Updated on 08.23.17

Six Books I Wish I’d Read Before Starting College

I did very little reading the summer before I started college. I was focused on figuring out which roommate was going to bring the mini-fridge to the dorm, what posters to hang, and what classes to take.

I wish I would have realized how many engaging, well-written, informative books there are that could have helped me get more out of my college experience. While none of them would teach me the finer points of suppressing the need to burp while chugging beer out of a funnel, they certainly would have helped me avoid some of the typical college pitfalls.

If had a time machine, I’d go back and have 18-year-old Drew put down the PlayStation controller and read the following six books.

How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff

This book is a fun romp through what I found, in high school, to be an interminably boring subject — statistics. I can feel my eyes glazing over just thinking about Mrs. Camacho, my junior year teacher, saying the words “standard deviation.”

Yet once I was in college, I was kicking myself for not having a better grasp of statistics. In almost all of my classes, I was faced with a dizzying array of studies to interpret, and I had no rules of thumb for figuring out what was good science and what wasn’t. Reading Huff’s book would have made me feel much more comfortable reading through all kinds of studies.

Huff excels at using real-world anecdotes to explain how stats can be manipulated, twisted, and spun in order to influence or even trick the average person. A great example is when he takes on something as seemingly obvious as the word “average.” He details how, with a loose enough interpretation of that word, you can do some nefarious things.

For instance, a realtor might sell you on the benefits of a particular neighborhood by proclaiming that the average income of the residents is $100,000 per year. But, unless you know whether she’s talking about the mean, median, or mode, you don’t know what to make of that seemingly impressive statement. As Huff puts it, using the word average to mean any number of things is “a trick commonly used, sometimes in innocence but often in guilt, by fellows wishing to influence public opinion or sell advertising space.”

Even though it’s over 60 years old, the book feels as relevant as ever. In a world where “fake news” is the phrase du jour, it’s critical to have an understanding of statistics. People from all sides of the political spectrum are going to try to spin jobs reports in their favor. Food companies are going to present nutrition studies so as to make their product look like the best choice. Your future boss might even try to skew your performance history so as to deny you a promotion. If you aren’t confident enough to form your own opinions that are rooted in a basic understanding of statistics, you’re going to be buffeted about by the winds of those who might see you as a sucker.

Furthermore, I think there’s a great benefit in reading books that make complex topics accessible by showing how your budding knowledge can be applied in the real world. When you have a broader understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing, it’s easier to get through the boring parts.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

Cal Newport is a tenured professor and a best selling author who churns out books at an impressive pace. How does he do it? By making room, every day, for what he terms “deep work.” These are chunks of time where he is singularly focused on one aspect of one project. He sits in a quiet room, sets a timer, and zeroes in on the task at hand.

The book is part an exploration of famous folks throughout history who embodied the “deep work” lifestyle, and part helpful tips on how to organize your life to make deep work more accessible.

It sounds simple, and it is. But that’s what’s so great about it. We are surrounded by tools, tech, and apps that are all built to supposedly make life more efficient. Newport looks at things holistically, and understands that more important than any new app is developing the ability to sit down in a quiet room and just work.

Back when I started college, I was plenty distracted by my school email, my personal email, Facebook, and my PlayStation 2. Now, that looks quaint. College freshmen have smartphones, Instagram, Snapchat, and a bevy of other time killers that are just a click away. If you can’t learn to harness the impulse to go down a YouTube rabbit hole, you’ll never be able to keep up with a full college workload.

My first semester of college was a whirlwind. It felt like every class was assigning an unsustainable amount of homework. And when faced with the siren call of emails and texts, it never seemed like I was making consistent headway on my tasks. Had I been better versed in the idea of deep work, I would have made it a priority to set aside a certain amount of time every day to do distraction free work.

Cal Newport would have made me a firm proponent of living a life that minimizes the distractions that come from modern “conveniences.” I would be more likely to purposely limit my cell phone usage, eschew Flappy Bird for internal reflection while riding the bus to class, and to check my email only once per day. In a world where we check our phones upwards of 46 times per day, staying on task while limiting access to technology is as important as ever.

Early Retirement Extreme by Jacob Lund Fisker

My 18 year-old-self would have scoffed at reading a book with such a gimmicky title. But, I now know that this book is not espousing a lifestyle of Top Ramen noodles and living with roommates your whole life. It’s a philosophical treatise on the hows and whys of living a happy, sustainable life.

The author is a former physicist who left academia and retired in his early 30s. His book details how he was able to retire early even though he never earned more money than the average toll booth worker, and he never inherited a windfall. This aspect of the book is particularly inspiring. Many luminaries in the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) world just happen to have tech jobs that pay them six-figure salaries, plus bonuses. It’s intimidating to try to follow in their footsteps. When someone shows you a path to financial freedom while earning $40,000 a year, it feels more accessible.

