17 Books You Should Read Before (or at) University – chosen by students

From inspiring novels to frank discussions of sexuality, these are the books students wish they had read to ease the transition to university and prepare for a new stage in their academic and personal lives.
March 3 2016

Forget the piles of textbooks or the long academic reading lists; preparing for university is as much about preparing for a whole new stage of life as it is about broadening your intellectual horizons.

And to help you along your journey of self-discovery, 12 students from Singapore to Germany have recommended the books – both fiction and non-fiction – that they wish they had read to help with their own transition.

Covering family issues, new friends, mental health, sexuality, study strategies, independence and intellectual inspiration, these are the motivational, provocative and also comforting reads you need on your bookshelf.

Do you agree with this list? Share your opinions or add recommendations in the comments.

17 Books You Should Read Before (or at) University

(Descriptions and student reviews below)

  1. What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 by Teena Seelig
  2. The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
  3. Picture by Lillian Ross
  4. Letters to a Law Student by Nicholas J. McBride
  5. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
  6. Unbecoming by Jenny Downham
  7. Sane New World by Ruby Wax
  8. I Am NOT Going to School Today by Robie H. Harris
  9. How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport
  10. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
  11. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel
  12. The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
  13. The Defining Decade by Meg Jay 
  14. The Bible
  15. Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella
  16. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
  17. Before You Leap –  a self-help ‘autobiographical’ book by Kermit the Frog 

  - Best universities for arts and humanities


1. What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 by Teena Seelig

The executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, Teena Seelig, provides personal stories of people going beyond expectations and challenging the status quo, adding her own advice about how to reach your potential when you transition to a new stage in life.

Recommended by Melisa Junata, a biomedical engineering student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, originally from Indonesia.

 

2. The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

“I wish I would have read this before embarking on the exciting journey that is studying.”

This collection of personal essays by a recent Yale graduate, published after she died in a car crash, became a best-seller, provoking young people to reflect on what they really want from life.

Recommended by Felix Simon, who is studying for his BA in film and media studies and English studies at Goethe-University Frankfurt, Germany.

 

3. Picture by Lillian Ross

“Written in 1952, it is as relevant today as it was in the ’50s and makes you understand how the (Western) film industry really works.”

Recommended by Felix Simon, who is studying for his BA in film and media studies and English studies at Goethe-University Frankfurt, Germany.

 

4. Letters to a Law Student by Nicholas J. McBride

“In this book, the author sets out the various stages in the career path of an aspiring lawyer in the form of answering the letters of a law student. The title of this book is somewhat misleading as he not only answers hard-core law questions but deals with issues prior to the first year at university and explains the transition from A level.

“Much advice is general and so helps aspiring university-goers who will be non-law students. It’s a great book; it taught me organisational skills that are essential to being an independent learner and researcher, taking ‘independent’ to a whole new level of self-motivation.

“The author challenges independent thinking, the reader’s current problem-solving skills and an eye for detail by not just throwing a whole load of theory at him/her, but demonstrating the challenges through exercises at the back of almost each letter. Responses are revealed at the end of the book with detailed explanations as to why the answer is X, not Y. It’s an entertaining read as the language is adapted to a young adult reader, and it departs from otherwise fancy vocabulary associated with adult advice.”

Recommended by Noorin Malik, a law student at the University of Leeds, originally from Germany.

 

5. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

“It’s one of the only Young Adult books that covers university life instead of just before or just after! It follows family issues, anxiety and new friendships all throughout the narrator’s first year, and it’s a really easy and fun read. It's a really different view on the typical fiction about university being all drinking and new friends, but is still really optimistic – a must-read for anyone who doesn’t feel like they fit the stereotypical loud, partying university mould!”

Recommended by Katie Hodgkinson, a medical student at University College London.

 

6. Unbecoming by Jenny Downham

“It covers so many issues but isn’t an ‘issues’ book; sexuality, dementia, learning difficulties and family issues are all covered sensitively while woven into three beautiful stories from three women in three generations of one family. It gives the holistic view that so many healthcare professionals lose when they’re bogged down in patient statistics and science – that actually, the scientific answer might not actually be the best depending on the personality and history of the person in question.”

Recommended by Katie Hodgkinson, a medical student at University College London.

 

7. Sane New World by Ruby Wax

“I’m not big on non-fiction, and I’d never read a self-help book until this one – and I finished it feeling like everyone should have this one their bookshelf. I read it all in one go, but it’s the perfect book to dip in and out of, when you feel like you need it. Going to university, and staying at university, is a really transformative time; and sometimes, we all need a helping hand. This book is really good at offering this in a very non-patronising way, talking about solutions as well as problems. Ruby Wax makes it clear that this book is not just for people who suffer with labelled mental health issues, be it anxiety or depression, but for everyone – because we’ve all felt stressed or isolated or scared, whether it’s about meeting new people, finishing your essay or getting used to a new city with new people. Read it before you go, and then take it with you. A little bit of mindfulness never did anyone any harm.”

Recommended by Laura Warner, studying geography at University College London.

 

8. I Am NOT Going to School Today by Robie H. Harris

“I’m pretty sure that my first day at university was far scarier than my first day of school. There was no colouring, no stories, no playtime and no one made me a packed lunch. There was also no one to make me go. We all have memories of telling our parents that, no matter what, we were categorically, absolutely not possibly ever going to school the next day – and then, sure enough, being bundled into the car or on to the bus at 8am the next day. No one’s there making you go to university, you can stay in bed if you want to, and skip the first day. This book that reminds us that the first day is never as scary as we think and that, on the second day, we’ll have friends, we’ll know where places are and what we need to do. It also reminds us that if you need to take a toy monkey with you on your first day, that is OK.”

