Good books for incoming college students?

by aarongertler1 min read6th Jul 201418 comments

2

Personal Blog

My sister (and about 2.5 million other people) are headed to college in the fall.

I gave her a copy of Cal Newport's How to Win at College as a graduation gift, but given that her life is about to change more than it has in any of the past 14 years, one book probably isn't enough.

What books do you think incoming/recently arrived college students should be reading? You can assign reading with any motivation you'd like, but I'm looking especially hard for books that meet the following criteria:

 

  • An average to somewhat-above-average college student can read them without much struggle.
  • They have some practical application in college life/job seeking/being a good adult (rather than just being a personal favorite book).
  • They are easy to find and budget-friendly (free online/cheap on Amazon/probably in the college library).
  • They are not Oh, The Places You'll Go, just to head you pranksters off at the pass.
Bonus points if it's a book that you read in late high school or college and you can tell us what impact it had on your life at the time!

My suggestions would include Getting Things Done, Thinking Fast and Slow, Redirect, and The Charisma Myth. What would you suggest?

 

18 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:47 PM
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Read textbooks in the subjects of the courses you will be taking.

No. Read textbooks in the courses you will NOT be taking. The worst thing about academics IMHO is how little they know outside their field. It can make you oblivious to the obvious.

You learn more with your approach, you will get higher grades and will have more time to spend on non-academic pursuits with mine.

Robin Hanson recently quoted this book. It summarizes the most effective learning strategies (and was written by a pair of cognitive scientists who just spent a decade studying optimal learning). It should come with a disclaimer that (contrary to what most people will tell you), college isn't about learning, so if you just go there to learn but not jump through the other hoops, things will end badly (relevant Quora answer, SMBC, lecture; the lecture is imperfect, but still valuable).

I also found HPMOR useful when I was in college.

I also found HPMOR useful when I was in college.

I came in this thread to suggest HPMOR. If I had read that before I went to university my life would have looked significantly differently. I think it's the easier material to recommend to show the scope of your decisions in college.

Unfortunately, at least for me, nothing could have prepared me to get more out of college except ... having some Real Life first, to help me understand why things are useful to study.

(The same is true for a lot of courses I slept through in high school, e.g. history courses -- now that I know the meaning of the word 'geopolitics', I wish I had paid attention in them.)

I also recommend either C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce. Both are compelling portraits of the ways we humans tend to make ourselves unhappy by becoming enraptured with and enslaved to lesser goods. I mean, can you ask for a better portrait of akrasia than this?

As the uneasiness and reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures the vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo...you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday's paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but also in conversations with those he cares nothing about, on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say...'I now see that I spent most my life doing in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.

Obviously these books were written from a Christian perspective, but I found them really helpful for noticing bad patterns in my life (and small ways to break out of them) when I was an atheist. Lewis is a vivid writer, so his stories gave me good handles for noticing when I was in one of the ruts he describes, rather than just feeling a general, ugh-y malaise.

You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but also in conversations with those he cares nothing about, on subjects that bore him.

Was this written after Facebook, or was it a prophecy?

Published in 1942. Lewis is a good observer.

Don't Shoot the Dog is one of those few popular nonfiction books I've read that seemed to pack a decent amount of novel info on to most of its pages. There's more to training people and animals than just what Lukeprog summarizes.

Scott Adams' self-help book received a glowing review on LW. I'm enjoying the book so far; it is also pretty info-dense, but a lot of the ideas were ones I had heard previously or come up with on my own (likely not true for most people).

Overall though, I think books are overrated. Many of them have about as much quality info as a good <20 minute TED talk or a solid 15-page blog post. I assume that's because authors are pressured to inflate whatever they're trying to say until it reaches at least "book length" (~100 pages).

Overall though, I think books are overrated. Many of them have about as much quality info as a good <20 minute TED talk or a solid 15-page blog post. I assume that's because authors are pressured to inflate whatever they're trying to say until it reaches at least "book length" (~100 pages).

This statement needs some qualification. A book like Thinking fast and slow is a dense exploration of new concept and worth every single page in it. Thinner books suffer from your criticism though, they are barely worth more than a couple of good blog posts.

Personally I am inclined to read and buy books with more than 300 pages, as the books longer than that are surprisingly information dense and shorter ones surprisingly empty.

I wonder how much insight can be pressed in ever less words until it becomes a tweet.

I would recommend How to Win Friends and Influence People. I think it strongly qualifies under the "practical application in college life/job seeking being a good adult" criterion.

But I also strongly heartily second /u/gwillen's comment: having some "real life" under one's belt would be extremely helpful.

I recommend Arnold Kling's Three Languages of Politics. College is (hopefully) a time of meeting a lot of smart people who disagree with you, sometimes correctly and sometimes not. Kling's book is a nice reframe of political disagreements that makes it easier to see opponents as wanting to preserve different goods rather than just wanting to destroy the good things you love.

In my review on my blog, I thought it was good introductory material for passing Ideological Turing Tests for different political mindsets. Plus, learning to get curious about opponents is a good skill to train for all the questions you'll encounter in college.

Meditations, M. Aurelius

[-][anonymous]7y 0

No one has mentioned Cal Newport, so I will. Specifically these two:

  1. http://calnewport.com/books/straight-a-student/
  2. http://calnewport.com/books/how-to-win-at-college/

edit: looks like you did.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

You already mentioned the one I would recommend, Getting Things Done. GTD is a great system for college students keeping on top of their work while still making time for fun.

From personal experience I can say, reading the book and actually implementing the system are two very different things

[-][anonymous]7y 2

Very true.