4 Must Read Books For College Students


I read a New York Times article today about assigned summer reading for incoming college freshmen across the country. The article discussed the prevalence of summer reading assignments and the different selections made by various schools. Within the first few paragraphs, I read the following quote: “The books are almost always tied to current events and often make strong statements on issues like immigration, race and the perils of technology.” This quote really frustrates me. Regardless of the message – liberal, conservative – republican, democrat – pro this or anti that – colleges are assigning books to incoming freshman that “often make strong statements” on current events. Before you, as a student, even step foot on campus, the college is telling you how to think.

Obviously, college is a time where you should be confronted with ideas that make you a little uncomfortable. It is a place where you will form opinions, learn to back up your opinions, and hopefully learn to change some of your opinions when presented with a better argument. College is a time to open your mind and see the world from a different perspective – a time to stray from where you grew up and try something new. While I do think these potentially controversial books have a place in college, I think that place is in a classroom and assigned by a professor, not made to be required reading and promoted by the school as a whole.

Some further thought on this article led me to ask myself what books I have found most beneficial. What books would I recommend to an incoming freshman? Below is the list that I came up with. These are books that have shaped the way I live my life. They have made me more effective and balanced both personally and professionally. So here’s my recommendation: pick up at least one of these books before you head to school in August. Read all of them before you graduate. Take notes (this is a good method) and revisit them when you have questions. These books will serve you well both in college and in life. And if they were required reading from a college, the only message the college would send is: “we want you to be the best possible version of yourself.”

1. Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

This is absolutely a book on leadership, but before you write it off, let me explain how it helped me. First, let me be very clear that I don’t currently hold any leadership positions. That being said, I still found this book extremely valuable.

The principal of extreme ownership is the idea that you are the owner of everything in your world. You are accountable and responsible for everything. When you own everything in your world, you never think “poor me,” but you do think about the outcome that happened and determine what you could’ve done to receive the outcome that you wanted. As soon as you are able to make this mental shift, I promise good things will start happening for you.

Some other good points of focus in the book include prioritizing, the importance of planning and simplicity, discipline, and something that the authors call, “leading up the chain of command.” That last point is particularly useful for anyone in college or in the early stages of his or her career.

One of the best parts about this book is its format. Each chapter focuses on one principle of leadership. The authors, being former Navy SEALS, illustrate each principle with an example from the battle field. Then they illustrate the same principle with an example from the corporate world. I find that I learn best through examples, and this book offers two distinct examples for each lesson, making it very easy to comprehend and put into practice. 

Pick up a copy to hone your leadership skills for athletics, group projects, student government, and clubs and organizations. Or pick up a copy if you want to be the best, most effective version of yourself.

2. I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi

This is the definitive beginner book on personal finance. I didn’t read this book until after I had finished college, but it made a world of difference, and I wish that I had read it a few years earlier. Sethi covers everything you need to know to get on the track to financial wellness, including building credit, using credit cards responsibly, saving, budgeting, investing and setting up simple systems to maintain your financial health.

The best parts about this book are the examples (I love examples), diagrams, external resources, and Sethi’s conversational tone. Reading the book feels more like getting advice from your older brother over a beer than slogging through a boring personal finance book.

Another extremely valuable advantage of this book is the way the author encourages you to think about what being rich means to you. Being “rich” is different to every person, and if you don’t know what your goal is, then you might be trudging aimlessly in the wrong direction.

Pick up this book if you want to save yourself the stress of logging into your banking app and wondering if you have enough money to make it out for Thirsty Thursday.

3. The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday

In college, as in high school, you will encounter road bumps that may set you off course. Maybe you will fail a class, get a residence hall write-up or bomb an internship interview. Maybe your obstacles won’t even be related to school –  a death in the family, a major illness or a bad break up. Regardless of what your setbacks are, you will have them. This book teaches you how to overcome those setbacks and come out stronger on the other side.

The Obstacle Is The Way is actually a book on philosophy, but you would never know it. Holiday takes the principles of Stoicism and illustrates them through various anecdotes about some of the most successful people who have ever lived.

In addition to examples, I love to learn through stories. The best part about this book is the multitude of stories about people such as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, Nick Saban, Steve Jobs and countless others. I guarantee this book will leave you with at least two or three stories right at the front of your mind that you won’t forget. And along with the story, you will remember the important principle for conquering your setbacks.

Through perception, action and will, Holiday teaches us to turn our obstacles into opportunities.

Pick up this book if you want to improve your resilience and prepare yourself for the inevitable setbacks that you will face. 

4. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

It turns out, as Duhigg explains in The Power of Habit, that the act of forming habits is the key to success. Duhigg delves into the science behind the formation and changing of habits, and he explains why this information is important.

In the writing style of Malcolm Gladwell or Stephen Dubner, The Power of Habit explains scientific findings through stories, examples and case studies. Each principle is clearly illustrated through examples from Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and the accomplishments of well-known historical figures. The writing style makes the science relatable and easy to remember, and the book is an overall enjoyable read.

Forming good habits and breaking bad habits are two of the most important things you need to do as a college student. These will set the foundation for success in your academic career and in life after college.

Pick up a copy to save yourself the time and headache of trying to figure out the best way to build good habits. 

There you have it! My definitive recommendations on must read books for college students. Honestly, I would recommend these books to anyone who is trying to be efficient, effective and successful, not just college students. I didn’t read any of them until after I had graduated, but I have no doubt that the wisdom from their pages would have greatly increased my success.

Happy reading and best wishes for success in all of your endeavors!