20+ Books to Read Before College

College reading list
April 26, 2024
9 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

College wouldn’t be complete without reading – but what books should you read before your first year of college? Here are a few books to read before going to college!

Many students wonder how to prepare for their first year of college. After all, it’s one of the most important life changes you’ll ever have! So, how can you get in the right mindset for college? One of the best ways is by reading books. 

In addition to helping you get used to reading for college, reading makes you a better writer–ideal for nailing those all-important application essays. Books can also inspire, motivate, and teach essential life lessons. So, for those ready to succeed in post-secondary, here are some of the books you should finish reading before college.

20+ Books to Read Before College

Putting together a reading list before heading off to college? Make sure to add these four titles to the pile!

1. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

If you haven’t already read Fahrenheit 451, it’s time to pick up a copy. This book is set in a not-so-distant future where the government has outlawed books. The protagonist, Guy Montague, is a ‘fireman’ – but not in the usual sense of the word. Rather, his job is to burn illegal books.

Over time, Guy becomes disillusioned with his job and decides to break free from the grips of modern life, becoming an independent thinker and eventually working to rebuild a better society. 

Fahrenheit 451 is an essential read for new college students. Not only does it emphasize the importance of reading, knowledge, and an inquisitive nature, but it will also inspire you to embrace your quirks and think for yourself.

2. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger 

Perhaps the most famous coming-of-age story, The Catcher in the Rye is a fantastic choice for students entering the next chapter of their lives. The book follows teenager Holden Caulfield, a disillusioned student who has just been expelled from school.

As Holden grapples with the decision of what to do next, he becomes more and more aware of how ‘phony’ the world is in comparison to the innocence of childhood. Holden desperately wants to cling to the simplicity of his early years and protect other children from losing their innocence as well.

The Catcher in the Rye is a great book for students entering college as they can often relate to Holden’s struggle between the childhood and adult chapters of life. The lessons he learns about inevitable growth will inspire you to embrace change in your own life.

3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel set in the United States after a totalitarian, patriarchal society overthrows the government. In this story, women are stripped of their rights and power and are forced to live in a world run solely by men.

The protagonist, a woman named Offred, is one of the remaining women who are able to have children. Because of this, she is forced to become a handmaid whose sole purpose is to reproduce. Offred encounters other women fighting to resist the new regime and eventually becomes involved in the fight.

Though the story’s ending is uncertain and rather dark, it offers many valuable lessons for soon-to-be students, especially young women. Atwood’s book teaches us about the power of freedom and feminism and encourages us to fight for a better future.

4. Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

The title of this book is certainly relevant to prospective college students, as you’ll likely be talking to many strangers as you begin your college journey! 

Gladwell’s book is a significant exploration of how little we actually know about one another. He looks at different case studies in which people were misjudged and misunderstood and discusses the consequences. 

Talking to Strangers helps us understand the importance of true, meaningful communication as we seek to truly learn more about one another. It emphasizes how we can do harm by being quick to jump to conclusions about strangers and how grace and patience are necessary for true understanding. 

5. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

The classic book Things Fall Apart reflects on the consequences of modernization and Westernization in a Nigerian community that has been taken over by European colonizers. It delves into the tension between preserving traditional values and embracing change. 

Despite being a work of fiction, the novel has become an important literary piece that challenged the unfair depiction of African cultures as primitive and uncivilized. Through various characters, the story explores the enticement and exploitation that come with the infiltration of Western culture. 

The story prompts readers to confront the price of colonization and the notion of progress that has often been associated with it. Whether you're reading before college or for general knowledge, this book is an excellent selection. 

As we live in a world that is increasingly interconnected and globalized, Achebe's book offers us a unique perspective on the impact of Westernization. It provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the effects of cultural exchange and technological advancement in our modern era.

6. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Whether you are an aspiring poet or simply a young college hopeful, Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet offers valuable insights on self-expression and how to communicate effectively. Rilke's words of advice are a powerful reminder that we all have stories to share, and we possess the right to pursue our passions (whatever they may be).

Throughout the book, Rilke offers guidance on the craft of writing and connects it to living a meaningful life. He encourages readers to embrace their solitude and use it as a means of self-discovery and reflection. He also emphasizes the importance of finding one's own voice and expressing it authentically rather than conforming to societal expectations.

We recommend this quick read to anyone who wants to brush up on their communication skills and make valuable connections between life and art. Whether you are on your way to college or are simply seeking a good read, Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet is an excellent choice.

7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Need we go on? No college reading list is complete without Harper Lee’s timeless novel To Kill A Mockingbird. If you haven’t read it, you may need to later on, so it’s best to be prepared! In the novel, protagonist “Scout” navigates the complexities of the world around her. She faces challenges like overcoming adversity and standing up for what is right.

