Summer Reading for the College-Bound Student

Last updated: Jul 10, 2019

Can reading Harry Potter prepare you for freshman year? Yes, Potterheads, you’ll be happy to know that you can count Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as part of your college prep. Studies have shown that reading fiction changes your brain in a positive way. Novels sweep you into new experiences, broaden your worldview, and increase your ability to empathize, making you a stronger college applicant.

Maybe you’ve never experienced the magic of a good read. Or maybe you’re like Hermione Granger and you just can’t shorten your book list. Either way, we hope you’ll benefit from our advice and recommendations on summer reading for the college-bound student.

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Why Should You Read?

A good book tricks us into believing that we’re actually there, experiencing the events in the story. Your brain “does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life,” according to The New York Times. When you read about Harry Potter flicking his wand, it stimulates the area of your brain associated with that movement. When Harry sniffs his hot cocoa, it activates your brain’s primary olfactory cortex, as though you are smelling the chocolate yourself. And when Harry loses Hedwig, your brain lights up with mirrored heartbreak.

We don’t just experience a character’s actions: We feel their emotions. This helps us become more in tune with the feelings of others, whether they exist in the pages of a book or our daily lives. Reading literary fiction can make you more empathetic, an essential skill for college and for life. Empathy has been linked to stronger career opportunities and (unsurprisingly) better relationships, among other benefits.

Your summer may already be packed with extracurriculars, part-time jobs, and college exam prep, but it’s worth carving out time for a novel. And if we haven’t already convinced you, just know that reading books may help you live longer.

What Should You Read?

The first rule: There are no rules. This summer, enjoy the freedom of reading whatever grabs your interest. You can follow our guidelines and recommendations to help you make the most of your summer fiction, though.

Books that Challenge You

Just as you might push yourself with a rigorous workout, grow your mental muscles with a novel that features:

  • Challenging vocabulary. It’s OK if you don’t understand every word of a novel. Just scribble down any unfamiliar terms, then look them up after you’ve finished the chapter. Bonus points if you put the new vocabulary word on your fridge and use it in conversation that day.
  • Challenging content. Look for stories with complex characters and situations. As you decode character motivation and story meaning, you’ll hone your critical thinking skills.

The classics are a good place to start. Readers have been captivated by their complicated characters for centuries. Shakespeare wrote his plays over 400 years ago, and we still can’t decide whether Hamlet was crazy or psychic. You’ll also find plenty of interesting protagonists in literary fiction, which pays special attention to human emotions.

These tips can help you step outside your comfort zone and tackle a challenging read:

  • Set aside an uninterrupted block of reading time, at least 20 minutes or more.
  • Choose your ideal reading environment, whether that means the comfort of your bed, the hum of a coffee shop, or the serenity of the beach.
  • Read the front and back cover of the book first. This speed-reading technique will give you a glimpse into the plot, characters, and theme.

Recommended Reading

Choose from one of Time magazine’s best 100 novels of all time, or peruse one of our picks:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. This dystopian classic offers a bleak but timeless commentary on the oppression of women.
  • Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. Gorgeous literary prose illuminates a violent world in the Ozarks in which young Ree must solve her father’s disappearance.
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison. In this award-winning novel, an escaped slave is haunted by the ghost of her daughter. This video shows you how to unpack the story’s deep meaning.

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Books That Broaden Your Perspective   

Seek out stories written by authors and featuring characters from typically underrepresented groups, including immigrants; cultural, racial, and ethnic minorities; religious minorities; members of the LGBTQ community; and those with disabilities. These books have been called mirrors and windows. For some readers they are mirrors, reflecting their identities where other books have failed. For others they are windows into another’s experience.

Stories can change what we believe, according to researcher Melanie Green. This is partly because we become involved with fictional characters, who can influence us just as much as our real-world peers. In this sense, diverse books are more than windows. We do not remain passive observers of the narrators’ lives — we become their friends. When we emerge from the story world, we can’t help but carry their experiences with us.

Recommended Reading

Like hidden gems, diverse books can be hard to find, but there are many resources to help you discover them. Never hesitate to ask a librarian or teacher for help. Some of our top choices include:

  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. In this bestselling novel, a teenager wrestles with the injustice of police violence after her friend is killed by an officer.
  • Echo After Echo by Amy Rose Capetta. This vibrant young adult novel is part murder mystery, part love story, and entirely an ode to the magic of theater.
  • The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon. In this moving romance, two teenagers, both children of immigrants, fall in love in New York City just hours before one of them is scheduled to be deported.

Books You Love

Take the time to figure out what kinds of books you enjoy. After all, you’re only going to be transported to another world if you like what you’re reading.

As you figure out your preferences, don’t limit yourself to so-called “worthy” or acclaimed books. Go ahead and check out graphic novels, cartoon collections, and genre fiction. After all, your favorite pop fiction could become an award-winning classic in a few years. It’s also totally fine to revisit your childhood favorites. Whether the text is Great Expectations or Green Eggs and Ham, you can practice the same techniques of literary analysis. Let’s take a Dr. Seuss book as an example:

  • Look at language. You can get acquainted with iambic pentameter, which is also found in Shakespeare’s works, by reading Green Eggs and Ham. You can also research what makes Seuss’ nonsense words so hilarious.
  • Inspect your interest. What makes you love the story? Is there a message or theme that resonates with you? You may leapfrog from Dr. Seuss to Lewis Carroll, another author who mastered the art of meaningful nonsense.
  • Examine the writer’s craft. How did Seuss create a story that you love so much? Follow The New York Times book reviewer’s advice: “If a book surprises you or delights you or changes your mind, note how and where and why it did.”

One caveat: There’s nothing wrong with rereading a beloved childhood story, but think carefully before quoting it in your admissions essay. If it’s particularly popular, your favorite quotes may be overused.

Recommended Reading

Browse the latest bestsellers, or choose one of our favorites:

  • The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. In this paranormal young adult fantasy, a group of Virginia teens searches for an ancient Welsh king, only to discover that magic is closer than they’d ever expected.
  • The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma. This chilling young adult mystery switches points of view between a prisoner in a juvenile detention center and a ballerina with a dark secret. You won’t be able to put it down.
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. This literary novel follows a troupe of post-apocalyptic actors creating art amid chaos, believing that survival is insufficient.


The more you read, the better prepared you’ll be for college. Wondering what else you should do to prepare? The USF Office of Admissions is ready to help. Contact us online, or call us at 813-974-3350