15 best books to read before you start college

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Photo by Matt Ragland

This is a guest contribution by Muna Nnamani that’s been reviewed by Lucy Fuggle.

I will move out of my parents’ house in one week.

By this time next week, all of my possessions will be loaded into my dad’s car and we’ll be halfway to Houston. And I can envision myself with my legs propped on the dashboard, wistful playlist on repeat. If I love doing anything, it’s being melodramatic.

But behind that melodrama is the strange vulnerability that comes when you transition between high school and college. You aren’t the person you were in high school, and you haven’t had time to become anybody in college.

In this confusing stage, it’s a perfect time to turn to literature for guidance. That’s why I’ve compiled a list of the best books to read before college for guidance, comfort, and inspiration.

Featuring both classics and modern bestsellers, read on for the best books to read after high school, before college starts, and while you’re settling into your new life.

The best books to read before college starts and while you settle in

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

“Certain things, they should be able to stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”

If you only read one book on this list, it has to be The Catcher in the Rye. Angsty and directionless, it is the book for transitional periods.

It follows sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield, who is depressed, reactionary and disgusted by the rest of the human race. His academic and personal lives are on the rocks, and everything feels hopeless.

When he is expelled from his private school, he spends the time before he has to go back home wandering around the city. This book is a record of all his thoughts and judgements of other people.

Atomic Habits by James Clear

“Every action you take is a vote for the person you want to become.”

Atomic Habits is such a dangerously effective guide to self-improvement that my friends who read it have cited it as the driving force of their productivity.

(Admittedly, I only had the drive to read a few chapters, but the parts I read revolutionized my relationship with discipline. There’s a reason it’s recommended everywhere as one of the best self-improvement books.)

In Atomic Habits, Clear breaks the path required to change our lives into small steps, or habits. His philosophy is that the reason we fail to build habits isn’t because our dreams aren’t lofty enough, it’s because our systems, or the way we execute the dreams, are failing us.

This bestseller offers an effective plan to build a productive lifestyle through the power of small habits. For incoming college students, this is an invaluable skill.

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan 

“We can change our minds. We can start over.”

The Opposite of Loneliness is a series of essays by Marina Keegan, who graduated from Yale magna cum laude in 2012 with job prospects and opportunities ready. Five days after her graduation, she tragically lost her life in a car accident.

After her last essay for the Yale Daily News, “The Opposite of Loneliness”, went viral, this collection of her essays and stories was compiled.

In this excellent book for college students, readers can not only see Marina’s personality, but learn from her musings about how we create dreams and work for them.

The Opposite of Loneliness is a book for college students by a college student, all about how we find our place in the world.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

“Most people go through their whole lives, without ever really feeling that close with anyone.”

I’m going to go against my principles and recommend a book that I didn’t really like. Because while it wasn’t for me, it resonates with so many young adults.

Normal People follows Connell and Marianne, who are in a months-long situationship. In high school, Connell is popular and Marianne is not – so they foster a secret relationship and pretend not to know each other at school.

When they end up at the same university, Marianne blossoms in the new world. She becomes pretty, successful and sought-after, and Connell can never quite fit into her new group of friends.

Throughout college, their relationship switches between every label imaginable as they move in and out of each other’s orbit.

I think Normal People is so popular because Rooney knows how to explain unexplainable emotions. As situationships and unclear feelings become more common, Normal People only becomes more of a classic.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

“Arouse in the other person an eager want. He who can do this has the whole world with him.”

Known as the self-improvement book, How to Win Friends and Influence People is exactly what a college student needs as he or she enters the world of networking.

In college, so many opportunities – research, internships – are dependent on making people like you. And in this book, Dale Carnegie teaches readers how to do that.

Skills like influencing a group of people without seeming “bossy” and using body language to evoke admiration are taught in simple language.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

“I want the old days back, and they’ll never come back, and I am haunted by the memory of them and of the world falling down around my ears.”

[Before going into the plot of Gone With the Wind, I have to warn that it was written by a White Confederate-supporting author who championed feminism but was nostalgic for slavery. There are so many instances of racism and romanticization of slavery in this book that, as a Black person, I nearly stopped reading it. I recommend trying to focus more on the plot, but if you cannot, that is completely understandable.]

Gone With the Wind takes place over the course of the Civil War and follows a plantation owner’s daughter named Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett is pretty, wealthy and spoiled, and she flirts with every man – but she’s really in love with Ashley Wilkes, a southern gentleman.

Scarlett’s days are spent lazing around her father’s plantation and making up plans to woo Ashley. But then the Civil War rips through the South, ending life as she knows it.

Gone With the Wind is really about dealing with the loss of a lifestyle that will never exist again. For Scarlett, it meant trying to forget the era of her life in which she was truly happy. For college students, that means saying goodbye to childhood. 

Single On Purpose: Redefine Everything. Find Yourself First by John Kim

“Can you give someone else your undivided attention? Do that for yourself.”

Especially among people our age, the desire to be in a relationship is overwhelming. Those of us in relationships can lose ourselves in the other person, editing parts of ourselves to better fit them. Those of us who aren’t in relationships can sometimes feel incomplete.