Recommended by Laura Warner, studying geography at University College London.

 

9. How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport

“This book is a very straightforward guide to university life. It is brief and gives different, clear strategies for studying, preparing for exams, organising your appointments and how to avoid procrastinating. It does so in an easily readable and funny style. In short, the book offers a few simple but effective strategies to get your studying organised, so that you can also enjoy your social life, sleep and personal hobbies to the fullest extent possible in a full academic schedule.”

Recommended by Melisande Riefler, studying at United World College in Germany. She has applied through Ucas for university in the UK.

 

10. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot tells the story of three Brown University graduates, focusing initially on their life at university and then on their life after. This novel gives a refreshing contrast to the typical romantic ending and lets the reader experience the struggles and adventures of three young people trying to find themselves in a complex world. Written in a gripping and beautiful style, with funny and very serious moments, this is a truly enjoyable novel for readers before and after university, those who read a lot and those who read rarely.”

Recommended by Melisande Riefler, studying at United World College in Germany. She has applied through Ucas for university in the UK.

 

11. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel

“As a social science student, a book I would really recommend is Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel. It gives a really well-structured, easy-to-read introduction to critical thinking and moral issues, and there’s a lot of content in my lectures that reminds me of this book!”

Recommended by Lu Allan, studying philosophy, politics and sociology at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.

 

12. The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

“We’re often too afraid to ask for help, because to ask for help is to feel like you’re being ‘weak’. So we bottle all of it inside and get stressed out. Amanda Palmer’s book is an honest and genuine reminder to all of us that sometimes, it’s OK to open up and throw yourself into the embrace of family and loved ones. It is a reminder that people care, and we should give ourselves the opportunity to be surprised when help comes from the most unexpected of places.”

Recommended by Nicolette Tan, studying political science at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States. She is originally from Singapore.

 

13. The Defining Decade by Meg Jay 

“We are the ‘30 is the new 20’ generation, and we’re told that we should explore and make all our mistakes in our twenties, and that it doesn’t matter. As a graduating senior, I cannot help but meet my ‘adult life’ with trepidation and fear. The Defining Decade draws from scientific studies done on twenty-somethings as well as anecdotes and stories from twenty-somethings, and puts together an assembly of information on how work, relationships, personality, social networks, identity and even the brain can change more during this decade than at any other time in adulthood – if we use the time wisely. A fun, smart and constructive read.”

Recommended by Nicolette Tan, studying political science at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States. She is originally from Singapore.

 

14. The Bible

“The Bible – a manual for life. Going through different stories in the Old and the New Testament empowers one to make better decisions. Every single thing and situation we see ourselves in growing out of our parents’ home into independence is there: friends’ betrayal (Judas Iscariot), family hatred (Joseph and his brothers who sold him into slavery; David and Abesalom), fear of the unknown (Jonah), temptation and sexual immorality (Judah and Tamar); rape (Amon and Tamar, who were brother and sister). But then we also have the beauty of friendship (David and Jonathan), the persistence of becoming great (Jacob), never-give-up spirit (Job), united families (Joseph and Mary) and, above all, true love (the love of Jesus towards mankind). So, everything and anything can be found in the Bible. And I’m strongly convinced, irrespective of your religion, that you’ll enjoy it. It’s fun to read! Personally, being a Christian has helped me a lot through my university years to overcome challenges (ie, family, friends, finance, career goals, relationships). I literally owe God my life!”

Recommended by Deborah Busari, studying for a master’s in economics of international business and finance at the University of Reading, UK. She is originally from Sofia, Bulgaria.

 

15. Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

“With university providing many opportunities to spend, spend, spend, Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella is a perfect read for every fresher, male or female. The book focuses on Becky Bloomwood, a financial journalist whose idea of managing finances is throwing credit card bills under the bed: out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. This pushes Becky into a world of spiralling debt, bank managers and upset – something not uncommon in our credit-obsessed world. I love this book, not because it’s hilarious and extremely relatable, but because it includes hidden stories and meanings behind the well-humoured print. What on face value appears a comic look at the shopaholic tendencies of women actually delves deep into the tapestry of our society, and this is why I think it's an essential read before university.”

Recommended by Olivia Firth, studying management at the University of York, UK.

 

16. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

“This self-help book really allows university students to learn how to manage their time wisely. A timely publication that is universally acclaimed.”*

Recommended by Tobias Jones, studying for a master’s in Middle Eastern studies at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He is originally from the UK.

*For a more reliable description of the book, see here.

 

17. Before You Leap – a self-help ‘autobiographical’ book by Kermit the Frog

“One book that is definitely a fun read is Before You Leap, a self-help ‘autobiographical’ book by Kermit the Frog. I received this book as a high school graduation gift, and in turn have gifted it to friends for university graduations. Covering topics from romance, to settling into a career and managing your finances, Kermit offers some fun and fresh advice for anyone going through a transitional period in their lives. An optimistic outlook from the swamp, Kermit’s wit and wisdom is more profound than expected!”

Recommended by Amanda Battistuzzi, studying for a bachelor of education at Laurentian University, Canada.

Reader's comments (1)

A short history of nearly everything by Bill Bryson, compulsory reading for everyone - teenagers and older

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