The Old College Try

Which reference guides will help you find the right school?

A college search is like shopping for clothes. The entire experience varies radically depending on the tastes of the buyer. In the last 14 years, for instance, I have been through three college searches with my children. The first was easy: He had one school in mind, applied early, and got in—that quick, no-fuss shopping typical of teenage boys. The second child was more difficult. He is a golfer and a biker and announced that no matter how distinguished the institution, he would not apply to any schools where a flake of snow marred the landscape. Unfortunately, no college guides could help narrow his search—weather reports and listings of local green fees were more important to him than statistics and rankings.  

We finally found college guides helpful when my third child began her search. She considered two dozen schools and visited 13 of them in the East, the Midwest, and the West. We consulted at least six guides during that marathon selection process. I can still see those books on the top shelf of her bedroom bookcase.

I liked many of those guides, but they were all large and pricey and have only become more so since. A cheat sheet of their virtues could have saved me some time and money, so to help streamline your college search, I’ve devised a rating system to evaluate which books in today’s market offer the most insightful counsel.


I selected only guides featuring more than 100 schools. There was no way—short of a long stretch in prison—that I could read all 14,293 pages of these books, which made a 2-foot-high stack on my dining-room table. Instead, I sampled each using four criteria.

Depth of Information: Does the guide offer more than the basic statistics about average SAT scores and tuition costs—providing information about which departments have the best professors, or whether undergraduates can do original research? Verve: Is the guide interesting to read? Are the descriptions vivid? Detail: Is it up-to-date? Does it give leading majors and financial-aid info, as well as the football schedule? Student Perspective: Are opinions of undergraduates presented in write-ups? Does it address students’ rather than parents’ concerns? I awarded up to 25 points for performance in each criteria, for a possible total of 100.  

I pored over each of the guides, and to give my sampling some consistency, I read everything in each of about 10 different but worthy colleges with which I’m familiar. Four are public (Alcorn State University; the Citadel; St. Mary’s College of Maryland; and the University of California, San Diego) and six are private (Elon University, Harvard University, North Central College, Pomona College, University of Chicago, and Ursinus College). I subtract detail points for any guides that miss some of these schools, but if you are looking for books that feature more selective colleges, disregard that part of my assessment.

The results, from worst to best:

The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges 2006 by the Staff of the Yale Daily News, 1,017 pages, $18.99

The Yale Daily guide is the smallest and lightest of these books. It also has some of the best student quotes. A student at UC-San Diego says, “I feel like I need a megaphone and binoculars to participate in class sometimes.” A Johns Hopkins University undergraduate says the dining halls are “like eating at a five-star restaurant, except the opposite.” But it is also the least informative. It rarely offers more than basic data and offers little insight into details such as which schools are affordable, which schools help you survive the trauma of freshman year, or which schools have the kind of extracurricular activities you crave. It reports on just four schools in my sample and is probably useful only to applicants considering the most selective colleges. In this era, getting into schools like Yale is akin to winning the lottery. Take a look at the bigger books—you might find something you like.

Depth:16 (out of 25)
Verve: 21 (out of 25)
Detail: 15 (out of 25)
Student Perspective: 24 (out of 25)
Total: 76 (out of 100)

Peterson’s Four-Year Colleges 2006 by Thomson Peterson’s, 3,087 pages, $32

I have not used Peterson’s before and am surprised by its structure. The front of the book has standard short descriptions with the usual data on each college, such as average SAT scores, major departments, sports, and activities. But the back of the book lists advertorials “written by admissions deans” in place of independent assessments. Perhaps these are helpful to some readers, but personally I feel duped buying a $32 book that seems to rely so heavily on subjective write-ups written by the universities themselves.

I found nothing inaccurate in the Peterson’s advertorials, but I prefer to rely on more objective perspectives from outside observers.

Depth: 20
Verve: 19
Detail: 21
StudentPerspective: 17
Total: 77

The College Board College Handbook 2006, 2,069 pages, $28.95

The College Board book gets major depth points for being the only guide to take community colleges seriously. It has data on more than 1,600 two-year schools, a great boon since nearly half of all U.S. undergraduates attend such colleges. Its four-year college outlines are fine, with lots of good data, but it misses some important details. Elon University, for instance, is unusual because it scores very high on the National Survey of Student Engagement—an increasingly influential measurement of which colleges teach best. But this guide does not address that. Like U.S. News and Barron’s, The College Board contains all the standard numbers. But because it does not discuss details like which departments are strongest, or the differences in student interests and living styles, it’s not easy to determine which school might be best for you or your child.

Depth: 24
Verve: 15
Detail: 23
Student Perspective: 18
Total: 80

U.S. News & World Report Ultimate College Guide 2005, 1,763 pages, $26.95

Blessed with remarkable data from its “America’s Best Colleges” surveys, the U.S. News guide helpfully ranks schools in different categories, such as the priciest private schools, the cheapest public universities, and the best values. The guide also addresses the important issue of how well colleges retain their freshmen, with a list that ranks schools accordingly.

