Going off to college is an experience laden with tremendous meaning and symbolism. It represents the opportunity for reinvention or escape. College can be the means to changing one’s socioeconomic standing. For a legacy student, it’s about reinforcing the status quo. For many, college is freedom: freedom to pursue ideas and goals and the occasional love interest or two. With all of that opportunity comes the cost. Financial strain, immense stress, and questioning one’s life choices are typical experiences. It’s no wonder there are so many books about going off to college.
I present a list of books showcasing a wide range of experiences in college, both fiction and nonfiction. I also draw from my experience as a college academic advisor to provide one heartfelt recommendation for anyone trying to get the most out of their education. So let’s hit the books!
Adult Books About Going Off to College
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Set in 1995, this book is, believe it or not, historical fiction. Selin, daughter of Turkish immigrants, is off to her freshman year at Harvard. The novel is very slice-of-life, following Selin’s college ups and downs. It’s also partially about the narrow window of time when going to college meant having access to a very different internet than we know today. That internet facilitated communication without broadcasting to your friends, followers, and family what you were up to. Before people were checking the read receipts on their texts, they were using the “finger” protocol (yes, it’s as gross as it sounds) to check whether a user on their college’s network had logged in recently and presumably, seen that email. Selin’s intense interiority matches this sneakier era of the internet perfectly.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Here it is, the blueprint for the dark academia phenomenon. The story follows Richard, who is an outsider figure at the elite fictional Vermont college he transfers to. At this school, a cultish clique has formed around one particular Classics professor. Richard gets caught up in their obsession with taking a love of the classics entirely too far. This novel captures the feeling of being completely enamored with the college experience, as well as what happens when the shine wears off. It’s one of my all-time favorites, and like the very best books, rereads always yield new layers.
As Lie Is to Grin by Simeon Marsalis
There are plenty of books about going off to college and finding the community one seeks, but that is not the universal experience. As Lie is to Grin touches on the isolation that can be a part of college for those in a very visible minority. David, a Black student at the overwhelmingly white University of Vermont, is one such person. He works to connect the history of the university, African American history, and his personal history. It’s a dreamy, frequently funny, and often weighty journey through the eyes of a very singular character.
Young Adult Books About Going Off to College
Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh
If you’re looking for a novel in verse among books about going off to college, here you go. It’s a heavily autobiographical novel about Ada, daughter of a Nigerian father and an African American mother. Ada is coming into herself as a freshman at an HBCU, struggling with parental pressures, and questioning her sexuality. While college presents an opportunity to be one’s true self, Ada still has to reckon with tough memories that accompanied her to college. The book hits on some heavy topics including addiction and childhood sexual abuse, so sensitive readers be aware.
Check, Please! Book 1 by Ngozi Ukazu
College is equivalent to sports for many people. This graphic novel, arising from a webcomic of the same name, follows Bitty as he goes to college and joins a hockey team much more intense than his co-ed club back home. He also meets Jack, the moody captain, who stirs up romantic feelings in Bitty. Read this one for the upbeat view of the sweet romance and newfound friendships that can be a part of the college experience.
Virtually Yours by Sarvenaz Tash
Lingering affections for a boyfriend or girlfriend from high school can certainly carry over to college. Such was the case for NYU freshman Mariam Vakilian. She decides to participate in a virtual reality dating service to shake herself free from her past. Trouble is, she matches with the high school sweetheart, and also her new best friend Jeremy. If you enjoy a love triangle, this is a book for you, but it’s not only that. Virtually Yours also takes a look at the issues surrounding modern dating on the internet, including catfishing and nefarious uses of personal data.
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta
This novel in verse features Michael, a half Jamaican, half Greek Cypriot boy in London. University is his chance for self-discovery, and he finally finds it with The Drag Society. There he boldly and joyfully finds his power, a common theme in books about drag. Ultimately I can’t possibly say it better than the book does: “This book is a fairy tale / in which I am the prince / and the princess. I am / the king and the queen. / I am my own wicked / witch and fairy godmother. / This book is a fairy tale / in which I’m cursed / and blessed by others. / But, finally, I am the fairy / finding my own magic.”
