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10 Books every college-bound student should read

Karen Wright

There is a popular reading challenge online that includes the 300-plus books read by Gilmore Girls‘ character, Rory, to prepare for college and a lifetime of learning. Some of the books are profound, others are obscure. Some are books and writers referenced often in popular discussions and academic circles. Some are books that contain vocabulary words not used in casual conversation, but that every high school student needs to know to prepare for college entrance exams.

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When I talk with high school students, there are certain books I always suggest they read to help them prepare for their lives after high school. Some are already required reading in schools, but I know they might have skimmed through a CliffNotes version of it to prepare for a quiz. Others are books they might never have heard of, but will expose them to the art of critical thinking.

5 Fiction must-reads:

  1. George Orwell’s novel, 1984 is No. 1 on the list because it is perhaps the single most referenced fictional book in academic writings and sophisticated journalism. The phrases “Big Brother is watching” and “we are living in an Orwellian society” both come from this book. While 1984 was written decades ago as a futuristic parody, the reality has proved to be quite similar, and the book is now used in many political comparisons.
  2. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a must read for every college student — not just for girls. The novel was completed when Austen was only 21 years old — the age most students leave college. It is a challenge to every student to produce something of similar lasting value by the time they leave school. The language and structure are also a great teaching tool for every student who will have to produce volumes of written work during their college career.
  3. Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist describes searching for your gift and purpose in the world and just might help college-bound individuals to see themselves on the same quest.
  4. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is, in part, a historical novel describing 1850s England and France. The concept of two experiences — one afforded by the rich and the other endured by the poor — is referred to often in political discussions. The vocabulary in this book appears often on standardized aptitude tests, so reading Dickens’ classic provides a great opportunity to learn the words in context.
  5. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain shows life as an adventure: It should be exciting, it should fulfill you and you shouldn’t have to compromise your values to get ahead. Huck’s choices seem strange at first glance, but are motivated by his values and his desire to be true to himself. What better lesson for a student to learn before they leave home for the first time?

More: How to help your teen find her literary genre

5 Non-fiction reads:

  1. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success gave rise to the 10,000 hours theory — the amount of time a person has to invest in practicing a skill before he becomes an expert in it. Gladwell mentions people who are considered successful in their fields and shows how each person invested the time to work on their craft. If a student practices their skill for 10,000 hours (10 hours a day, five days per week, 50 weeks per year (given two weeks vacation) for the four years they are in college, any student can graduate as a legitimate expert. It’s the kind of concept everyone should learn early, preferably right before starting your own four-year program.
  2. The Richest Man in Babylon by George S. Clason highlights how waiting until after college to figure out how to get a job and make money is increasingly difficult. At that point, thousands of others are graduating at the same time and looking for the same opportunities. The college years present a unique opportunity, and this book helps prepare students to take advantage of the money-making potential available to them at all points during their lives.
  3. Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? is a short story about taking responsibility for what happens to you. At first read, the mice are just comical characters, but when you put yourself in the story, the book becomes a very important life lesson about how to react to situations and changes.
  4. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Levitt and Dubner encourages readers to reconsider statistics and challenges commonly held beliefs that don’t hold up to analysis. The book teaches a valuable lesson to students who are about to be exposed to very different ideas from what has been taught throughout their lives, and encourages them to think for themselves.
  5. Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story is an inspiring read because many successful people start out in humble beginnings and often make mistakes early, but it’s what you do after the mistake that matters.

These are just the top 10 books I recommend to the high school students I talk to all the time. What other books would you recommend?

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