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Postmodern’ s Guide to the College Guides

PostmodernPostmodern Registered User Posts: 1,200 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.

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Replies to: Postmodern’ s Guide to the College Guides

  • PostmodernPostmodern Registered User Posts: 1,200 Senior Member
    The Gatekeepers by Jaques Steinberg
    The standard of this category; if you read one, pick this one. Focuses on an admissions officer at Wesleyan and several students as they go through the process. Great insight into how it is done and a highly entertaining read. Grade: A+.

    Creating A Class by Mitchell L. Stevens
    Half “Gatekeepers” and half “Stats and Analysis”, this book centers around an un-named college (outed on the internet as Hamilton, despite being identified as in New England) as well as statistics across all colleges. While it possibly suffers from not knowing its purpose, it is well-written by a Stanford professor of education. Has some choice moments, such as when it reveals how Hamilton gamed their USN ranking an iota by changing the percentile they use for "Students In top 10% of class" from 90 to 89.5 which raised the percentage of enrolled students from 53% to 55%. But I liked the book. Grade: B+.

    Acceptance by David L. Marcus
    Yet another “Gatekeepers” clone, and yet another worth reading. This one focuses on a High School guidance counselor and his students. The stress and struggle outlined can be related to by many here and those with bad guidance counselors will wish they had one like the hero in this book. Grade: B+.

    Admissions Confidential by Rachel Toor
    (Disclosure, I know this author, albeit barely). Written autobiographically by an ex-admissions officer at Duke, this book has garnered criticism for revealing how the sheer magnitude of elite admissions selection process can make adcoms cynical and jaded. Ms. Toor is an excellent writer, and this book is a page-turner for sure, but must be read understanding that is in the “confidential” genre and written for that audience. Those of you with conspiratorial views about admissions will find much to support your position here. Despite all that, this is a fine, engaging and nearly-essential book if you want to understand the process. Bonus points for Duke applicants. Grade: A-.

    The Price of Admission by Daniel Golden
    The second of two essential books in this category, this one focuses on the effect of money in the admissions process. Superbly written and extremely revealing in every regard. Has been in the news over the last few years as it tells the story of Jared Kushner long before he was married to the President’s daughter. Grade: A+.

    Fat Envelope Frenzy by Joie Jager-Hyman
    Focuses on 5 high school students shooting for Harvard. A good book, but honestly if you have read any or all of the ones above, you probably don’t need this one. I did enjoy the stories. Grade: B.

    Getting In: Inside The College Admissions Process by Bill Paul
    Like a fan of any genre, I guess I enjoy the one called “Admissions Stories”, and this is yet another good entry in it. This one follows 5 students and the late, legendary Princeton Director of Admissions Fred Hargadon. Well written and helpful to answer the question “How many of these can I actually read”? Grade: B+.

    Crazy U by Andrew Ferguson
    This is really a humor book about the process – although “humor” may be a stretch. Written from a bewildered parent’s perspective, the best thing about this book is it focuses on one very normal kid with reasonable aspirations -- and surprise [SPOLIER ALERT] it goes reasonably well for him! Grade: C.

    Early Decision by Lacy Crawford
    The Bad News: my Amazon-click-sickness had me order this book before I realized it was a novel (“Based On A True Frenzy”, the jacket reads, in a blurb I bet the author despises). The Good News: It doesn’t really matter and reads like the truth anyway. Decent book but with another limited usefulness if you have read others. Grade: B-.

    Getting Into Yale by Josh Berezin
    Written by a (then) current Yale student, it is a testimonial about his successful quest for his dream school. Nothing against Josh but by the end of the book I wish Josh had not talked about Josh so much because I had all the Josh I could Josh, if you Josh what I mean. Much better info is available from the testimonials here on College Confidential. With less Josh. Grade: D.

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  • PostmodernPostmodern Registered User Posts: 1,200 Senior Member
    A is for Admission by Michelle A. Hernandez, EdD.
    People love to hate former Dartmouth adcom Michelle Hernandez, and after reading this book (and some minor contact with her company) I understand why. However, if your kid has Ivy aspirations, you really should read this book, as it is the most well-known of this category, primarily for first revealing the Academic Index formula every Ivy applicant gets. Criticized for being a profiteering tool and a bit long in the tooth, it still is very worth reading. Get it from the library if you don’t want to pay Dr. Hernandez. Grade: A.

    What It Takes To Get Into The Ivy League (& other highly selective colleges) by Chuck Hughes
    While this is informationally something of a clone of the Hernandez book, it is presented much less sensationally and far more matter-of-factly. Also, I don’t think anybody hates former Harvard Adcom (and hockey goalie) Chuck Hughes. I really liked this book and I think you will also. Grade: A.

