October 01, 2009


The Best 371 Colleges, 2010 Edition. By Robert Franek, Tom Meltzer, Christopher Maier, Erik Olson, Julie Doherty, and Eric Owens. Princeton Review/Random House. $22.99.

     The silliest thing about this otherwise serious college guide is the implied precision of its title. The number 371 could as easily be, say, 402, or 247, or anything else. Using a number that suggests there is a college No. 372 that somehow didn’t make the grade is as sensible as reading an airline schedule and really believing that a flight will take off at precisely 9:51 and land at exactly 11:13. The precise number is at odds with the Princeton Review’s own statement, “At the end of the day, it’s what YOU think about the schools that matters most.”

     Still, the basic approach of this book makes it an extraordinarily useful guide for high-school students looking for the best match for their individual interests and talents. Yes, the authors provide lists of “great schools for 15 of the most popular undergraduate majors,” and yes, there are lists showing colleges with most-accessible and least-accessible professors, best and worst college libraries, best career services, most-beautiful and least-attractive campuses, and more. But these lists are mere starting points, because the meat of this book is in the form of comments by the schools’ own students – plus a wide variety of statistics that range from the useful (percentage of students admitted from wait list, percentage of professors who teach undergraduates) to the politically correct (“green rating,” which includes such factors as the percentage of food expenditures directed toward “local, organic, or otherwise environmentally preferable food” and whether the school “employs a dedicated full-time [or full-time equivalent] sustainability officer”).

     The best thing to do with The Best 371 Colleges, 2010 Edition, is to use it not as a starting point but as the second step in a college search. That is, after making a preliminary list of colleges that seem attractive because of geography, reputation, majors, cost and whatever other factors you want to consider – using your high school’s college counselor as a primary resource – turn to this book for an excellent overview of each college’s statistics and the opinions of its students. So you will find out that students at Hampshire College (Massachusetts) say they “are normally very good at entertaining” themselves; that “getting involved in the community is second nature” to most students at Ithaca College (New York); that “the party scene at Miami [University of Ohio] is top-notch…[with] tons of bars and off-campus houses devoted solely to us”; that Purdue University (Indiana) is “a place for anyone to completely blend in or stand out”; and so on. And these comments are simply from the section of each listing called “Life.” There are also sections on “Academics” and “Student Body,” plus comments by the Princeton Review on admissions and financial aid, plus remarks by each school’s admissions office. Of particular value is a section called “The Inside Word,” where students attracted by the “Life” description of Purdue, for example, will find out that “the fact that Purdue holds class rank as one of its most important considerations in the admission of candidates is troublesome”; that Rochester (New York) Institute of Technology’s “relatively high acceptance rate is somewhat deceiving because the applicant pool is largely self-selecting”; that “it won’t be long before the academic strength found at Oglethorpe [University in Georgia] attracts wider attention and more applicants.”

     Accompanying the two-page narrative about each school are statistics on selectivity, deadlines, financial aid, academics, most popular majors and more; cost information on tuition, room and board, fees, and books and supplies; the school’s environment; its overall quality of life; and on and on. In fact, the two pages accorded each college in The Best 371 Colleges, 2010 Edition provide far more useful, easier-to-access data – in an easy-to-compare format – than students will find by visiting the schools’ Web sites, whose quality and design diverge widely. Ultimately, of course, no book, including this one, can pick the best school for any individual; Princeton Review in fact strongly advocates campus visits as a way for potential students to get a “feel” for each college in which they think they are interested. There really is a good college match out there for anyone who wants to attend, but the decision on which college that is varies as widely as do students themselves. The Best 371 Colleges, 2010 Edition cannot provide a definitive answer as to which college is best for any individual, but it can and does give everyone plenty of easy-to-understand information to make this highly personal decision as easy (or at least nontraumatic) as it can possibly be.

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