Beyond the fact that the novel is a classic, To Kill a Mockingbird is an excellent choice for aspiring college students because it explores themes of social justice, prejudice, racism, and morality, all of which are important issues to consider in today's world. Moreover, it is a great example of how literature can provoke critical thinking and encourage readers to reflect on their own beliefs and values.

8. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

If you aren’t aware of the work of Sylvia Plath, one of the great American poets and a historical figure, it’s time to get familiar! Sylvia Plath was best known for her poetry, her confessional style,  and her one and only completed novel, The Bell Jar. The novel follows a young woman’s battle with mental illness and explores her feelings of isolation.

Although originally published under her alias Victoria Lucas, The Bell Jar is noted to be somewhat based on true events. The novel is a brutally honest, at times humorous, reflection of Plath’s life during and after attending Smith College, a private women's liberal arts college in Massachusetts. 

9. Educated by Tara Westover, Ph.D.

Although not as old as some of the novels on our list, this new age memoir has made a serious impact since its release in 2018. The book follows the educational journey of author Tara Westover, which is untraditional, to say the least! 

As a child, Westover was forbidden from attending public school. However, when she turned 17 and set foot in her first classroom, she was immediately entranced. The reader follows Tara as she surrounds herself with her newfound passion for education and earns several college degrees. Ultimately, her adverse journey leads her to understand her purpose in life.

Educated is an excellent example of dedication, transformation, and personal growth through determination. If you’re looking for a novel to get you excited for your college years, this one might be perfect for you. 

10. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

If you haven’t read it already, you should certainly add William Golding’s Lord of the Flies to your reading list! This classic novel follows a group of young boys who are left stranded after their airplane crashes on a deserted island. 

Initially, the story may appear to be an exciting escapade, but the novel undergoes a startling transformation, delving into the intricacies of human behavior in a world where societal norms have no significance. Although it was written as a critique of its era, “Lord of the Flies” continues to be a thought-provoking and jarring piece of literature in the present day.

11. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking’s novel A Brief History of Time is a fascinating deep-dive into the mind of one of history’s greatest scientists. If you’re somehow unfamiliar with the author, Stephen Hawking dedicated his life to studying the cosmos and the beginning of the universe as we know it. 

A Brief History of Time discusses the complexities of space and time in such a way that the general public can understand them. No matter your field of study, this book is an excellent read, and you may learn a little something about the universe in the process. 

12. 1984 by George Orwell

Another brilliant classic novel, 1984 is a harrowing tale of a dystopian totalitarian regime run by the now-iconic “Big Brother” set in the year 1984. Orwell published the novel in 1949, painting a terrifying image of a potential future. 

The novel follows Winston, a man who works for the oppressive government, as he eventually rebels against the totalitarian regime and faces disastrous consequences. Rife with social criticism about governmental manipulation and control, 1984 is a must-read for any young future college student. 

13. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 

John Steinbeck is widely regarded as one of the greatest American authors in history, and for good reason. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family, a family of farmers who head to California after losing everything they own in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. 

The novel ties together themes of community, family, and perseverance with stories of hardship, poverty, and desperation. Readers are both inspired and devastated by the story of the Joad family’s migration as Steinbeck provides a vivid and raw glimpse into the plight of rural workers in the era of the Depression. 

The Great Depression is an incredibly significant part of American history, and potential college students can benefit from learning more about it in Steinbeck’s novel. 

14. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass is a nonfiction book that explores the relationship between humans and the land we live on and the natural environment that surrounds us. Kimmerer is a Potawatomi botanist and author who draws from Indigenous wisdom and practices in her writing. 

Braiding Sweetgrass can help us reimagine how we interact with the natural world, which is particularly relevant in this age as we become more aware of environmental issues such as climate change and deforestation. 

15. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is well-known for her novels like Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse (which are both also worth reading!), but her extended essay A Room of One’s Own is a must-read for any college hopeful, as it discusses education, particularly the educational opportunities available to women. 

Published in 1929, A Room of One’s Own is a significant feminist work of its time that examines the differences between men and women in relation to education and financial freedom. Woolf calls for women to have a “room of their own” in which they can have the freedom to write and tell their own stories, an important virtue for college-goers today. 

16. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Another Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See is a beautifully written story set in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. 

It follows three significant storylines: a blind French girl named Marie-Laure, a German teenager named Warner, and a Nazi officer named von Rumpel. Each story is separate but connected, and they converge intricately and masterfully by the end of the book. 

This beautiful novel explores themes of fate, duty, free will, morality, and desire. It provides an in-depth look into how we see one another and how our actions affect those around us and those we love. It’s a compelling, well-written story that any college student should read!

17. A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

Among the long-form books, it’s good to break it up with a short story. American author Flannery O’Connor was a master of writing short stories that pack a punch. Her collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories is chock-full of short stories that challenge the reader and raise important themes and difficult questions. 

