Which college guides are best?

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Oct. 4 2005 11:38 AM

The Old College Try

Which reference guides will help you find the right school?

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

Barron's Profiles of American Colleges 2005
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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

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

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.

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