    The Truth About Getting In: A Top College Advisor Tells You Everything You Need to Know by Katherine Cohen
    Kat Cohen is the Chairman of IvyWise, another top-$$$ admissions consulting firm, and her articulateness and telegenic gifts make her a frequent media expert. This is a fine book, probably as good as any of the others, and when you consider you can get her philosophy for $16 instead of $40,000 it seems like a bargain. I liked the “Myths and Truths” sections and there are also a lot of interactive worksheets and the like. However, do not expect a magic formula for admission to be revealed here (or in any book) because as you all know, such a formula does not exist. So I guess if the book was honest about the title, “The Truth About Getting In” the first page would say “You probably aren’t”. Grade: A-.

    Rock Hard Apps: How To Write A Killer College Application 1st Edition by Katherine Cohen
    Written as a companion to the volume above, this book applies Cohen’s strategies to the application part of the process. There are so many books of this type I recommend this one if you also get the one above for consistency. It’s not a bad choice even if you don’t. Grade: B+.

    Acing the College Application by Michelle Hernandez, Ed. D.
    Michelle Hernandez’ version of the Application Guide. Really can’t recommend this book and it is a far cry in quality to Dr. Hernandez first. I feel sorry she wasted an entire weekend typing it. Grade: D.

    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
    Written by less famous college consultants, this application guide was one of the surprises for me as it may be the best one I bought. It doesn’t really have any info that isn’t in the others, I just found it more comprehensive and better presented than some. Grade: A.

    Write Your Way In: Crafting an Unforgettable College Admissions Essay by Rachel Toor
    I’ll repeat the disclaimer that I know Ms. Toor a bit, but despite that influence, this is by far my favorite of the “essay” books. Since she is a writing professor, Ms. Toor knows how to teach the craft. The book relies heavily on vernacular to appeal to young people (and has a bit of profanity so if that bothers you look elsewhere) but the advice inside is very sound. Despite all those qualities both my children refused to read it or any other book like it! But if you are looking for essay advice I do give this my strongest recommendation. Grade: A.

    The Early Admissions Game by Christopher Avery, Andrew Fairbanks, and Richard Zeckhauser
    One of my favorite books and I quote it here often. The authors, a Harvard Professor, a Harvard Economist and a former Wesleyan admissions Dean were given access to non-public elite admissions data for over 500,000 applications. The book is very readable and has many conclusions, but IMHO the most important 2 conclusions are that 1) Early Decision programs benefit the institution more than the applicant; but despite that 2) it benefits the applicant immensely, and the advantage is the equivalent of a hundred additional points on the combined S.A.T. scores. Criticism that the book is out of date is unfounded, and that it doesn’t account for athletes, legacies and race is wrong (it does). A real eye opener for me! Grade: A+.

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  • PostmodernPostmodern Registered User Posts: 1,200 Senior Member
    The College Essay Trap: Rescue your college application essay from the "maybe" pile by Cassie Nichols
    Honestly I am not sure why I bought this and shouldn’t have. Let me try and say something nice about it... hmm… lessee… howzabout “This slim volume is an excellent choice if you need a book that leaves room for a large sandwich in your lunchbox”. Yeah, that’s all I’ve got. Oh one more thing: it didn’t even strike me as worth reading, so I am commenting from ignorance. My bad. Grade: D-.

    Questions and Admissions: Reflections on 100,000 Admissions Decisions at Stanford by Jean H. Fetter
    Bought this one used and got the cool library hardcover I fetishize… but this is one of the few I bought that I decide not to finish. Why? Well maybe the answer lies in the first quote from the author on the back cover: “The exercise of writing this book has been a personal catharsis”. Hey Dean Fetter, that’s writing mistake #1! Despite that the book clearly has insight and facts that could prove useful, especially if the kid’s target is Stanford. Grade: C+.

    The Dirty Little Secrets of Getting into a Top College by Pria Chatterjee
    I don’t know why I am so biased against this book – it’s not that there is bad advice in it – but possibly because they claim “The Insider’s Guide” on the front cover and “The Ultimate Behind-the-Scenes Guide” on the back cover. I mean, make up your mind! Maybe because the author’s claim of authority is that she went to Harvard, and so did her husband and two daughters? Well that seals it then! Also be warned, the book does a thing that people here HATE: She puts the top 50 universities into tiers on the front flap and the same for LACs on the back, so if Tufts being in a tier above Wash U angers you, don’t open this book! Grade: D.

    Playing the Private College Admissions Game by Richard Moll
    First published in 1982, this once unique volume was last updated in 1994, so there are probably better choices. I bought a first edition for $1.99 that turned out to be autographed, which I found pleasantly amusing. My older one has lots of data in it that is more historically interesting than useful Grade: C-.

    Behind The Ivy Curtain: A Data Driven Guide to Elite College Admissions by Aayush Upadhyay
    It’s odd to write about this book here because it was written by a gifted young man using data scraped from the pages of the world’s most important college website: Yep, College Confidential! The main problem it has is something pointed out almost daily here: the CC community is not representative of the general population so the self-reported data from the results threads must be read with that in mind. The book is also quite thin and badly desktop-published. I found it interesting though and put it in the “for the obsessives only” pile. Grade: C+.

