Which College Guides Are Best?

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 19, 2005; 8:12 AM

I am not sure why I agreed to write a review of the major college guides. The editor said it would be fun for a recent parent survivor of the admissions process like me to sit in judgment of the big boys. I failed to consider just how big they are.

I have eight major guide books stacked on the kitchen table next to me. Seen in that way, they are frightening, a nearly two-foot-high monument to the American lust for detail. Do I want to spend this lovely summer reading 12,671 pages of very small print? I don't think so.

Help me. Please.

I don't anticipate being unkind to any of these thick volumes of Ivy-oriented minutia. When my daughter was applying to colleges three years ago, and making a pretense of listening to me on the subject, I thought the several guides I read did a good job summarizing each school's strengths and weaknesses.

The ones I used most often were "The Best 331 Colleges" by the Princeton Review and "The Unofficial, Biased Insider's Guide to the 320 Most Interesting Colleges" by Trent Anderson and Seppy Basili of Kaplan Inc. (and as for MY potential bias, it must be said that Kaplan is a very important part of The Washington Post Co., my employer and the company in which a substantial portion of my retirement savings are invested.)

Those two books were fun to read, with jazzy writing and useful rankings of various sorts, such as Princeton Review's playful surveys of which schools were most likely to have "Dorms Like Dungeons" (the State University of New York at Buffalo, my boss's alma mater, was number one) and which tended to admit "Students Most Nostalgic for Bill Clinton" (Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., led that category).

Those particular Kaplan and Princeton Review books were published in 2002 and are now out of date. I will review the 2005 editions, whose titles reveal, as they do each year, a slightly different mix of schools. This year selective Princeton Review guide has 357 colleges and Kaplan has 331. Maybe those books aren't as good as the 2002 versions. Maybe they are better. Tell me what I should know. I welcome e-mails to mathewsj@washpost.com from recent participants in the college admissions process -- students, parents, counselors, teachers. I am particularly interested in how you think Kaplan and Princeton Review, and the books listed below, compare to each other, and if I am neglecting any major guides that helped you. (Don't let the different years fool you. These are all the latest editions.)

"Choosing the Right College" by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2005.

"Complete Book of Colleges" by The Princeton Review, 2005. (I am considering this part of the Princeton Review package along with "The Best 357 Colleges" since they are obviously not in competition with each other.)

"Fiske Guide to Colleges" by Edward B. Fiske, 2005.

"Peterson's Four-Year Colleges" by Thomson Peterson's, 2006.

"The College Board College Handbook" by the College Board, 2006.

"The Insider's Guide to The Colleges" by the Yale Daily News, 2006.

"The Ultimate College Guide" by U.S. News & World Report, 2005.

I will only analyze college guides, books that describe significant numbers of schools. I will not review admission guides, which take readers through the application process but don't devote much space to individual colleges. My reasons for this are: (1) Did I not mention that I need to get out into the summer air? And (2) my views on the subject of admission guides would be deeply suspect because I have written one myself, whose title I am not mentioning here in hopes of retaining some shred of journalistic integrity.

In this review, I am thinking of playing one of those numbers games so popular in rating toasters and beauty contestants and hotels. I would grade each college guide on a 100-point scale. I would give a maximum of 25 points for entertainment value (interesting and amusing writing), 25 points for differentiation (explaining why each school is better or worse than others), 25 points for detail (the most, and the most useful, facts) and 25 points for student perspective (astute opinions from living, breathing undergraduates).

Or something like that. Perhaps there are other facets of a college guide I should consider. My editor, for instance, is interested in what sort of reputation each guide has among prospective readers. What is the buzz at high school lunch hour or during PTA meetings about each book, and which of them live up to their advanced billing?

I notice these books are expensive. (I got them free from the publishers, and plan to donate them to D.C. public school college counselors when I am done.) The Kaplan guide appears to be the cheapest, but still costs $19. Peterson's, the most expensive, is $32. So figuring out which provide the most helpful information is a worthy enterprise.

I noticed, for instance, that the standard two-page descriptions of colleges that fill more than half the pages of one of these books turn out to be, if you bother to read the introduction, advertisements written and paid for by the colleges described. Can they be trusted? Stay tuned, and I will try to figure it out.


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