The book makes a point of convincing the reader that, with a little effort, they can become a “renaissance man” — the type of person who can insource a lot of tasks that we now reflexively pay others to do for us. We can save a lot of money by cleaning our own homes, doing our own taxes, cooking our own food, and properly maintaining our clothing. Such tasks must be undertaken with the understanding that it’s inherently rewarding to be self-sufficient. Frugality does not have to mean sacrificing your happiness.

The book also serves as a way to gain basic financial literacy, an area where our K-12 educational system consistently lets us down. I entered college with no idea how to build credit, how to invest, or how to balance a budget. Early Retirement Extreme covers all of that without dumbing anything down, and it also goes over everything from calculating the true cost of home ownership to the importance of using your savings rate as a way to monitor your financial health.

The book really shines in the way it addresses things through the lens of building robust systems and encouraging the reader to think outside the box. Had I read this before college, I may have been more inclined to try to start side hustles and think about ways I could build a wide range of skills so I’d never be jobless in a recession.

At my college, it often felt like success was defined by the number of zeroes in your bank account, or whether you had lined up a prestigious job after graduation. It doesn’t have to be like that. It’s up to you to decide what path you want to take. Just because your parents and grandparents worked a 9-5 job until they were 65 doesn’t mean you have to. Early Retirement Extreme can help young people think about their career trajectories, and their lives, in a whole new way.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Eighteen-year-olds, my younger self included, can be a bit dramatic. A bad grade, or a fight with your roommate, can feel like the end of the world. But, obstacles like that will inevitably arise, and how you deal with them will be a major determinant in how much you get out of the college experience.

Reading a book like Unbroken can help you keep your problems in perspective. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a World War II veteran who faced being stranded at sea for a record period of time, only to be “rescued” and put into a Japanese prisoner of war camp. He faced conditions that would have made me think twice before complaining about how unfair it was that I got put in a dorm without central air conditioning.

Hillenbrand tells the story masterfully, with rich details and perfect pacing. You feel like you’re right alongside Zamperini as he battles through one hardship after another. I have always been a sucker for underdogs and come-from-behind stories, and this book is near the pinnacle of that genre.

Zamperini’s resilience, determination, and stoicism are constant reminders that I need to appreciate the simple things in life that are so easy to take for granted. Sure, your dorm food might not be great. But once you’ve seen the world through the eyes of someone like Zamperini, you eat it with a smile, happy to live in a world full of freedom and opportunity.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Again, my younger self would have been turned off from this book by the title alone. It sounds like a get-rich-quick manual for con artists. Plus, I had tons of friends – what use would I have with this weird book by a circus promoter?

But, had I taken the time to read it, I would have learned that it’s the ultimate guide to networking. I didn’t think I needed help with networking at the time, but I did.

I had a great crew of friends in high school, but I was never able to replicate that in college. This was partly because I was scared of the unknown. The unfamiliar people, the foreign landscape, the intimidating “career fairs” — I quickly found that I was much more comfortable staying away from all that. The world outside my dorm could be full of rejection and awkwardness.

Yet, once you read How to Win, you are better able to see those potentially scary events as opportunities. The book provides simple, easy-to-implement advice that can improve your confidence in social situations. The mere fact that it’s still being widely read, so many years later, should speak to its effectiveness.

If you can get out of your comfort zone and effectively network while in college, you’ll set yourself up to have better relationships and more lucrative career opportunities. It doesn’t have to be smarmy, and you don’t need to print business cards. You just have to realize the simple power of things like being a good listener, remembering people’s names, and avoiding arguments. If you develop a wide array of rich relationships while in school, you’re taking a tremendous step toward improving the quality of the rest of your life.

Reading With Purpose

Not only do I wish I’d read all of the above before college, but I wish I’d digested them. I tend to read very fast. It’s a skill that serves me well, but also hindered me in ways. I was great at technically completing my college reading assignments, not so great at actually absorbing anything. I was much more focused on getting reading done just to say I did it. After all, there were video games to be played!

So, that’s why I also wish I’d read “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren. It’s a bit pedantic, but on the whole it offers good tips on how to get more out of the texts you read. It extols the virtues of slowing down, taking notes, and rereading passages to make sure you understand them.

If you’re an avid speed reader, using the methods from this book will be laborious at first, like trying to run underwater. But, with time, you’ll realize that reading in a more focused, deliberate manner will improve your ability to get concepts to stick in your brain. As with Aesop’s famous tortoise and the hare, slow and steady wins the race.

Summing Up

If I had taken the time to slowly and methodically read the above books, I’m confident I would have had a better college experience. I could have made this list a hundred books long, but I think these six provide a nice base for those college students who want to be inspired while broadening their understanding of both themselves and the world.

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