A huge number of books exist out there, ready and waiting for you to read them. Whether you prefer manga or ancient, epic poems, reading is great for all sorts of reasons.
What follows is a list of highly beneficial books to read in high school (or after!). These are remarkable books—books that made history, books that challenge societal perceptions of the world, and books that are quite simply interesting and moving. The books are presented in alphabetical order, and a short description is given for each book, as well an explanation of why it is worth reading.
Why Is Reading Important?
Why should you read these books? Why should you read at all for that matter? Reading is essential to communication, especially in an era of emails and texting. Beyond even that, though, reading has an array of crucial purposes. It will help improve your grades and test scores. You'll learn about other places, other times, and other cultures. You'll encounter issues you can relate to—issues that speak to you and challenge you to think and feel in new ways. You will grow, empathetically and intellectually. Plus, you'll understand more of the references that crop up all the time in pop culture.
Below are 31 books to read in high school that will help you prepare for college and beyond.
1984 (George Orwell)
This dystopian novel by George Orwell was written 35 years before the date referenced by the title. In this book, Orwell tells a story that warns readers about the possible consequences of complacency in the face of rising dictators (think Hitler and Stalin) and burgeoning technology ripe for misuse. He describes a world where everything is monitored, right down to citizens’ thoughts, and where any opposition to the ruling class is punishable by extreme measures. The oft-encountered quote, “Big Brother is watching,” finds its origin in this novel.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)
This sequel to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is much graver in nature than its predecessor. There are still plenty of good antics worthy of a laugh, but it concerns itself largely with a young boy’s attempt to escape severe family dysfunction and the moral implications of his taking an escaped slave as a companion on his adventure down the Mississippi River. Readers should be warned that the “n-word” is used liberally throughout the novel, which tends to be jarring to many a modern ear.
Mark Twain wants you to read his novel(s).
The Awakening (Kate Chopin)
Set in the Creole culture of the late 1800s, this novel by Kate Chopin details one woman’s process of becoming aware of herself. At the time, women were essentially property, and they were expected to act in demure and socially acceptable ways. Asthe protagonist “awakens” to her emotional and sexual needs, as well as the ultimate truth of her own independence, all sorts of problems ensue. The novel examines the balance between self-respect and selfishness.
The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath)
This autobiographical novel by poet Sylvia Plath explores the deep, dark reality of mental illness. The protagonist, Esther, a stand-in for Plath herself, is a college student exploring her talents, interests, and sexuality as she descends into an unsettling spiral of mental instability. It is essential for students to understand the seriousness of mental illness as it is so earnestly portrayed in this book.
Black Rain (Masuji Ibuse)
Black Rain, by Masuji Ibuse, is about the very immediate, human consequences of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It follows a small family of survivors, detailing what happened to them during the days of the bombing and what the effects are some years later. The book adopts a gentle, subtle tone, and yet it is not afraid to delve into very explicit and challenging topics related to the bombings.
Bless Me, Ultima (Rudolfo Anaya)
This semi-autobiographical novel by Rudolfo Anaya contains a healthy dose of magical realism and is considered a staple of Chicano literature. It combines Spanish, Mexican, and Native American influences, showing openly the ways in which these forces within the protagonist’s life come into conflict. Young Antonio is growing up in a world that leaves him with more questions than answers: major questions about life and death, good and evil, and so on. These issues seem too big for his six-year-old mind, and yet he grapples with them valiantly through the end of the novel.
Antonio has lots of questions surrounding his faith traditions.
Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley explores themes similar to those found in Orwell’s 1984. Huxley wrote this novel earlier than Orwell wrote his, and yet both deal with dystopian concepts. In particular, Huxley balances utopian and dystopian interpretations of a world that is highly controlled, easily manipulated, and extremely dysfunctional, ready to fall apart at any provocation. There are insiders of and outsiders to this world, and each character views and interacts with the society in a different light.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Dee Brown)
Dee Brown covers a lot of historical ground in this book. In it, Brown describes the history of European Americans as they interact with (and slaughter) the Native Americans who already inhabit what they claim as their country. It’s an infuriating and accurate tale of mistreatments and abuses, as well as the unfortunate decline of a noble people trying to defend their established way of life. It’s essential for students to understand this part of United States history.
The Catcher in the Rye (J. D. Salinger)
This bold and controversial novel by J. D. Salinger centers around ideas including adolescent sexuality and relationships. The protagonist is constantly bouncing around from person to person, place to place, activity to activity. Critics were greatly offended by Salinger’s frank discussions of sexual matters and his generally very casual style. This book is an important read in part because of its direct relevance to struggling adolescents and the issues they face.
