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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The Unofficial, Biased Guide to the 331 Most Interesting Colleges 2005

The Unofficial, Biased Guide to the 331 Most Interesting Colleges 2005 by the staff of Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, 720 pages, $19

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Since the title mentions bias, this is a good time to point out that Kaplan is part of the Washington Post Co. So is Slatemagazine. So am I—I've been a Washington Post reporter for 34 years. But I have tried to be objective, and the Unofficial, Biased Guide deserves high marks. It helpfully exposes students' real feelings about issues. For instance, some Dickinson College students find the campus "a little too close for comfort, and grow tired of seeing the same people, day in and day out." A junior at Providence College says, "Homework is not necessary for a solid grade in my classes."

Kaplan admissions experts Trent Anderson and Seppy Basili used to brighten the volume with wry judgments of each school. An "Experts Say" box has replaced their insight, but the editors have preserved some of their best lines. On Ithaca College: "Get ready to spend four years tripping over Cornell students."

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The Best 361 Colleges 2006

The Best 361 Colleges 2006 by the Princeton Review, 810 pages, $21.95

TheBest 361 Colleges takes a refreshingly playful approach—a good read for someone who knows little about colleges. I like the mischief-making rankings, based on student surveys of which college are most likely to have "Dorms Like Dungeons" or "Students Most Nostalgic for Bill Clinton." The profiles are also lively and full of student quotes—one freshman at Kenyon remarks, "It is odd for me, as a 4.0-plus high-school student, to hope for a C in my science classes"; a West Point cadet comments that students "get graded on how well they beat up their classmates." It offers "The Inside Word," too, a quick and helpful summary of what makes each school unique. Students also get the all-important sense of whether they have a chance at acceptance.

By providing the most complete and colorful feel for each school, The Best 361 Colleges comes closer than any other guide to putting you on each campus. And when it's not always possible to visit each and every school in person, what more can you ask for?

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Jay Mathews is an education reporter and online columnist for the Washington Post, as well as the author of Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That is Best for You.

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