    The New Rules of College Admissions: Ten Former Admissions Officers Reveal What it Takes to Get Into College Today by Michael London and Stephen Kramer
    The angle on this book is that it is written from a compilation of ten former admissions officers instead of just one, so theoretically it has a broader consensus. However, I don’t remember anything significant in this book that wasn’t in the others. A completely acceptable book for the newbie, though. Grade: B.

    What You Don't Know Can Keep You Out of College: A Top Consultant Explains the 13 Fatal Application Mistakes and Why Character Is the Key to College Admissions by Don Dunbar
    Aside from having one of the longest titles, the novelty of this book is that it focuses on what NOT to do: Namely it identifies 13 “Fatal” mistakes kids make when applying. Despite its exploitation of Triskaidekaphobia, the advice is solid, and probably a decent read for checking your work before submission. Grade: B.

    The College Admissions Mystique by Bill Mayher
    Another “how-to” aimed at the slightly cynical audience. Also full of sound advice and has a more practical tone than some others. Grade: B-.

    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
    This book, which I believe I learned about here, is freaking terrifying. I don’t know if is the fact this book exists that terrifies me or the fact that it is mostly correct. If you are the poster who asks “how to develop a spike” then this is the book for you (except you need it in the 7th grade!). Could also be called “A Manual for Frankenstein-ing Your Kid”. Not mine. Grade: Kill it with fire.

    Don't Worry, You'll Get In: 100 Winning Tips for Stress-Free College Admissions by Mimi Doe and Michelle Hernandez
    Written in the “Daily Mediation” style, this book sets out with an admirable goal – keeping an applicant calm and reasonable while passing on nuggets of helpful wisdom. Nice idea, but in my opinion, not really a very effective format or a very useful book. Grade: F.

    How They Got into Harvard: 50 Successful Applicants Share 8 Key Strategies for Getting into the College of Your Choice by Staff of the Harvard Crimson
    Combines Bios, stats and essay examples of 50 successful Harvard applicants. Not a terrible book, but I am not sure how practical it is. How much can you learn by only studying the winners? Grade: C.

    50 Successful Harvard Application Essays by The Harvard Crimson Staff
    What can I say here? It’s a book of essays. There are 50 of them. Yes it’s a different book than the one above. Yes it seems most of the applicants listed are different. Yes I know it is confusing and you would think Harvard editors would be smarter marketers. But they are allowed to say “Harvard” in the title so we’ll buy it anyway, won’t we? Well, not if you read this! Grade: C-.

    On Writing the College Application Essay, 25th Anniversary Edition: The Key to Acceptance at the College of Your Choice Revised, Updated by Harry Bauld
    I believe this is the standard-bearer of essay writing books. It focuses on helping students avoid the most common mistakes – the kind adcoms see and say “not another pet death essay!” as they toss the application aside and go to lunch. I personally prefer the proactive/creative approach to essay advice, but you really can’t argue with a book that has been right for 25 years. My kids and I are very sophomoric, and we got a kick out of the fact that a web photo shows Mr. Bauld is… well… Grade: A-.

  • melvin123melvin123 Registered User Posts: 1,378 Senior Member
    Wow. Thank you for taking the time to post your thoughts on these books. It's very helpful.
  • citymama9citymama9 Registered User Posts: 2,542 Senior Member
    Great post!
  • mjk050607mjk050607 Registered User Posts: 19 Junior Member
    awesome! thank you!
  • MYOS1634MYOS1634 Registered User Posts: 39,601 Senior Member
    Thank you!
  • homerdoghomerdog Registered User Posts: 3,793 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.
  • LindagafLindagaf Registered User Posts: 8,561 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.
  • LindagafLindagaf Registered User Posts: 8,561 Senior Member
    For essays, the best book, hands down, is On Writing the College Applicstion Essay, by Harry Bauld.
    Escape Essay Hell, by Robinson is very useful as a “how to” guide, and I recommend it for students who are doing it all on their own.

    For Financial Aid, The Financial Aid Handbook, Stack and Vedvik, is excellent.

    Fiske is the best for the “average excellent” student, but a lot of kids just need a good guide to decent colleges. I actually think USNWR’s Find The Best Colleges For You is very good for most students. It doesn’t have every college, but it provides solid info about a lot of good schools and has something for everyone. It’s available online for a fee, but you can also buy it in a thick magazine format at a newsstand or bookstore.

    Also, though pretty much only counselors actually buy it, Rugg’s Recommendations is really good. Most high schools should have a copy. It basically tells you which colleges have good programs in all different areas of study. It’s excellent for deciding if the college you are interested in is good for your major.
  • nordic1nordic1 Registered User Posts: 9 New Member
    Postmodern -- this is amazing. Thank you so much for doing this.
  • CaMom13CaMom13 Registered User Posts: 996 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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