After Kim’s divorce, he realized that he had no idea who he was without his ex-wife, launching him on a journey of self-discovery. Funny and heartfelt, Single on Purpose teaches readers to do the same.

The Nature Fix by Florence Williams

“Distilling what I learned, I came up with a kind of ultrasimple coda: Go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring friends or not. Breathe.”

Going out into nature is one of the “quick fixes” given to disillusioned college students. Stress over relationships and finals is said to be fixable by an hour of just sitting under a tree.

There’s something to this: it can actually work. However, there’s rarely a scientific explanation as to why nature is such an effective emotional balm.

In The Nature Fix, Williams studies the logic behind this coping skill. Why does being outside make us feel better? What other benefits are there to being in sunlight?

In this non-fiction bestseller, the stories of people who find happiness and creativity in nature are explored and dissected, offering a powerful guide to help you boost your wellbeing as you start college.

The Maze Runner series by James Dashner

“Time stretched before him like an endless sea, no horizon ever to come. Nothing ahead, everything left behind.”

The Maze Runner’s position on this list might seem odd, because it’s a middle grade book that peaked in the early 2010s. However, I think that makes it one of the best books to read before starting college and moving into adulthood.

The series opens with a teenage boy named Thomas waking up in a box. His memories have been wiped, all he remembers is his name, and all he can see and feel are the metallic whirrings of the box rising to the earth’s surface.

When he surfaces, he finds a group of boys living in a wide, walled-in area called the Glade. In the Glade, they keep themselves alive, establish democracy and try to find a way out of the maze that surrounds them. None of them can remember anything about the people who put them there or their lives before – just their names.

I recently reread the entire series, and it is beautiful. Its commentary about ethics and what makes people good is surprisingly thoughtful for a middle grade book.

Soon-to-be college students should read this one for nostalgia – and to understand how to accept a new reality that feels scary.

Paper Towns by John Green

“The town was paper, but the memories were not.”

The quintessential manic pixie dream girl book, Paper Towns follows high school senior Quentin Jacobson.

Quentin has spent all of middle and high school being in love with the pretty and intriguing Margo Roth Spiegelman, who has not spoken to him since they were kids. He pines after her from afar, wishing he could get the chance to really talk to her – then they’d fall madly in love.

He gets his wish one night, but not long afterward, it seems like Margo has run away for good – to everyone except Quentin, that is, who spends the last part of his senior year putting together clues to find her.

This book screams “senior year”. With the newfound friendships, coming-of-age moments and nostalgic endings, the whole vibe of Paper Towns is the perfect way to close out this era and one of the books to read before college starts.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magic

“You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures.”

Written by self-help mogul Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic is exactly what college students need to get in touch with their goals.

In this book, Gilbert explores the phenomenon of inspiration. Taking on the voice of a supportive, hippy aunt, she encourages readers to discover what we are meant to do on earth. And in the process, we learn to let go of the self-limiting beliefs that are keeping us from success.

As I try to clear my foggy summer mind and determine what I want out of college, Big Magic is one of my guides.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

“In that moment, I swear we were infinite.”

This book is narrated by a high school freshman, but its wisdom will touch freshly graduated seniors (or any other reader, really).

It follows Charlie, who’s navigating his first year of high school. Even though he keeps to himself, he sees the beauty in people and is able to see them for who they really are. Over the school year, he befriends a group of seniors whose dilemmas teach him about his own life.

Like Paper Towns, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is filled with coming-of-age moments that take readers back to how infinite we all felt in high school.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

“If you don’t get out there and define yourself, you’ll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others.”

I couldn’t make a college reading list without Michelle Obama. Looking up her speeches on YouTube and setting her inspirational quotes as my home screen got me through high school exam seasons.

Obama’s memoir, Becoming, recounts her journey from living with her family in Chicago to becoming the first African American first lady to reside in the White House. Throughout tribulations and disappointments, Obama works hard and keeps her goals ahead of her.

So many young people wish for Obama’s focus. As inspiration to work hard for the next four years, I highly recommend this memoir.

The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis

“The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream has ended: this is the beginning.”

It might be odd to include the last Narnia book instead of the more popular first two books. But the ending of something beautiful gives me more hope for the future than the beginning.

In The Last Battle, the land of Narnia is experiencing its last days. A gorilla forces his donkey friend to put on a dead lion’s skin and convince the Narnians that he is Aslan, returned. This fraudulence leads to great turmoil in Narnia – and then, the end of worlds.

Breathtakingly written and wise, this is the perfect book in the series to close out high school and wait until college begins.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“All grown-ups were once children… but only a few of them remember it.”

The Little Prince is one of the best classic stories for children, but children and adults alike adore it. In the book, a little pilot is stranded in the desert. He’s checking his surroundings when he encounters a stranger who asks him to draw a sheep.

What ensues is a series of fantastic adventures, each teaching the deeply sensitive pilot about love and life. And in his journey, the pilot learns about what is truly important in life.

Reading this book is a farewell to childhood. I would recommend reading it on the drive or flight to your college.

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