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Postmodern’ s Guide to the College Guides

PostmodernPostmodern 1160 replies91 threads Senior Member
Having finished the college process for my 2 I felt a desire to make some small contribution to CC as gratitude for all I learned here. As we began the process, I got concurrently terrified and obsessed (a bad combination). I reacted by buying (and reading) every book I could on the subject. To my horror I discovered the number came to above 40! In an effort to save others the time and expense, I thought I would BRIEFLY review the books I bought. I also recommend buying some of these used to save $$$ (my favorite are old library copies with the plastic covers) if timeliness is not an issue.

Please note the grades are based solely my opinions and how useful I found them, and not a New York Review of Books level qualification. The list is defined by my purchases – of course there are many, many others. Some of these I read over 2 years ago, and I did not take contemporaneous notes in preparation for this task, so you’re getting my recollections as they are.

I’ve divided the books into these categories as best I could:

Guidebooks – Lists of colleges and information about them a la “Fiske”
Narratives – Written in a story fashion that illustrates the process like “The Gatekeepers”. Sometimes a good read in addition to being useful.
Advice/How To – From the “experts”
Assorted – Everything that didn’t fit into the above

Please add your reviews & comments but limit comments to books with the objective of helping those who are looking to purchase some but don’t want to buy 40+ like… umm… some fool.

Fiske Guide to Colleges by Edward B. Fiske
The standard for this category that many of you are familiar with. If you buy one guide this should probably be the one. The frequent criticism is that it makes every college seems great, but honestly, most of the ones listed are. “Overlaps” were a useful feature to us. Grade: A.

The Hidden Ivies: 63 of America's Top Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities by Howard Greene and Matthew W Greene.
This is my favorite. I hate the title, and they probably could have left out Stanford, MIT and a few others – but other than that it is an amazing book. Very useful for families whose kids have Ivy-level ambitions but know they need a broader list of reaches. I found the descriptions themselves to be the best written of any of the guidebooks. I loved it because it included a lot of colleges we did not know much about, and S19 is headed to one we first read about here. Grade: A+.

The Insider's Guide to the Colleges, 2015: Students on Campus Tell You What You Really Want to Know by Yale Daily News Staff
The evolutionary edition of the Yale guide. Pretty good book that attempts to avoid the “everything’s awesome!” vibe of other guidebooks. Claims to be “inside” and “from students” which they “prove” by putting “things” in “quotes”. 😊 Slightly cynical tone and focus on social life is good if you think your kid will respond to that. Beware: your kid may latch on to one negative thing and not let go, so I advise you to read it first. I also found some of the statistics that start each segment to be dated. Grade: A-.

The Best 381 Colleges by The Princeton Review
Another longtime standard, this book also contains information from student surveys and has the resulting data for most of the colleges it lists. Has the famous “lists” in the beginning of the book – “Biggest Party Schools”, “Best Schools for Biology Majors” etc. The data in the side margins of each school is very useful. IMHO the big strength of this book is that the reviews are short and concise and don’t require your kid endure the massive labor of turning a page to finish reading. Grade: A-.

The Ultimate Guide to America's Best Colleges by Gen Tanabe and Kelly Tanabe
I have no idea how many of these you want to have, but this one is pretty good also. Maybe the “Goldilocks” pick of the bunch as everything is “just right”. An excellent choice if your looking for a second or third guide to confirm the general vibe of schools. Grade: A.

A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs by John Willingham
For those interested in public honors colleges, there are not many books like this one. If you are, this book is essential and Grade: A+; if not, Grade: B-. Be warned this book is “all steak, no sizzle” – quite dry and with a great variation of detail from one college to the next. Recommend you buy this used.

Profiles of American Colleges 2017 by Barron's
The one book I wish I hadn’t purchased. While it is by far the most comprehensive in terms of colleges listed, it still doesn’t have them all. Essentially a compendium of data that can all be found on the internet and little original content. On top of that it is gigantic, heavy, and has the tiniest type possible. Grade: D-.

Looking Beyond the Ivy League: Finding the College That's Right for You - by Loren Pope
The love for Loren Pope is warranted, and this is a pretty good book that’s really more advice than guidebook. You may notice his Colleges That Change Lives is conspicuously absent from my list but that is only because I found the corresponding (excellent) website made it unnecessary. If you like that book, this is a nice companion. Grade: B+.

Best Colleges 201x: Find the Best Colleges for You! by U.S. News and World Report
I bought this, read it, and still don’t know what it really is. Is it a pseudo-magazine? So USN can say they still “publish” it? It’s full of ADVERTISEMENTS. But I paid for it! Lol.. Yeah, it has some of the rankings in it (you know, the ones they have online for free, the ones that don’t matter) and some of the features are interesting… but… honestly I don’t get it. Open for an explanation if you have one. Grade: D.

