Lord of the Flies

by William Golding

The Hired Girl

Laura Amy Schlitz

College Guides: Which is Best?

College Guides: Which is Best?
Fiske Guide to Colleges is my go-to guide of choice. Here's why.

Fiske Guide to Colleges is my go-to college guide. Here's why.

A college guidebook can help you find the college of your dreams. If it's the right guidebook.

My personal favorite? Fiske Guide to Colleges: I think it strikes just the right balance between opinion and facts. But you might like a college guide with a little less verbiage—or a little more flair. Great news: I’ve read them all so you don’t have to.

Here’s my recap of the strengths and weaknesses of the other major college guidebooks out there. Which is right for you?

Read on and find out.

The Insider's Guide to the Colleges, 2015

by the Staff of the Yale Daily News, 1,024 pages.

The-Insiders-Guide-to-the-Colleges-2015-Students-on-Campus-Tell-You-What-You-Really-Want-to-KnowIf you’re looking for a breezy read about life at various colleges throughout the United States, the staff of the Yale Daily News has the college guidebook for you. The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges specializes in straight-talk from students like this Wellesley College psych major, who describes her classmates as “incredibly energetic and brilliant—or…otherwise psychotic.”

And what other college guide will give you the low-down on UC San Diego’s Watermelon Pageant? (“The weirdest thing I’ve seen on campus,” confides one student.)

Answer: No other guide.

The Insider’s Guide offers a virtual on-campus weekend at “slightly over 300 colleges.” If the college of your choice is one of the colleges of this guide’s choice, you’ll find insights you won’t find anyplace else. But you won’t find much in the way of facts, beyond the basic stuff you can find anywhere.

And if you want help seeking schools that offer particular activities and resources to help you make the most of your college experience, you’ll have to seek elsewhere.

Perhaps it’s just as well. The Insider’s Guide appears to be rather loosely edited. A spot check suggested that many of its profiles haven’t been updated for a few years. That’s not a problem if the information is still accurate. Too often, it’s not.

Northwestern University, for example, admitted around 13% of its applicants, so don’t get your hopes up when The Insider’s Guide reports that figure as 26%. Maybe it seems like I’m nit-picking. But when you’re looking at colleges, details like that matter.

The Insider’s Guide is a bit like spending the weekend at your older brother’s fraternity. You’ll have a good time, but let’s face it: Learning isn’t really the point. Look to The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges for additional insight once you’ve already settled on your list of schools. Just don’t begin your search here.

Four-Year Colleges, 2015

by Peterson's, 1697 pages.

Four-Year Colleges, 2015 by Peterson'sIf The Insider’s Guide is somebody’s friendly frat brother, Peterson’s Four-Year Colleges 2015 is your guidance counselor.

If, that is, your guidance counselor is really slick.

If this hypothetical guidance counselor of yours is anything like Peterson’s doorstop-of-a-guide, she’ll have the essential facts on any of 2,500 four-year colleges ready for your inspection. She’ll have indexed the colleges not only by competitiveness, cost, and region, but by academic major. (Want to major in Swedish? You’ll be applying to Brigham Young University.)

And she’ll nurture valuable relationships with key college admissions officials by selling you on their schools, whether the places are right for you or not.

Like I said, “slick.”

When it comes to identifying target schools, Peterson’s college guidebook is an outstanding resource. But it undermines its credibility by including in-depth profiles of 230 schools, who provided Peterson’s with the copy and paid Peterson’s to include them in its guide.

Yes, you’ll pay $25 for Peterson’s magnificent data bank…and several hundred pages of advertising. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. Just sayin’…

College Handbook, 2015

by The College Board 2,312 pages.

College Handbook 2015 All New 52nd Edition The College BoardIf Peterson’s is an ethically-challenged guidance counselor, College Handbook 2015 is your Dad’s lawyer.

Your Dad’s tax lawyer. Thorough, exacting, authoritative. And so very, very dull.

But we don’t go to the College Board for entertainment, right? (That’s why we have the Yale Daily News.) No, we go to the College Board, and its massive compendium of facts and figures, for, well, facts and figures. Lots of them.