The titular story follows a dysfunctional American family who have a run-in with a dangerous convict. It explores the concept of what makes a “good” man and contains O’Connor’s defining characteristics of sharp satire and themes of strong morality. Any of O’Connor’s works should be considered must-reads for potential college students!

18. Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Although technically a play and not a book, we couldn’t complete this list without a work by the Bard! Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers in history, and Hamlet is one of his best-known plays for good reason. 

It follows the story of a young Danish prince seeking to avenge his father’s death. The plot thickens as Hamlet learns that his uncle, who has now married his mother, is the murderer. This widely respected, tragic story is one of betrayal, revenge, madness, corruption, and mortality. 

You’ll likely come across Shakespeare in your college future, especially if you’re pursuing an English degree, so it’s wise to be familiar with one of his most famous works! Reading classic writers like Shakespeare can also help you improve your vocabulary, making Hamlet a good SAT prep book in its own way! 

19. Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is a heartbreaking novel set in the time after the American Civil War. It follows the character of Sethe, a formerly enslaved woman, as she deals with her trauma and dysfunctional family dynamics. Toni Morrison brilliantly leads the reader through a complicated, tragic story with her masterful writing. 

As the era of slavery was another significant moment in American history, college hopefuls in the US can find many lessons in Morrison’s writing and the devastating story of Beloved

20. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss 

With so many serious books on the list, it can be beneficial to add a little levity to your reading. There’s no better way to fill yourself with optimism and excitement for your college experience than Dr. Seuss’ classic storybook, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

This simple story is a much-needed reminder that life changes and that we must carry on through its many chapters with joy, gratitude, and ambition. This is one of our “must read” books before college because it’s a reminder of your potential; the world is yours, and it can be anything you make it!

FAQs: Books to Read Before Going to College

If you’ve just finished high school, you’ve probably done your fair share of reading over the years. But in addition to other things you can do in high school to prepare for college, having a few key books under your belt before starting college can give you the insight and wisdom you need to succeed!

Here are answers to some common questions about college reading lists.

1. What Books Should You Have Read Before College?

It’s a good idea to read a mix of books before college to ensure you’re as well-rounded as possible. Try everything, from graphic novels to young-adult fiction, classical literature, and modern novels.

The more books you read before college, the better. This is especially true for stories dealing with youth, coming of age, and themes of self-growth.

2. What Is the Most Read Book On College Campuses?

In addition to books you read at college on your own time, there are some you can expect to be assigned at school as well! 

According to Open Syllabus, the most common books assigned to college students include Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Republic by Plato, and writers’ handbooks such as The Elements of Style by William Strunk.

3. What Books Do You Read in First Year?

Many colleges participate in optional reading programs for first-year students. The chosen books change almost every year, but there are some very popular choices that you might encounter. These include 1984 by George Orwell, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and even some plays, such as Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

4. Do You Have to Like Reading to Do Well in College?

Let’s admit it: not everyone loves reading – and that’s okay! However, consider that (most) college programs will require a fair bit of reading, whether it’s novels and literature, academic essays, or scientific studies.

Other options are available to make reading easier for new college students. For instance, many classic literary works are available for free as audiobooks! This can be a great option for students with learning disabilities like dyslexia or for busy people who want to read while on the go! 

5. Do College Students Have Time to Read For Fun?

If you love to read, you might be wondering if you’ll have much time in your schedule to do it for pleasure during college! While it might take time to create a schedule and routine that works for you, most college students can do the things they love in addition to doing well at school.

If you’re a bookworm heading to college, set time aside in the week to read. You can try to read in the mornings before class, before bed, or even when on the bus!

6. Do College Professors Expect You to Have Already Read Certain Books?

While some books are commonly required reading in high school, professors understand that students come from far and wide. It might help to have an understanding of classics like The Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice, particularly if you’re going to a school known for creative writing or English.

With that said, don’t feel bad if you haven’t read every ‘essential’ literary work. You have a lifetime for reading, so for now, focus on the books every high school student should read before college.

7. Which Book Is Best For Student Life?

The best book for student life will depend on your individual goals. There are many helpful books out there for mindfulness, academic success, and navigating life changes. Examples include The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, and The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin.

8. What Should I Read In the Summer Before College?

Check your curriculum for book lists, or brush up on some classics in the summer before college. If you’re an avid reader and you’ve already done a lot of academic reading, it may be a good idea to read for fun! You may struggle to find time to do so in your first year.

Final Thoughts

There’s so much to prepare as a soon-to-be college student, but making time to read is absolutely essential. Not only does it provide a baseline to help you understand other books, but many of them can teach valuable life lessons that will help you in this exciting period of transition.

Ultimately, our college book list is only the beginning. The best novels are the ones that mean something to you! So read as much as possible, in as many genres and mediums as possible – the things you learn might just change your life!

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