The Crucible (Arthur Miller)
Arthur Miller wrote this tragic play in the early 1950s. While it is somewhat loosely based on the Salem witch trials of 1692, and while it is likely intended as an allegory to McCarthy’s rooting out of suspected Communists at the time of the play’s writing, the issues it touches on are much more broadly applicable. This is an important dramatic work on how hysteria, cruelty, and ignorant gullibility destroy communities.
There are lots of accusations of creepy stuff in The Crucible.
The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank)
Anne Frank’s published diary is different from a typical literary work. It’s a true account of the life of one Jewish girl during the Holocaust, and, while Anne Frank wrote some passages with publication in mind, others she did not. When the book was first published, many passages that her father, Otto Frank, found too long, unflattering, or inappropriate were excluded. Today, the book is available with all material included. Gaining some understanding of this horrific genocide is crucial to students.
Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
Books are on trial in this astounding work by Ray Bradbury. Set in yet another dystopian future where firemen are employed to burn books and the houses that contain them, Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of a fireman who begins to wonder what books have to offer. This novel is an ode to literacy, and, while it has its tragic moments, it ultimately leaves readers with a message of hope.
Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes)
Daniel Keyes writes a very warm and human form of science fiction in Flowers for Algernon. The novel tells the story of a man considered mentally retarded who is selected for an intelligence-enhancing surgery. The book follows the effects, both positive and negative, that come from the sudden change in his I.Q. This is a moving read for students who wish to understand how intelligence plays into our humanity.
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf (Ntozake Shange)
In For Colored Girls…, Ntozake Shange creates choreopoetry (poetry meant to be performed with movement and dance) that covers important themes of race, gender, abuse, and perseverance. It’s largely a deep and dark poem, but it contains a message of hope. This is an awesome opportunity for readers to get exposure to poetry in a very relevant and theatrical form.
The rainbow contains all sorts of symbolism.
Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)
First off, let’s all be clear: as some will already know, Frankenstein is not a monster. Rather, the very human Victor Frankenstein is responsible for creating what we recognize as the monster from the story; the creature itself is nameless. Mary Shelley wrote this Gothic thriller in the early 1800s, and yet we remain fascinated by this tale of playing God and facing the consequences. It’s an eerie tale with themes that run deep.
The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
John Steinbeck’s masterful The Grapes of Wrath centers around the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in American history. It’s a story of hope and despair, moving from one to the other and back again seamlessly throughout the novel. While loaded with biblical allusions, it is not heavy-handed with them, and the writing is often praised as realistic and beautiful.
Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)
Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, is a staple of English literature. It’s one of his most autobiographical works; it tells the story of a young boy, orphaned and poor, who ultimately experiences a drastic change in his fortunes. In addition, he learns much about love, trust, and relationships in this coming-of-age novel. As the title suggests, the novel also contains discussions of hope, disappointment, and expectations.
The Great Gatbsy (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby a novel that in many ways closely reflected his own experience. The decadence of the Jazz Age was, as is revealed in the novel, both enticing for many and revolting for some. The Great Gatsby follows the quest of a wealthy young man to win back the love of his life by extravagant displays of riches and social connections. As the plot builds to its climax, readers, along with Gatsby's simpler, humbler friend and neighbor, are left to ponder the passing of an era in American history.
There's the title, right there! Pretty spiffy.
The Joy LuckClub (Amy Tan)
Amy Tan’s novel, The Joy Luck Club, deals with intergenerational and intercultural questions. Tan seeks to represent the Chinese-American experience while also representing issues of mother-daughter relationships and the passage of time. The book focuses on four mother and four daughters across four sections of the novel for a total of sixteen stories that come together to complete this total work.
Lord of the Flies (William Golding)
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies speaks to the evil and degenerate potential that lurks within each human. It can be interpreted religiously, politically, psychoanalytically, or any number of other ways, but the basic premise is that a group of schoolboys stranded on an island descend into grotesque savagery. It’s a disturbing story, to be sure, but one that is important to be familiar with in a world where savage instinct too often presents itself today.
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien)
As with any work, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are not everyone’s cup of tea, but they’re hugely rewarding pleasure reading for too many fans to count. Tolkien’s masterpieces are more than just pleasure reading, though; the trilogy covers major themes of the epic struggle between good and evil, the necessity of persevering through immensely difficult ordeals, and how to apply mercy. Tolkien asks major questions about those who are evil versus those who are misguided and what we should do when our paths intertwine with any such individuals. The Hobbit is lighter and more kid-focused, but still addresses important themes.