Admit stats? Check.
Freshman class profile? Check.
Tuition and room & board fees? Check.

And doubled-checked.

If you're looking for take-it-to-the-bank-reliability, look no further than The College Board’s College Handbook, 2015. It may not help you find your perfect school, at least not the way some of these other college guidebooks can, but it's as close as you'll get to the reference standard for essential college admissions data. That makes this guide as indispensable as any tax lawyer we know.

Even if it's not quite as entertaining.

Best Colleges, 2015

by U.S. News, 352 pages.

Best Colleges 2015 USNewsMy mother warned me about boys like this. Handsome. Accomplished. Trouble.

U.S. News’ guide is the looker of the bunch. It’s got terrific features like “A-Plus Schools for B Students,” “Nine Ways to Convince Admissions You’re a Winner,” up-close profiles of successful college applicants, and one heck of a tidy tutorial on how to pay for college.

It’s packed with info. Well-researched. Well-written. Downright dangerous.

That’s right: Dangerous. U.S. News hasn’t met a college it doesn’t want to rank, and rank it does. “Best” National Universities. “Best” National Liberal Arts Colleges. “Best” Regional Universities. “Best” Regional Colleges. “Best” Historically Black Colleges. “Best” Business Programs. “Best” Engineering Programs.

All of which begs the question: “Best” for whom?

U.S. News is the birthplace of college ranking mania, so their enthusiasm for quantifying the unquantifiable is understandable. But don’t be taken in: The “best” college for you is the college that helps you make the most of your potential. (Check out our survey of the colleges attended by some of the brightest and most accomplished young professionals included in Forbes magazine’s 30 under 30 honor roll.)

If you think you can resist the siren call of U.S. News’ “Best,” by all means, help yourself. Otherwise, listen to your mother and stick with the nerd.

Profiles of American Colleges, 2015

by Barron’s College Division Staff, 1,680 pages.

Barrons Profiles of American Colleges 2015If U.S. NewsBest Colleges 2015 is the dashing seducer, Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges, 2015 is Marian the Librarian, curating and indexing anything you might want to know about any college you've ever heard of.

Let your fingers do the walking through Barron's index of college majors, for example, and you‘ll find that Cal Polytechnic State is the only school in the country to offer a major in “wine and viticulture.”

Like I always say, you really can’t put a price on a good librarian.

Do you need this particular librarian to find this information by yourself, for free, online? Nope! Marian’s a librarian, you see, not an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. Which means Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges doesn’t offer funny quotes, incisive analysis, or, really, anything original.

It just offers lots of information, conveniently organized, at a reasonable price.

Buy the book and Barron’s will give you access to its online college search engine. You can swim through their ocean of data to match your particular strengths and interests to the admissions requirements and academic programs of every accredited four-year college in North America (or—warning, shameless self-promotion and metaphor-mixing here—hire me as your guide through the jungle).

Choosing the Right College, 2014-15

by John Zmirak, 992 pages.

Choosing the Right CollegeChoosing the Right College is the Young Republican of this group. It’s well-dressed. It knows its stuff. It yearns for the return of President Reagan.

OK, that may (or may not) be a stretch. But there's no doubt that John Zmirak’s survey of 148 U.S. institutions of higher learning will resonate with those who believe that the PC-police have gone too far, at least on the nation’s campuses.

A student at Amherst College, for example, warns that “many courses in English and history are hotbeds of postcolonialism, feminism, cultural relativism, revisionist history, and other postmodern fads…” On the other hand, we’re told that Ave Maria University, “combines a strong curriculum with a spirit of ‘joyful fidelity to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.’”

Zmirak has a point of view all right. “Colleges long ago threw out the prescribed courses in English literature, Renaissance art, and European and U.S. history that every liberal arts student used to take,” he writes.

His creation is something of a cultural conservative’s Consumer Reports to Higher Education. “We investigate each school’s ‘general education’ requirements to see whether they add up to a real liberal arts education—and show you how to put your education together yourself when the requirements fall short.”

Or when you find yourself in a hotbed of postcolonial feminist relativism.