American Panda by Gloria Chao
Balancing the weight of parental expectations with one’s personal vision for how life should go is a big task for many college students. Such is the case for Mei, a 17-year-old freshman at M.I.T. who is discovering the plan to become a doctor is not so great for a germaphobe who falls asleep in biology class. Add to that a budding affection for a boy who would not win parental approval, and Mei’s found herself in quite the mess. It’s a story lots of people can relate to, told with humor and heart.
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
This beautiful and melancholy novel focuses less on plot to deeply investigate relationships and emotions. As other books about going off to college have reinforced, it’s rarely an effective way to outrun your past. And even if you stay at college over a break, the way Marin does in this book, that only provides more space for reflection. Flashing back to California and forward again to the quiet New York City campus, Marin unravels the mystery of her relationship with Mabel, her best friend who may be something more.
Nonfiction Books About Going Off to College
I Am Where I Come From: Native American College Students and Graduates Tell Their Life Stories by Andrew Garrod, Robert Kilkenny, and Melanie Benson Taylor
There is no unified experience when it comes to being Native American, and this book underscores that fact. These stories do relate the struggles many Native American people face, including proximity to poverty, violence, and addiction. They also convey the complexities of these students’ lives and the way they are using education to improve life for themselves and their families. Ultimately, some students’ stories also look to the future, regarding the needs and promise of future generations.
I Don’t Want to Die Poor: Essays by Michael Arceneaux
For so many people, college equals endless, monumental debt. If you’re staring down that reality, this book might make you reconsider your options. If it’s too late and you’re already writing those unending checks, you’ll feel less alone. Arceneaux goes into detail about how his debt affects every aspect of his life. It’s both funny and heartbreaking. Arceneaux also talks about the intersections of race and class with debt, and the American Dream has become shattered under a broken system for funding education.
Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey From a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League by Dan-el Padilla Peralta
As a child, Dan-el Padilla Peralta accompanied his mother to the United States from the Dominican Republic on a tourist visa. She came to seek medical treatment, but ended up overstaying the visa and falling into undocumented status. The author traces his path from poverty through to Princeton. He takes care to highlight the support system he had given his unique circumstances and also the systemic roadblocks he faced. Through it all, his love of learning and the college experience shines through.
They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up by Eternity Martis
The red solo cups on this book’s cover are such an effective symbol of what to many of us was the worst of college. Those beer-soaked parties are a lot less fun when the white students arrive in blackface, as Martis, a Black woman at Canada’s Western University, witnessed. She chronicles the complexity of her college experience in this thoughtful memoir. For her, finding a community of other women of color was integral to her resilience in the face of hardships she faced on the path to graduation.
Straight A’s: Asian American College Students in Their Own Words by Christine R. Yano and Neal K. Adolph Akatsuka
This book provides perspectives from Asian American students attending Harvard. They relate their experiences with discrimination and discuss mental health struggles. Themes of parental expectations and the immigrant experience run throughout as well. This book is a good pick for a high achiever who could use some perspectives from others who’ve experienced that same kind of pressure. It’s also useful for gaining insight into the “model minority” label Asian American students are often saddled with.
A Special Recommendation
Becoming a Learner: Realizing the Opportunity of Education by Matthew Sanders
Here’s my last pick for books about going off to college. I sincerely recommend this short book that underscores the value of taking responsibility for one’s own education. I worked with thousands of students during my time as an academic advisor, and I know how easy it is to get dismayed by comparing oneself to others. It can lead to giving up and accepting less from oneself. I know how it goes; I did it too. This book helps the reader adopt a really healthy attitude toward college. It acknowledges that circumstances are often not ideal. Still, reframing how one thinks about a challenge can help students get the most out of their education.