The individual college descriptions, however, are a bit thin. The basic data on academic and financial aid are there, but U.S. News doesn’t address issues that don’t fit the standard categories. For instance, the guide does not mention Ursinus College’s Common Intellectual Experience course, one of the few freshman courses in the country that every student is required to take. Elon’s high marks on the National Survey of Student Engagement are also ignored.

Depth: 20
Verve: 20
Detail: 22
Student Perspective: 19
Total: 81

Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges 2005, 1,669 pages, $26.95

Like the U.S. News, College Board, and Peterson’s guides, Barron’s provides a thick clump of useful data on each college, including composition of the student body, housing options, financial aid, special programs, sports, and transfer rules, but it does not present it in an entertaining or vivid manner. I give it some perspective points for student-friendly data: It gives the exact requirements for completing a major, and it also presents a helpful list of which colleges have which majors. But it misses unusual but potentially important details, such as the progress Alcorn State has made in providing extra tutoring and other support for freshmen so that more of them are able to return for their sophomore year.

Depth: 21
Verve: 21
Detail: 23
Student Perspective: 18
Total: 83

Choosing the Right College 2005: The Whole Truth About America’s Top Schools, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 972 pages, $28

Choosing the Right College differentiates itself from the other guides in ways both good and bad. Its ideological leanings will offend many readers. It concludes that Brown “was little but a left-wing echo chamber” until some right-of-center groups were formed. And it has narrow coverage—only 125 schools, and just four (University of Chicago, Harvard, Pomona, and UC-San Diego) of the 10 on my sampling list.

But its school profiles offer many interesting details the others lack. For example, none of the other guides names specific professors who make their campuses great. The Davidson College profile identifies nine top professors in seven departments loved by students. While other guides have a generic feel, with general statements and few recent examples, Choosing the Right College is often as fresh as the latest headlines. For instance, other guides address Pomona’s smog problem—an old story—but this guide covers the school’s reaction to an alleged hate crime that occurred on campus in 2004.

Depth: 24
Verve: 24
Detail: 15
Student Perspective: 23
Total: 86

Fiske Guide to Colleges 2006 by Edward B. Fiske with Robert Logue, 774 pages, $22.95

The Fiske Guide is popular: Fans say the amount of information strikes the right balance—there’s enough so it’s useful but not unwieldy. Personally, I find the book strong on student perspective but lacking in verve and details. For instance, it says many Harvard students find “the most rewarding form of instruction is the sophomore and junior tutorial, a small-group directed study in a student’s field of concentration.” I have heard frequent complaints from Harvard undergraduates about these often poorly organized bull sessions.

The summaries of each profile aptly pinpoint what students may want to know about a particular school. In a profile of the University of Maryland, College Park, Fiske speaks directly to the needs of students seeking more challenging academic environs by highlighting the College Park Scholar program’s classes for high-achieving admittees. It also points out that Vanderbilt’s strengths in business and engineering are rare among Southern schools, which applicants may want to consider.

Depth: 22
Verve: 22
Detail: 19
Student Perspective: 23
Total: 86

The Unofficial, Biased Guide to the 331 Most Interesting Colleges 2005 by the staff of Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, 720 pages, $19

Since the title mentions bias, this is a good time to point out that Kaplan is part of the Washington Post Co. So is Slatemagazine. So am I—I’ve been a Washington Post reporter for 34 years. But I have tried to be objective, and the Unofficial, Biased Guide deserves high marks. It helpfully exposes students’ real feelings about issues. For instance, some Dickinson College students find the campus “a little too close for comfort, and grow tired of seeing the same people, day in and day out.” A junior at Providence College says, “Homework is not necessary for a solid grade in my classes.”

Kaplan admissions experts Trent Anderson and Seppy Basili used to brighten the volume with wry judgments of each school. An “Experts Say” box has replaced their insight, but the editors have preserved some of their best lines. On Ithaca College: “Get ready to spend four years tripping over Cornell students.”

Depth: 23
Verve: 23
Detail: 20
Student Perspective: 23
Total: 89

The Best 361 Colleges 2006 by the Princeton Review, 810 pages, $21.95

TheBest 361 Colleges takes a refreshingly playful approach—a good read for someone who knows little about colleges. I like the mischief-making rankings, based on student surveys of which college are most likely to have “Dorms Like Dungeons” or “Students Most Nostalgic for Bill Clinton.” The profiles are also lively and full of student quotes—one freshman at Kenyon remarks, “It is odd for me, as a 4.0-plus high-school student, to hope for a C in my science classes”; a West Point cadet comments that students “get graded on how well they beat up their classmates.” It offers “The Inside Word,” too, a quick and helpful summary of what makes each school unique. Students also get the all-important sense of whether they have a chance at acceptance.

By providing the most complete and colorful feel for each school, The Best 361 Colleges comes closer than any other guide to putting you on each campus. And when it’s not always possible to visit each and every school in person, what more can you ask for?

Depth: 23
Verve: 24
Detail: 20
Student Perspective: 23
Total: 90