5 Books about College Life: For Freshmen and University Graduates Alike 

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campus novels about the college experience

I bet you are already missing campus halls, the sounds of college books in a library, puns, and jokes, coffee breaks with your friends in a campus garden, thrilling lectures, extracurricular activities, clandestine parties at the dorm… Who would think our physical presence at college is so crucial for our studying experiences?

It doesn’t matter how good our professors and we have performed via Zoom—we feel nostalgic about those days on campus. But we can again wander through halls and libraries, recoining emotions of your freshman year—with the help of books about college life. Here we have chosen five books that, in this or the other way, relate to college experiences as they are, with excitement, love adventures, boredom, psychological traumas, parties, and long hours of studying over textbooks.

These are perfect books for people in college as well as for graduates. Or maybe you’re just preparing for your first year in college with thrilled anticipation? Reading campus novels will connect you to your own memories of undergrad studies or make you more eager to start this Fall term; maybe you would even reevaluate your college experiences through the eyes of the charismatic protagonists of these stories. Let’s dive again into this charming (though not without its uneasiness) period of transitioning from adolescence into adulthood, into the magic of the college days portrayed as they are, without putting a glamorous touch.

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Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

Here are five books about college life (or at least part of which are set on a college campus), which are not among the most well-known. Of course, you can always re-read Harry Potter: your college might not be anything like Hogwarts, but this sense of community and friendship is the same. But these college romance books are a bit more “down to earth.”

The Idiot by Elif Batuman about college life

The Idiot

by Elif Batuman

The novels’ title is an evident tribute to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Although Batuman (and her protagonist Selin) do share a sentiment for Russian literature, the novel has none of a pessimistic moralizing thread that one can find in Dostoevsky’s oeuvres. The book is set back in the 90’s, when Selin started her undergraduate studies at Harvard. It is a touching story about a freshman year, of love and friendship, of self-discovery, of amazing experiences Selin got on her summer job in the Hungarian countryside. You will laugh quite a bit, but Elif Batuman also gives you a chance to reconsider the college experiences of students with an immigration background and to reconnect with our own desires to explore, learn, and share. This novel should be on a reading list of those majoring in languages or linguistics—I bet you’d enjoy it!

Freshmen by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison — a novel about college life


by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

If you want a comfortable and hilarious read, pick Freshmen. Who could think your first college years can be portrayed with so much fun? Any reader would relate to the novel’s heroes—Luke and Phoebe—and gladly accompany them through college halls, love affairs, drama, studying in the library, and everything else that comes in “college-must-do” bucket. You won’t stop giggling, and I guess the secret is that Freshmen is one of those campus novels that works like a mirror—it’s hard not to project your past on Luke’s and Phoebe’s stories. We do not promise anything serious under this cover, but this college romance book is enchanting enough for a few nostalgic evenings.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt takes place in Hampdan College

The Secret History

by Donna Tartt

It feels almost uncomfortable to write about such a well-known brilliant author like Donna Tartt. Rush to read her books if, by any chance, you’ve missed this star of contemporary literature (no exaggeration — her three novels have a long record of various literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for The Goldfinch). Tartt’s debut novel—The Secret History—is set in Hampden College and revolves about a group of enthusiasts studying classics. But their geeky interests bring them further and further away from whatever conventional college experiences might imply… Hush, no spoilers here, it’s a detective story! Enjoy this fascinating read and its intense intellectual atmosphere!

5 Books about College Life: For Freshmen and University Graduates Alike  1

The Liar by Stephen Fry 

In this book, you follow the school and college years of Adrian Healey. Any reader would like this guy (although he is not an entirely trustworthy narrator as the title warns us), who’s sharing his story of discovering his sexuality and dealing with the past, all spiced up with a little bit of an espionage story. Stephen Fry made this novel quite autobiographical, and some of the feelings and experiences of Adrian Healey strike as very acute. And of course, you can’t talk about Fry without mentioning his humor: the novel is generously furnished with hilarious jokes.

If you want to go one step further and combine Fry’s sense of humor with actual learning, try his praiseworthy adaptation of Greek Myths: Mythos and Heroes.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz is in part a campus novel

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Díaz

This Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel from 2007 is hard to ascribe to any specific genre, but some college romance traits are there for sure. In its basic outline, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a dense intermingling between the stories about the Dominican dictatorship of Trujillo with narratives of adolescence, first love, sci-fi, and generation conflicts. These all have something to do with a familial curse (fukú). Where is a campus novel here? Oscar de León—the protagonist—studies at Rutgers University, and, over many pages, we follow his life at college. It differs a lot from the generally enlightening spirit of Freshmen or The Idiot: the life of Oscar de León is full of rather traumatic experiences: a broken heart, bullying classmates, lack of understanding, no social contact, days spent in the dorm room… The novel is not as dark as you might think—you will read it with a compassionate smile on your face, following Oscar through his brief but indeed wondrous life.

We hope you can choose any of these books about college life according to your likening to ease nostalgia for your days on campus. Let us know how you liked these recommendations by rating a book on BooksRun. Enjoy these outstanding pieces of contemporary literature, keep up the spirit, and let’s opt for the best! 

Iliana K