Continued in next post
25 replies
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Replies to: Postmodern’ s Guide to the College Guides

  • melvin123melvin123 1606 replies22 threads Senior Member
    Wow. Thank you for taking the time to post your thoughts on these books. It's very helpful.
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  • citymama9citymama9 2502 replies142 threads Senior Member
    Great post!
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  • mjk050607mjk050607 16 replies3 threads Junior Member
    awesome! thank you!
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  • MYOS1634MYOS1634 42301 replies454 threads Senior Member
    Thank you!
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  • homerdoghomerdog 5782 replies105 threads Senior Member
    Thank you! I agree with the Rachel Toor essay book being fantastic. It really helped our S19 and I've recommended it to many friends who have loved it as well. And the Hidden Ivies book really gives one good insight into what a school is really like, what kinds of kids do well at each school, and what the school is specifically looking for in candidates. It's our favorite.
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  • LindagafLindagaf 9722 replies521 threads Senior Member
    Very thorough! Thanks!

    I think another essential should be added:
    A Hope in the Unseen, Ron Suskind

    This a slice of humble pie that many people on CC would benefit from reading, but can also be a great source of inspiration for struggling and/or lower income students. Thanks to @MYOS1634 for that suggestion, because I couldn’t put it down.
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  • nordic1nordic1 11 replies0 threads New Member
    Postmodern -- this is amazing. Thank you so much for doing this.
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  • CaMom13CaMom13 1977 replies13 threads Senior Member
    Holy Moly @Postmodern. I am in awe. I read zero guides going through the process with two kids... I'd feel badly about that but it all worked out for them. Still - wow.
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  • cognizancecognizance 48 replies5 threads Junior Member
    Except for "What High Schools Don't Tell You (And Other Parents Don't Want You toKnow): Create a Long-Term Plan for Your 7th to 10th Grader for Getting into the Top Colleges by Elizabeth Wissner-Gross' I would not care about any other book.


    Most of the other books either are about data (that is freely available now) or about application process. Understanding the process will not help anyone who is not already prepared. If you are reading about admissions at application time, then obviously it is too late. You need to know what opportunities are available in middle school. This will help chart a path based on interests and commitments.

    Wissner-Gross' book is dated, but most of those programs listed in the book are still running. There are some new ones that have come up, but essentially, top programs are still the top programs.

    Her book has some missing parts - especially about sports opportunities and music opportunities but otherwise, on academics alone, the book is worth gold.

    It would not help if someone got a hold in middle of 12th grade. It needs to be devoured in 7th grade.

    I have read a lot of these but honestly, we don't need to know intricacies of how admissions departments work. We need to know how to build a stellar profile. That is useful even if someone does not go to college.
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  • intparentintparent 36291 replies644 threads Senior Member
    Hmm. Someone who loves the dirty tricks book... I complete disagree with your dismissal of the other books as not useful. Seems suspicious to have a very new poster singling out that one book for praise, too.
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  • cognizancecognizance 48 replies5 threads Junior Member
    The second book by same author does seem fishy or dirty or whatever. It had no content and it is pretty useless.

    However, the first book is just a list of different programs available in middle school or high school years. There are no games there. I sure would have not known about PROMYS or RSI or ISEF or Interlochen. It does not mean the book will help you get in there. It is just a list.

    Sure, you can get the same list in unformatted form on College Confidential. But not everyone is on College Confidential in 7th grade.
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  • BorgityBorgBorgityBorg 309 replies3 threads Member
    This is awesome, @Postmodern, thank you for posting your thoughts. I thought the dozen or so books I read was a lot, but it was... not so much. ;-) At least a handful of your suggestions would have been useful to round out my reading, to be sure. I, too, found the Toor book helpful essay reading (though I am unsure how much my D19 used it). I agree with your assessments of the books I have read.

    I would add as useful the following:

    Paying for College by Kalman Chany -- by far the most detailed of the books on the financial aid process. Would be more useful for parents of 4th graders, frankly, just so they start thinking about it.

    Admission Matters by Sally P. Springer et al. -- I found this to be the best "one-stop" book on the college process. Not as useful as individual books on individual topics (e.g., selecting, applying, affording), but reasonably detailed.

    The Enlightened College Applicant by Andrew Belasco and Dave Bergman -- mostly copies of material available on their website for free, but I found it to include useful perspectives on finding schools

    College Match by Steven R. Antonoff -- includes a lot of charts and discussions on selecting and choosing schools. My D19 did use this as part of her search process, and will need to go back to it as she considers her acceptances.
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  • damon30damon30 1147 replies5 threads Senior Member
    Postmodern -- this is amazing. Thank you so much for doing this.
    Reading through the OP lists was both thrilling and horrifying. I know I will end up studying them all carefully. ~O)

    Thanks @Postmodern!
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