College Book Reviews

Best Answers to the 201 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Getting into College

Mary Kay Shanley and Julia Johnston

McGraw Hill Company (Publishers)

ISBN # 0-07-143211-6

Overall grade: B

This book (published in 2005) seeks to provide answers to what the authors consider to be the most frequently asked questions about college and the college admissions process. The answers they provide are written for the prospective student but also their parents or guardians. Some of the questions they look at include:

How important are extracurricular activities?

What should you look for when visiting prospective schools?

How can you best use the Internet to your advantage?

Which scholarships are available to you?

How much debt is too much?

The authors look at these questions and over 190 others. Their experience seems to be that each of them raised three kids who then went on to college so that between them they have gone through this laborious experience six times. Going through any experience that many times is bound to result in experience that is worth listening to. Reading this book, then, is like having a really long conversation with a learned aunt or neighbor.

Of course, any time you try to provide information on such a wide range of topics, you end up missing your mark some of the time. Some of the information given here comes across as facile or even pointless. To cite just one example, in the chapter dealing with how to prepare for the college interview, the authors list some questions you might be asked along with possible answers. Below is one such question and answer:

"Who is your hero? Pick someone dead or alive, famous or obscure, rich or not so rich,

male or female. Describe some action that the person has done or accomplished. Then

tell why that action is important to you or others and what you might do as a result of

the action." (p. 140)

It seems unnecessary advice to give someone picking their hero to tell them they should pick someone either dead or alive, male or female. Really? Dead OR alive? Male OR female?! You mean, I don't have to name my favorite zombie hermaphrodite?? There are other examples of this type of useless banter being passed of as useful information. It needn't reflect the authors' insincerity or lack of insight but rather that they are trying to pass along too much information about too many topics in one book.

Still, this is a good book to consider if you are looking to read only one book on everything from the admissions process to why you might not want to room with your best friend from high school. We are all busy these days, perhaps none of us more so that your average parent. That being said, take a look at Best Answers if one-stop shopping is your kind of thing.

Real College Essays that Work

Edward B. Fiske and Bruce G. Hammond

Sourcebooks Inc. (Publishers)


ISBN # 1-4022-0164-8

Overall Grade: B-

In this book, published in 2006, the authors take a look at 109 real essays from students just like you - or just like you except they have already been accepted into the school of their choice. Edward B. Fiske, the main author, was formerly the Educational Editor of the New York Times and Bruce G. Hammond, the other author, is currently the director of college counseling at Sandia Preparatory School. Their approach is one that many authors have tried - they give you a series of competent essays, although not the best essays mind you. They say in their preface that this process can be demoralizing enough without having to read 109 essays "that could have been written by Virginia Woolf." (p. vi. Although it is difficult to see why they picked Virginia Woolf as an example as a more unlikely admissions essay writer would be hard to imagine. I suppose her attempt would need be titled "An Essay of One's Own".) Anyway, they give you this collection of competent essays and expect that you will use them to open up your own creative floodgates and write your own captivating essay.

The information and advice that the authors give out is sound and practical; nuggets of wisdom like "stand out by being yourself" and "you can't write a good college essay without details". The authors give the reader about 30 pages of this type of guidance before they turn to their examples of winning submissions. And the essays they include are informative and even fun to read, at times. What remains a bit of a mystery is how these example essays, each so rich in detail and uniquely personal, are going to help you, the college applicant staring at a blank page or computer screen. For the task in front of you, so ably identified by the authors, is to craft your own personal narrative, rich in details and all about you. An essay that distills you and your achievements, ideas, or goals into a 500-word snapshot that will have admissions committees wanting to get to know you better. How exactly does reading 109 other essays, not by you and not about you, help you to write your essay? I'm not sure that it does help. More to the point, I don't think it would have helped me to write an essay. The very last thing in the world that I would want to do before trying to write a college application essay would be to read over 100 other submissions, successful or not. I could think of no surer way of stymieing my own creativity.

That being said, perhaps you are different. Perhaps you will read these essays and it will get the creative juices flowing. That, I imagine, is the point. Are you trying to figure out a way to make your obsession with music making into a viable essay? Maybe if you read the examples given in this book, it will pave the way for your very own creation. There are several competent essays that deal with love of music. Other topics covered include athletics, race and cultural experiences, personal growth, family, travel, and even humor. So if you are writing an essay about one of these topics and you think reading some examples of other competent and successful essays would help, then this might be the book for you. And even if you don't feel sample essays from other students would help, there is always the 30 odd pages of solid essay writing advice contained in the beginning of the book.

Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools You Should Know About Even If You're Not A Straight A Student.

Loren Pope

Penguin Books


ISBN # 0-14-029616-6

Overall Grade: A-

This guide to some of the better colleges out there that you've never heard of first came out in 1996. It was such a breath of fresh air when published and its relevance and importance have not been at all dimmed by the passing of time, even though some of the colleges mentioned by Pope have risen out of the realm of obscurity and are no longer the underdogs they were when the book was written. That being said, this book should be read by each and every student applying to college.

What makes this book so relevant is that Pope points out the very real problems with choosing a college when what motivates that choice is no different than choosing any other status symbol. Yale or Princeton, BWM or Lexus? This is the sad truth of how many college applicants consider their college choices even when the choice does not involve those very brands mentioned. But it needn't be that way. There are other choices out there, better choices, choices that will contribute to your growth and not just your debt level. And there is no better place to start reviewing colleges that you HAVEN'T heard off than with Pope's books.

The schools are divided into geographic headings: Northeast, South, Midwest, Southwest, Northwest. Each entry endeavors to sing the praises of a particular institution, calling attention to the ways in which it is equal or even superior to your typical Ivy League or well-known school. The prose is obviously opinionated while remaining quite useful and even fun to read. As anyone who has read any number of college guides can tell you, the combination of wit, passion and intelligence is quite rare. But even more impressive than its impassioned prose is the ways in which it will open your eyes to the ever widening field of choices you have when it comes to picking a school. Too often, the choice of a college comes down to superficial and ultimately unimportant reasons. Don't fall into this trap! This is your future we're talking about and you deserve better than the superficial.

Unfortunately, Pope passed away in 1998. His other books include Beyond The Ivy League and The Right College: How to Get In, Stay In, Get Back In. Pope was an enthusiastic spokesperson for the solid and small liberal arts college. His passion for the schools can be felt on every page. Be aware, however, that some things have changed since he revised this book in 2000. As an example, one of the institutions that is highlighted in the Northwest section is Reed College of Portland, Oregon. Pope actually warns the reader that Reed will be much more selective in the years to come as its reputation continues to grow. This has indeed happened as Reed has become much more selective and also more expensive while still being the place to go "if you're a genuine intellectual, live the life of the mind, and want to learn for the sake of learning." So while you shouldn't discount the advice given by Pope, you might want to do a little research of your own to find out if the school that might be right for you is still the same institution that Pope described.

Good luck and happy hunting!

Article by Steven McCullough