truth. Even advice I give out, as much as I try to qualify everything I say with well-known exceptions, is general by nature. Remain skeptical at all times.

Remember that ALL essay writing advice you get from these books is applicable ONLY to private colleges and maybe out-of-state public institutions (unless otherwise noted). The answers you compose for the UC Personal Insight Questions are NOT essays! Treat them as written answers to interview questions.


How to Prepare a Standout College Application: Expert Advice that Takes You from LMO* (*Like Many Others) to Admit by Alison Cooper Chisolm and Anna Ivey is an absolute must-have for anyone applying to college (or anyone helping students apply to college). The book avoids the traditional advice-giving format and, instead, focuses on teaching the reader how to think about the college admissions process from a college’s perspective. While there are some sections that don’t apply to the UCs, such as demonstrated interest or ability to pay (and do NOT add a resume in Additional Comments!), the book is the BEST one I have seen so far and I highly recommend it. Advice in Chapter 10 is applicable to the UC Personal Insight Questions (NOT Chapter 11). Although a bit sparse, the information for homeschooled and international students is very helpful (such as how to handle school reports and recommendation letters for colleges that require them).


College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step by Robin Mamlet and Christine VanDeVelde is also one of my favorites. The content is well organized and the advice is spot on for the UCs. This is one of the few books with a section devoted to transfer students and a section devoted to international students.


Getting in Without Freaking Out: The Official College Admissions Guide for Overwhelmed Parents by Arlene Matthews provides solid, no-nonsense advice for parents, with a little bit of humor thrown in to take the edge off an otherwise stressful topic. I would also recommend the book to high school seniors who are dealing with the college application process on their own, without parental input. The book is easy to read (very short sections) with plenty of tips and coping mechanisms for the various parts of the college application process.


The Secrets of Picking a College (and Getting In!) by Lynn F. Jacobs, Jeremy S. Hyman, Jeffrey Durso-Finley, and Jonah T. Hyman is a great beginner’s guide and covers the college application process from beginning (developing a realistic college list) to end (choosing which college to attend). There are lists for EVERYTHING and the application advice (Chapter 5) is generally applicable to the UC Personal Insight Questions.


adMISSION POSSIBLE: The “Dare to Be Yourself” Guide for Getting into the Best Colleges for You by Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz is a good, one-stop comprehensive guide for high school students (and parents too). There is a timeline for EVERYTHING, including the development of teacher/counselor relationships (an often overlooked aspect of the college admissions process).


What Colleges Don’t Tell You (And Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know): 272 Secrets for Getting Your Kid into the Top Schools by Elizabeth Wissner-Gross offers common sense advice that I give out on the daily basis, except her references are slightly outdated (typewriter and fax). The advice comes in small doses (each “secret” is usually less than 2 pages in length) and great for those who have to read while on the go.


What High Schools Don’t Tell You (And Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know): Create a Long-Term Plan for Your 7th to 10th Grader for Getting into the Top Colleges by Elizabeth Wissner-Gross offers excellent advice and resources to help parents guide their children to become the most competitive college applicants they can be, with how-tos on developing a game plan, working with the school, and helping students find the right summer programs that fit their interests.


On Writing the College Application Essay, 25th Anniversary Edition: The Key to Acceptance at the College of Your Choice by Harry Bauld is an exceptional book on how to write well in general, not just for college essays. Try to look past the dated references (such as VCR), this book is a must have (very useful for getting through college English classes too).


Get into Any College: Secrets of Harvard Students by Gen Tanabe and Kelly Tanabe offers a good selection of sample essays with comments on why they work or don’t work, and tips on how to “recycle” essays for different colleges.


Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania by Frank Bruni is a great book to help both students and parents embrace the concept of choosing a college based on fit rather than brand name. Aside from some serious griping about brand name schools (particularly the Ivy League) in Chapters 2 through 4 (safe to skip), Bruni makes a compelling argument for focusing on attending college as a way to gain life changing experiences rather than bragging rights (often for the parents) or a guarantee of success (there is no such thing). The book is chock-full of survey results and analyses comparing brand name vs. non-brand name college grads, from job prospect to earning potential to measures of success (such as Fortune 500 CEOs and MacArthur “Genius Grants” recipients). Bruni also spends Chapters 8 and 9 discussing what students should expect to get out of their college experience. I highly recommend students and parents read this book at the start of the college planning process (while making a college list) and again before the students head off to college (planning ahead to get the most out of their time in college).


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