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Ten Books to Read Before College

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

This article was originally written and published by Rose Wong in 2020.

Books have a way of transporting you from your hometown to the other side of the planet, teaching lessons and sharing with you emotions that you may not experience otherwise. College, in its full potential, will challenge you personally and academically, and one of the best ways to prepare for it is by broadening your worldview, as well as vocabulary, through reading.

A good reading portfolio should be diverse, in its stories, authors and writing styles. Some of these books may have been part of your high school required reading, and the rest should have made the curriculum, but did not.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

For those who aren’t aware of the backstory, in 2015, recent college graduate Miller was drugged and raped by a Stanford freshman on campus. Her victim impact statement was released after her assailant’s sentence hearing, but she was anonymously referred to as Emily Doe. The statement, and her story, became viral, but no one knew who Emily was—except that she is a girl in every neighborhood in every county in America. Last year, in her memoir, Emily Doe decided to tell us her name—Chanel Miller—but more importantly, why.

Courtesy of Buzzfeed

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

This is memoir writing at its finest. I highly recommend any aspiring writer to study this book and Jesmyn Ward’s literary style, which is both delicate and urgent. Rather than start from the beginning, the author tells you where the story ends, and moves with you backwards. Set in a small Mississippi town in the early 90s’, Men We Reaped not only shows how systemic racism impacts black communities long after slavery ended, but also how black women and men are affected differently.

Courtesy of Los Angeles Times

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Set in the Deep South during the Great Depression, the book brings together the horrors of systemic racism and poverty with an idealist’s heroism and the sweet innocence of his children. I highly recommend watching the movie starring Gregory Peck after reading the book—Don’t let the black and white deter you; you will be thinking about the scenes for weeks to come.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

What happens when a Stanford neurosurgeon is diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer? Kalanithi, who passed before this book was published, studied English literature and considered becoming a writer, so this memoir is both an insightful look at a doctor’s transition to patienthood, as well as a beautiful and masterfully-written ode to death and the human body.

Courtesy of

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas

This classic tale follows a young sailor who is wrongfully accused of treason and goes around the world to regain his freedom and seek revenge. In the many wild twists and turns, the protagonist, and you, will learn a few unexpected lessons about pride and forgiveness. I remember reading the abridged version in middle school and sitting on the couch dumbfounded at multiple points in the story. You won’t regret picking up this book.

Courtesy of Variety

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

The graphic novel being featured in the American Library Association’s list of Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2014 should tell you something. This memoir takes you into the experience of growing up in Iran during the Iranian Revolution. Marjane Satrapi takes on ideas of family, education, cultural identity and the “precarity of survival,” all from the perspective of a young girl as she transforms into early adulthood.

Courtesy of Persepolis

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Just as many lessons in this novel as there are literary devices. Set in Puritan Massachusetts, this book surrounds a young woman ousted by her community because she has a child out of wedlock, telling a powerful story about religious hypocrisy, maternal love and a woman’s strength. There’s a reason this classic was published in 1850 and is still read every day by young and old alike.

Courtesy of

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This novel follows a young Nigerian woman who immigrated to the United States for college. The book weaves between her two worlds in Africa and America as well as a love story with a fellow classmate, shedding light on the immigrant and black experience in the United States. Americanah won the 2013 National Book Critic Circle Award for fiction, and The New York Times Book Review named it one of the 10 Best Books of 2013.

Courtesy of

The Giver by Lois Lowry

I recall starting this book while laying on my parents’ bed one summer afternoon in middle school...and finishing it two hours later. It was just that good. Awarded the 1994 Newbery Medal, the novel centers around a boy in a utopian society. He is given an important task that challenges his understanding of knowledge, choice and human life itself. I’m not a fan of science fiction but this novel was an exception.

Courtesy of

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by

Charlie Mackesy

This may be one of my favorite books of all time. On the surface, one may think it’s just a children’s picture book. But read closely and you’ll realize that the lessons in this book will resonate with ages five to 85, high schoolers to grandparents. I just wish that I had read this book earlier and brought the author’s words with me to college three years ago.

“What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” asked the boy.

“Help,” said the horse.

Isn’t that so lovely, and so true?

Courtesy of Charlie Mackesy

Of course, this isn’t a definitive list, but you are definitely missing out if you have yet to check these books out. What is a book that you would recommend?

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Robert Powers (M.A. Johns Hopkins) is the college consultant at College Torch. He is an expert in colleges and the college admissions process. Parents, join his private Facebook group for Parents of College-Bound Students.

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