The Odyssey (Homer)
The Odyssey is an epic poem nearly three thousand years old that’s attributed to the blind poet Homer. It tells the story of a war hero’s ten-year quest to return to his home, wife, and son. He encounters a number of varied setbacks along the way, and the trouble isn’t over when he gets home.The Odyssey deals with human interactions with the gods, bringing up questions of righteousness, wrongdoing, and pride as well as ideas of faithfulness and patience.
Odysseus was a fan of the ladies.
Oedipus Rex (Sophocles)
This play by Greek dramatist Sophocles is about a man who inadvertently kills his father and marries his mother. It’s dark subject matter, and nothing good comes of it, as you may well suspect. This another example, as in The Odyssey, of the divine tinkering with human lives and the great sin of pride.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Ken Kesey)
Ken Kesey documents in this work the darkest side of mental health care as it existed in the 1960s. While certainly not all mental health care was like what’s described in the book, nor is it all like that today, audiences of the novel are aghast that any care might even vaguely resemble the horrors discussed. Despite how disturbing the storyline is, it’s important for readers to recognize the vulnerability of this too often overlooked segment of society.
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice follows a family with five daughters, all unwed, and all, due to English customs of the late 1700s and early 1800s, in need of wedding. Of the five daughters, Elizabeth is the focus of the novel, though the others are discussed aplenty. While marriage is one of the central ideas in the novel, there are plenty of other themes to be picked apart, including ones that touch on pride, prejudice, first impressions, love, misunderstanding, and manipulation. This is, all around, a classic piece of literature, and one with which to be familiar.
Next up: one of my favorites, William Shakespeare.
Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet (William Shakespeare)
William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is familiar to most people on some level: two teenagers from feuding families fall in love and ultimately sacrifice their lives to their passion. Of all of Shakespeare’s works, it's a particularly popular one to read in high school for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it deals so explicitly with teenaged love, and, for another, it’s a relatively simple plot that’s nonetheless action-packed. It also opens with a shameless series of very witty dirty jokes, and such humor is scattered throughout the rest of the show. Then there’s the thematic material, which includes obedience, fate, and rash decisions, among others.
For those who don’t wish to read about teenagers mooning for each other to the point of suicide, there’s always Hamlet. This story follows a Danish prince whose father has died and whose mother has almost instantly married the father’s brother. When Hamlet discovers, via an appearance of his father’s ghost, that his uncle murdered his father, all sorts of interesting events ensue. There’s madness (real and feigned), murder, suicide, treason, and a lot of waffling over the right course of action.
As an added bonus, those who read Hamlet may wish to read Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It follows the events of Hamlet from the perspective of two minor and typically much-maligned characters. It’s also hilarious, if absolutely weird.
Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut)
Slaughterhouse-Five is a fictional account of events in some ways very similar to what the author himself experienced as a prisoner of war in WWII. He writes about the atrocities humans commit upon each other, and he also mixes in a number of other concerns, some heavy, some light, such as death, aliens, and the ability to see other points in time, past or future.
Their Eyes Were WatchingGod (Zora Neale Hurston)
The novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston has been much criticized over the course of its history, and yet it stands as one of the great classics of American literature. It tells the story of a black woman who is full of zest and passion and who is passed from man to man as she goes through life. With her first husband, she is absolutely miserable; with her second husband, it’s more bearable, for a time; and with her third man, she finds happiness. The trials and tribulations she undergoes with all three make for an interesting examination of what it takes for Janie to free the strong, confident woman within.
(Not an actual representation of Janie. Same approach to life, though.)
Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe)
In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, readers encounter a complex and beautifully rendered examination of life with the Igbo tribe in Africa, both before and after the white man’s interference. Okonkwo is the protagonist, and he goes through a number of difficulties that put him in the position of making distasteful decisions. Readers are left to wonder whether things are falling apart because that’s simply the way of the world or whether different decisions could have kept them together. The inevitability of change is neatly demonstrated.
To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird deals with elements of racism, courage, sympathy, understanding, and hope. It tells the story of a small town where a black man has been falsely accused of raping a white woman. The daughter of the lawyer defending the accused is the main protagonist, and another aspect of the story is her journey from bemused mockery to gentle understanding with regard to an eccentric man in the town. To Kill a Mockingbird rose to prominence during the Civil Rights Movement and remains as potent today as it ever was.
