I’m a College Senior, Here are 10 Books I Wish I’d Read Before College

Entering college is a big life transition with many new challenges and learning opportunities academically and personally. In my life, during transition or growth, I turn to books to help me. Most college students already have a hefty reading list for classes, so reading for pleasure is often put on the back burner. However, reading for pleasure in college can be rewarding and worth making time for.

This list includes fiction and nonfiction books, all of which have helped me, or I wish I had read before college.

I think college freshman should read these 10 books

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1. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

Genre: Non-Fiction

Cheryl Strayed is absolutely my favorite author, and this collection of essays is my favorite book of all time. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of responses to “Dear Sugar,” an advice column on “The Rumpus” blog that Strayed wrote for. Strayed gives advice drawing from her own life experiences and hardships.

Her advice comes from learned and lived experiences, and many of the essays center around feeling lost in your 20s or beginning college and living on your own. She speaks on reflecting on making mistakes, overcoming jealousy, or loving yourself.

The title essay “Tiny Beautiful Things” is advice “Sugar” would give her younger self. I have this piece framed in my room, and I read it frequently because I find it inspiring.

2. Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson

Genre: Non-Fiction

I read this book later in my college career, and I wish I had read it sooner because not giving a f*ck is not one of my strong suits. The book advocates for focusing on the things in life that matter and not wasting time and energy on being upset about silly things that do not matter.

Going into college, you are suddenly given a hundred things you “should” care about. It’s challenging to decide what to focus on because it is impossible to pay attention to everything. The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck teaches students how to live in a way that you can be in charge of what to “give a F*ck about and what to let go of, which is an invaluable tool.

3. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Genre: Fiction

A literary classic published during the civil rights era is just as impactful today. Lee can capture racism, innocence, youth, and coming of age, making this book an essential read for anyone, especially young people entering a new era. The novel describes bursting the bubble of childhood innocence and learning about the world from the lens of being a young adult discovering the nuances of the world.

I first read this book in middle school and read it every couple of years because it is so impactful. As students are getting older and becoming more independent, in a world full of hate this novel works as sort of a guide and makes young adults feel that they are not alone in feeling conflicted, disheartened and overwhelmed.

4. Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Genre: Fiction

This book has a similar storyline to the popular trope in many books or movies; the idea that there are multiple timelines based on different choices we make in our lives. Before the Coffee Gets Cold is based on the idea that in this one coffee shop, at this particular table, you can go back in time to talk to someone in the past. There are a couple of caveats: the person must have gone to this coffee shop at some point, you may only speak to them, sitting in one particular chair and you can only speak to them during the time it takes for your coffee to get cold.

The book features different stories of people speaking to people from their pasts, for example, to see the daughter they never got to meet, to receive a letter from their husband whose memory is lost due to early onset Alzheimer’s, or to confront a man who has left them.

The book emphasizes the importance of living in the moment and not focusing on the past or what could have been, a crucial lesson going into a time in your life when it seems that everyone is focusing on the next steps.

5. Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Genre: Non-Fiction


This is one of my favorite books of all time, and I think Chanel Miller is one of the best writers I have ever read. While not necessarily uplifting, Know My Name is a memoir written by Miller, sharing her story of being assaulted by Stanford swimmer Brock Turner and her viral victim impact statement that was read at the hearing.

Miller’s New York Times bestselling book is inspiring and honest; it shares the familiar story of many women and sheds light on the feelings and complex process Miller went through to find her identity after her awful experience. It is beautifully written and a great story to read in the transition to college, finding yourself, and figuring out what you want your story to be.

6. Educated by Tara Westover

Genre: Non-Fiction

This book was required reading for my grade before I started my first year of college, and it was enlightening to read before beginning my journey into higher education. Westover writes about her fight to become “educated” and what that means.

Westover grew up in rural Idaho to a mother who was a midwife/healer and a father who made a living salvaging scrap metal. Westover’s father was very concerned about government interference, so as a result, he forbade his children from attending formal schooling, receiving formal medical care, and even obtaining birth certificates.

At 17, Westover moves to Utah to begin her college education and describes her transition from living remotely with only her close family to attending college. This New York Times bestselling book is an inspiring read pre-college because it emphasizes that everyone comes from a different place and we must be open-minded and non-judgmental. No one knows anyone else’s story.

7. Everything I Know About Love: A Memoir by Dolly Alderton

Genre: Non-Fiction

Dolly Alderton is a fabulous writer, and this book has become a global phenomenon. Everything I Know About Love is an ode to your twenties and figuring out love and who you are. Alderton recounts many failed attempts at love, what she has learned, and how she has grown. She discusses her love experiences through friendships and hilariously captures the experience of growing up, getting older, and navigating all kinds of unknowns and new life experiences.

This book is hilarious but also deeply moving and one of the most beautiful pieces of literature I have ever read. It has recently been turned into a TV series which I haven’t seen but have heard fantastic things about.

8. The People We Keep by Allison Larkin

Genre: Fiction

The People We Keep is a relatively new book set in Little River, New York, in 1994. It follows April Sawicki, a young adult living in a motorless motorhome. April fails out of school and lives in a town she never felt at home in. After an exceptional open mic night, April finds a life she believes can be hers.

Her journey references songs and music she has written; it is poetic and captures the experience of where you come from, which doesn’t automatically dictate who you will become. The People We Keep shows us we need to trust those who genuinely care about us and help us select the people we keep in times of change or growth; entering college is undoubtedly one of those times, making this book very inspiring for young adults.

9. How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky

Genre: Non-Fiction

Based on the Ask Polly column in The Cut, Havrilesky’s advice in How to Be a Person in the World is perfect for young people entering college; she honors feelings that may seem frivolous, too complicated, or burdensome to others. Havrilesky discusses solving problems, having autonomy over your life, and building who you are.

Havrilesky’s tone is understanding, and she gives fantastic advice on how to truly transition into being a person in the world and making your own choices. She discusses topics that entering college first years frequently face.

10. A Secret History by Donna Tarte

Genre: Fiction

A Secret History is a classic book that college students read in student book clubs or school-sanctioned events to capture the experience of being a college student in America. While it may seem cliche, as many do, this cliche has some truth to it. The novel takes place in New England in 1992 and centers around five students in one classics class who murder their classmate Bunny.

It is narrated by a classmate Julian who is a member of this class, and the beauty of the book is how it inspires empathy for even the most unlikeable characters, something I find incredibly impressive when an author can accomplish this. It’s a dark academia-style story that also tells the awkward parts of college life that many can relate to, such as talking to strangers in bathrooms, stressing about plans, and balancing work and social life.

It is dystopian and dark, but it is written so well and with such complexity that I believe reading it before college would be very beneficial, especially in liberal arts colleges. The story is very well written, and Donna Tarte is a fabulous author.

All of these books were helpful to me as an undergrad. The transition from high school to college can be incredibly tough, and having advice from others or stories of those who have persevered can be comforting.

Books are magical, and I wholeheartedly believe they have helped guide me through my college years and the turmoil that comes with them.

Happy Reading!

More Great Reading:

The 14 Best Books for College Admissions and How to Pay for College (2024)

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