The Other College Guide

by Paul Glastris, Jane Sweetland, and the staff of Washington Monthly, 256 pages.

washington montly the other college guideThen again, postcolonial feminist relativism might be your thing. In that case, The Other College Guide may be your cup of organic green tea.

The Other College Guide takes a stridently populist approach to its task. "Other books cater (though they don't come right out and say so) mostly to students from well-to-do families to get into the most exclusive, priciest schools," the authors write. "The Other College Guide is for every student. Whether you're rich, poor, or in the middle, or get straight As or mostly Cs, this book will help you find a challenging, high-quality school that's right for you."

No question about it: The Other College Guide is committed to the pursuit of self-knowledge. Its "Career Clusters Interest Survey" helps steer your thought towards careers that reflect your interests and activities. Its questionnaires help you get in touch with your passions, your personality type. And once it's helped you gain a little wisdom, The Other College Guide is there with the data on which careers offer what salaries, and how much you might want to think about paying to major in a subject that will send you down that particular career path.

It all sounds great, right? And, for the most part, it is. I love the fact that The Other College Guide lists what it considers to be the nation's best community colleges, and offers advice on transferring from two-year institutions to four-year colleges. All that said, there's a catch.

This college guide's "Best-Bang-For-The-Buck" ranking system is, well, distinctive. Some might say downright idiosyncratic. Only one Ivy League school (Harvard) earns a spot in its top ten; Brown, Columbia, Cornell, and Yale don't make the top 50. Texas A&M, meanwhile, is ranked ahead of both Harvard and Stanford.

The Other College Guide—like Choosing the Right College—also has an axe to grind. You might think of one as Bernie Sanders, the other Jeb Bush. Both have an agenda, but at least you know where they're coming from.

The Best 379 Colleges, 2015 Edition

by Princeton Review, 880 pages.

The Best 379 CollegesPolitics, shmolitics. Sometimes, girls just want to have fun. Say hello to Princeton Review’s The Best 379 Colleges.

Think of it as Most Popular, Class Clown, and Most Likely to Succeed, all rolled into one. Princeton Review makes the college search easy and fun with a college profile format that enables fast, efficient comparisons of one school to another.

My favorite feature? Its ranking lists, which fall into 62 categories, culled from surveys of 130,000 students, few of which beg to be taken too seriously.

There’s “Most Beautiful Campus” (First Place: Colgate University), and “Least Beautiful Campus” (First Place: University of Dallas). “Best Campus Food” (First Place: Virginia Tech) and “Is it Food?” (First Place: United States Merchant Marine Academy). “Best College Library” (First Place: The University of Chicago), “This is a Library?” (First Place: Clarkson University). “Most Accessible Professors” (First Place: United States Military Academy), “Least Accessible Professors” (First Place: McGill University).

Oh, and my favorite:

“Reefer Madness” (First place: Skidmore College) and “Don’t Inhale” (First Place: US Coast Guard Academy).

The Ultimate Guide to America's Best Colleges

by Gen Tanabe and Kelly Tanabe, 9756 pages.

The Ultimate Guide to America's Best CollegesThe Ultimate Guide is our Jeopardy champion. It’s nearly ten thousand pages long. So, if facts are your thing, The Ultimate Guide may be your ultimate guide.

What’s good: It’s comprehensive. Gosh, is it ever. It lists the strengths and weaknesses of each college, clearly and succinctly. Every profile appears to have been freshly updated with this edition. (That said—pro tip—be sure to check any facts about tuition, fees, and financial aid against the information offered for free at the College Board’s website. Even the most up-to-date guide can be out of date in those areas by the time it rolls off the press.)

What’s maybe not-so-good: The listings are alphabetical, kind of like one of those old phone books (which it dwarfs, by the way). So you’re not going to be able to browse by region or type. And it’s about as fun to read as, you guessed it, a phone book. Plus, you won’t find any student insights in this data dump.

But if facts are your thing, The Ultimate Guide may just be the right guide for you. “Alex, I’ll take The Ivy League for $400,000…”

Which college guides are your favorites?
Leave a comment and let us know!

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