The Ugly American (Eugene Burdick and William Lederer)
The Ugly American by Burdick and Lederer is a denouncement of the American practice of sending insensitive diplomatic figures into foreign countries. Through a series of vignettes, it demonstrates American inefficiency overseas. It so impressed John F. Kennedy while he was a Democratic senator that he sent a copy to each and every one of his Senate colleagues. It can be an uncomfortable read, but a worthwhile one.
If you can read through these 30-odd books before you graduate high school, you'll be in a good shape, from a literary perspective.
Even if you can't read all of them, picking a few would not be a bad place to start. You might start with those that simply sound the most interesting to you, or you could look for themes in the books that relate to what you're learning in school. If you're studying McCarthyism, for instance, maybe try The Crucible; if you're studying the Holocaust, maybe try The Diary of a Young Girl.
These stories are immensely powerful. Some are newer, having instantly won their place in the pantheon of classics, while others have proven themselves by withstanding the test of time.
Readers will find that they resonate with some books more than others, and that's fine; the point is that all of these books have important messages to communicate, and I encourage readers to be open to finding out what those messages are.
Open a book, and you'll find all sorts of messages! Usually not in bottles, though.
While we're on the topic of literature, why don't you take a moment to read some recommendations on which English classes you should take during your high school career?
Also, a lot of these books may be read or referenced in AP English Literature classes. If you're enrolled in one of these, check out our guide.
If you're not sure whether to take AP English Language or AP English Literature, allow us to provide you with some thoughts on the topic.
As a bonus, if you decide to read The Great Gatsby, you can check out our analysis of the novel to help you along the way!
For many high school students, writing an essay is one of the most daunting parts of the college application process, especially when students are unsure of each university’s expectations.
Going over top college essay examples is a great way for students to learn more about expectations for essay submissions. Check out these tips for ideas and inspiration, and read these example essays before getting started!
The Importance of Good Essay Writing
Being able to write a great essay is extremely important when applying for college, but the skills students use to write their essays don’t end with college applications. Writing skills are some of the most important, not only preparing students to write a top college essay, but they are preparing to write well for life.
College Admission Essay 1
Prompt:Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
Pushing through the hordes of people, I catch a glimpse of my train’s boarding check-ins. Like a captain frantically seeking a lighthouse in a storm, I haul myself across the ocean of human bodies, trying to stay afloat, to avoid being stranded – or trampled – in the dustiest city in the world: Beijing, capital of both China and smog.
Luckily, I find my train with plenty of time to spare, and without being turned into a pancake, which is always a plus. The train conductor in his freshly pressed dark green uniform checks my ticket and welcomes me to the train. At last, it is time to return home to Shanghai.
This is the summer of 2012 and Shanghai isn’t to be my home for much longer. Another week and I will cross the globe to start a new life in a foreign land called Charlotte. But which is home? The place I am leaving or the place I am going? Arrival or departure? Like a compass with a broken magnetic strip, I can’t decide where to call home.
This uncertainty is unsettling, leaving me consumed by worry. I take The Things They Carried from my backpack and run my fingers over the slightly crumpled pages. It doesn’t take me long to lose myself; I’m sucked in, broken down, and shot off into the distance by this book of memories.
They say the best books tell you what you already know, resonating with your own thoughts and emotions. As I read The Things They Carried on the train to Shanghai, it is as if the tempest of my thoughts has become unraveled and spelled out on paper. The overflowing sense of hyper-reality in Tim O’Brien’s words of warfare spills into my world. His words somehow become my words, his memories become my memories. Despite the high speed of the train on the tracks, my mind is held in a perfectly still state – trapped between the narrative of the book and the narrative of my own life.
I feel like I should be disturbed, but I’m not. I read the last page and close the book, staring out the window at the shining fish ponds and peaceful rice paddies. I feel like I am a speck of dust out there, floating, content, happy. I realize that I am at home between worlds. I speak both English and Chinese. I use Chinese for math, science, quantity, and process. English, however, is my language of choice for art, emotion, and description. America owns my childhood, filled by pine trees, blockbusters, and Lake Tahoe snow; China holds my adolescent years, accompanied by industrial smog, expeditious mobility, and fast-paced social scenes. Shanghai is the place where I fought my first bully, discovered mobile phones, became acquainted with heartaches, and tasted independence.
