The California College Guide : A primer on making choices--and making arrangements--for a college education. : A Guide to the College Guides

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So many colleges, so little time. What to do? Peruse guidebooks in libraries and bookstores, that’s what. Then the dilemma is: So many guidebooks, so little time.

To be sure, many counselors encourage students to thumb through the most comprehensive guidebooks for wide exposure to American colleges. Those encyclopedic volumes include “Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges,” The College Board’s “College Handbook,””Lovejoy’s College Guide,” “Peterson’s Guide to Four-Year Colleges,” and Arco’s “The Right College.”

Those books all have strengths, particularly for students casting a net far across the country or looking for a specialized major, particular locations or religious affiliation. But those so-called objective volumes offer dry summaries and statistics supplied by the schools themselves. There is little sense of being there and an overwhelming sense of boosterism.

There are other guidebooks, ones considered subjective.

These give statistics as well as opinions of students, faculty and guidebook authors. They give flavor, history and even humor. While no substitute for campus visits, here are some of the most interesting guidebooks.


“The Fiske Guide to Colleges” (Times Books, Random House, $12.95). It profiles about 300 of the estimated 2,000 four-year U.S. colleges.

Edited by Edward B. Fiske, education columnist of the New York Times, the guide has insightful narratives and rates colleges on academics, social life and quality of life. (Five stars are tops, three average.)

For example, UCLA gets five for academics and three each in the other categories. “Going to UCLA is like shopping at Macy’s at Christmastime,” Fiske announces. “It has everything you could ever want--if only you can elbow past the thousands of other people who have their eye on the same items you do.”

“The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges,” compiled and edited by the staff of the Yale Daily News (St. Martin’s Press, $14.95).

This popular guide to about 300 schools has such unusual listings as innovative and/or unorthodox colleges, schools enrolling fewer than 1,000 students, schools with no fraternities or sororities. Its detailed chapters are written from a student’s point of view, and it has such entries as this about Chico State’s reputation for campus revelry: “Times are changing at Chico, and those who are willing to risk the party-animal label can find solid educational opportunities.”

“How to Get an Ivy League Education at a State University,” by Martin Nemko (Avon Books, $10.95).


The subtitle is self-explanatory: “Comprehensive Profiles of America’s Outstanding Public Colleges.” In other words, a guide to saving money, plus tips on how to get the most out of the enormous factories some State U’s have become. It emphasizes honors programs, too. This advice about UC Berkeley: “Despite the research orientation, nearly all students agree that if you persist in seeking professors, you can get ample attention.”

“Barron’s 300 Best Buys in College Education,” by Lucia Solorzano (Barron’s Educational, $12.95).

This guide attempts to link tuition price to quality measures like percentage of freshmen who eventually graduate. It includes public and private schools, including a hefty representation of Roman Catholic institutions, such as Santa Clara University, which hold down salary costs by having priests on staff. While two-thirds of Santa Clara students are Catholic, the book notes, students of other faiths “find the close-knit university community very open to individuals of all types.”

“Lisa Birnbach’s College Book” (Prentice Hall Press, $14.95).

Not surprisingly, because this is from the woman who wrote the satirical “The Official Preppy Handbook” a few years ago, the College Guide is irreverent, focusing on social life and student politics. This survey of 210 schools touts the best professors, best hangouts, best local clothing stores, best and worst dorms. It looks at dating, slang and health services, too. Occidental College’s strong points, Birnbach notes, include: “People are friendly, classes are small, free beer delivery.”