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The 4 Books Every College Student Should Read Before Graduating

The books you read and connect with in college are something like first loves.

Steven Spatz

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graduation books students

The life of a college student can be a grind. I still remember it after all these years. But my daughter, Sara, who’s finishing undergrad at Temple University, is providing me with something of a living reminder. Through her, I’ve relived what it’s like to tackle mountains of weekly assignments, class projects, seminars, and lectures.

And, moreover, I’ve been reminded of the immense amount of reading students are subjected to — textbooks and articles, essays and marketing tomes. Often, when I wake up in the middle of the night and step into the hall, I see a rim of light outlining Sara’s closed door, and I know she’s still up, reading.

Because reading is such an arduous and time-consuming task in college, it can be lost on college students just how formative and instructive the books you read during this time are. 

The books you read and connect with in college are something like first loves. They inform your conception of self; they begin to teach you how to be. It’s a shame that the labor-intensive nature of reading for classes takes so much of the fun out of it.

So it dawned on me, the other day, that before Sara dons her cap and gown in a few weeks, I should come up with for her a few books which I believe to be life-changing — books which today’s college students aren’t tasked explicitly to read, but should be. These books, in my opinion, prepare young people for the next impending phase of life — for the new project of becoming a professional and an adult.

Here’s what’s on my list so far.

1) How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

This is the grandfather of all people-skills books. First published in 1937, there’s a reason why it’s remained one of the best selling self-help books of all time. Its lessons are both timeless and universal. To succeed in your first job — and in life, so it suggests — you must be able to relate to people. It’s seemingly obvious advice that nevertheless proves invaluable.

Carnegie’s understanding of human nature has helped millions of people develop interpersonal skills which are themselves conducive to personal success. In the book, he writes that a person’s success is due 15 percent to professional knowledge, and 85 percent to “the ability to express ideas, to assume leadership, and to arouse enthusiasm among people.”

It’s salient wisdom. Even today, the key lessons of this book help me in my role as President of BookBaby.

2) Lean In for Graduates by Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg is a great role model for all young people but especially for young women. She’s garnered a reputation for herself in an industry largely dominated by men.

In this book — a reprint of her original Lean In, updated with information specific to female college students — she details how she found her first job, negotiated a reasonable and fair salary, and advocated for herself. She also interviews experts and successful members of the workforce to provide additional inspiration and perspective.

Personally, in my first reading of this book, I was struck by Sandberg’s letter encouraging graduates to reach deep inside themselves to find and commit to work they love.

3) What You’re Really Meant To Do: A Road Map For Reaching Your Unique Potential by Robert Kaplan

My next recommendation is perfect for young men and women who are seeking that first job. It poses the key question: is there a road map that will enable you to defy conventional wisdom, resist peer pressure, and carve out a path that fits your unique skills and passions?

Kaplan — a leadership expert — believes the answer is yes. And in What You’re Really Meant To Do, he lays out an action plan for defining your own success and reaching your potential.

While it’s a stretch to try defining your career while you’re still scrambling for entry-level interviews, Kaplan’s action plan contains critical advice, such as the need for graduates to identify long-term goals. From day one, Kaplan argues, it’s possible to take control of your career and build your capabilities in a way that fits your passions and aspirations.

4) The Entrepreneur Mind: 100 Essential Beliefs, Characteristics, and Habits of Elite Entrepreneurs by Kevin Johnson

Finally, I’m a firm believer that high achievers, at their core, nurture an entrepreneurial spirit. I look for such a spirit in the new staffers I hire for my self-publishing company, BookBaby.

Johnson’s book is essentially an instruction manual on how to develop and hone entrepreneurial ambition and verve. His lessons range from high-level — “How to think big,” — to granular: “Avoid opening a business bank account.” I believe perhaps the most important lesson, though, is that an entrepreneurial spirit can be developed over time.

When I watch my daughter graduate in a few weeks, I’ll know that most of her formal education has come to an end. That means no more assigned reading for class assignments or slogging through textbooks. But that doesn’t mean she should stop learning. 

Reading enables lifelong growth and encourages a commitment to continuous personal development — a common trait among history’s leading thought leaders, influencers, and change makers.

And that, ultimately, is why I want Sara and any college kids reading this article to check out the four books above. With any luck, they’ll avail for you the importance of forever seeking a more excellent future.

Steven Spatz is a writer, marketer, and the President of BookBaby, the nation’s leading eBook and printed book distributor.

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