I look out the window and realize we are drawing into Shanghai Hong Qiao station. My reverie is at an end, but I have the answer to my question. Home isn’t arrival or departure. Home isn’t America or China. Home is the in-between, the cusp of transition, the space between breaths, and that is where I feel most content.
College Admission Essay 2
Prompt: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
I won “Most Original” pumpkin at a Halloween party years ago. I hate the “Most Original” award. It’s a consolation prize. You can’t be the best, or the prettiest, so you have to be “original”. I’ve won the “Most Original” award a fair amount of times. I was even named “Most Original” at a basketball awards banquet. What does that mean? How can anybody be “Most Original” when she’s playing basketball?
Recognizing the “Most Original” award for the pity-prize that it was, I grew increasing hostile toward the very word “original”. If you win this cursed award, everyone around you feigns sympathy for your circumstances. Phrases like “oh, bummer” and “well, good for you” often circle around the recipient. This creates a cyclone of cynicism and regret, one from which the “winner” will never quite recover.
Okay. Maybe I’m overreacting, but I cannot for the life of me understand that award. “Most Original” always let me down, and as a result, I hated to be original in any context. In my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, where normality was… well, the norm, I tried to be a typical student, absolutely, perfectly normal.. I blended into crowds, the definition of the classic American teenager. I became a person who refused to surprise people. Just another brick in the wall. Dull.
And then I moved to Berkeley for 6 months. It’s an odd, vibrant place, with odd, vibrant people. I love it because originality is celebrated there. I became friends with a student who dressed outlandishly, wearing corset tops and tutus, and on some days, carrying around a parasol. Her best friend was a boy with purple hair who once wore a shirt with built in LED lights for Christmas. They were the most popular people in school, despite being contradictions to all that was admired in New Haven. Our peers recognized them as being unique, but instead of ostracizing them, as would likely have happened in New Haven, the students in Berkeley accepted and celebrated their originality.
In Berkeley, I learned the value of originality: Those who celebrate their individuality are not only unique, but strong. It takes great strength to defy the definitions of others, and because of that strength, those who create their own paths discover a different world than those who travel the same worn road.
When I returned to New Haven, I had changed. My hair was dyed with red streaks, and I wore crazy clothes that instantly made me stand out. Suddenly, everyone knew who I was. Once, such notoriety would have made me nervous, as if I had painted a large target on my forehead. But I had changed more than just my hairstyle and clothing – I had embraced the idea of being original. Spending time in a place where “most original” was the highest compliment allowed me to explore myself without fear of being different, lesser.
I’m still skeptical about the “Most Original” award. In the context of an award ceremony, it’s still just a meaningless consolation prize. But I don’t think of being “most original” as an insult anymore. I wear it as a badge of honor, proof that I am myself and no one else.
Very recently, a friend joked, “If there were a ‘Quirkiest’ award in the yearbook, you would definitely be in it.” We were standing outside of a classroom, and I was wearing a pair of gold colored shorts that definitely caught the eye. Her comment made me laugh. “‘Quirkiest’ makes me sound awkward.” I answered. “How about ‘Most Original’?”
College Admission Essay 3
Prompt: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
The sweet smell of cinnamon resonated through the house. A wave of warmth washed over my face as I opened the oven door to reveal my first batch of snicker doodles. Small domes of sugary cookies shyly peeked from the edge of the door. I smiled in excitement as I thought about the laughter these cookies would bring to my friends. They like to compare me to the witch in Hansel and Gretel, except that I fatten children up and then forget to eat them. I am inclined to send a slight glare at this comparison, but any rancor is overwhelmed by my enjoyment of their anticipation of my baked goods.
There is something about the warmth of a kitchen filled with the buttery smell of pastry that evokes a feeling of utter relaxation. I find joy in sharing this warm and homey experience by showering the people around me with the sweets. The smile that creeps up in the corners of someone’s mouth as he or she bites into my food gives me a sense of pride and accomplishment.
For as long as I can remember, baking has been an integral part of my life. Thanks to busy parents and hungry siblings, I was encouraged to cook from a relatively young age. Time spent in the kitchen naturally piqued my interest in baking. Such interests expanded into a heart-warming hobby that rejuvenates my stressful days, improves upon even my happiest moments, and brings joy to the people around me.
They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. It has been my experience that the way to ANYONE’S heart is through the stomach. To me, food is not simply about sustenance. The time that I spend in my kitchen, the effort and care that I pour into my confectionary creations, is a labor of love that brings me just as much satisfaction as it does my hungry friends and family.
Writing Help from C2
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