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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 10/26/2009

30 books to read BEFORE the college interview

By Valerie Strauss

Take a look at this unusual list of 30 books recommended to students in Britain who have applied to Oxford and/or Cambridge universities and are preparing for their admissions interviews.

The list was drawn up by Oxbridge Applications, an independent, research-based, education consultancy formed by Oxbridge graduates which helps students win admittance to enter Oxford and Cambridge.

These books are the top 30 in a longer list of books in various subjects recommended for applicants to read so that they can wow their interviewers with the depth and breadth of their knowledge. They were published by TimesOnLine.

The book descriptions come from Oxbridge Applications, which warns applicants never to pretend they have read one of these books, lest they are asked to discuss it in their college interview.

How many have you read? Would this list make sense for college-bound Americans should read?


Machiavelli, “The Prince” -- A classic book that analyzes the use of power.

David Marquand, “Britain Since 1918” -- A study of post-1918 British political history.

Marjane Satrapi, “Persepolis” -- A graphic novel about an ordinary girl’s life in Tehran. Beautifully illustrated and an interesting insight into what life might be like under a religious dictatorship.

Sattareh Farman Farmaian and Dona Munker, “Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem Through the Islamic Revolution” -- A personal account exploring life as a member of a dynasty important under the old Shah, who was forced to flee during the Islamic Revolution.


Ryszard Kapuscinski, “Imperium” -- Pulling together his journalism from three visits to disparate parts of the Soviet Empire, in the 1960s, mid 1980s and just after the collapse of the USSR, critically acclaimed author and journalist Kapuscinski’s account is easy to read, yet full of terrible but captivating stories.

Nicholas Stargardt, “Witnesses of War” –- An account of children’s experiences in Germany and the occupied territories of Eastern Europe, Stargardt uses a range of surprising sources such as children’s letters to their parents, diaries and pictures to explore how a whole generation of European children were shaped by the horrors of 1939 – 1945.

Richard Hillary, “The Last Enemy” -- An evocative and highly readable account of Hillary’s own experiences as a fighter pilot in World War II, (he was studying at Trinity College Oxford when he joined up in 1939) in which he was shot down and spent months in hospital, undergoing plastic surgery (then in its infancy) to rebuild his face and hands.

Henri Barbusse, “Le Feu” (“Under Fire,” in English) -- One of the first accounts of the First World War from the perspective of the French trenches.

W.G. Sebald, “The Emigrants” -- Four meandering and beautifully written stories of displaced characters. The use of words, the subtlety of the expression and feeling, and the evocation of mood, is Sebald at his best and a classic of our generation.

Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, “An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory” -- Broken down into easy- to-read chapters which make quite complex ideas manageable. They also have lots of suggestions for further reading. Definitely a savior for lots of English students all the way through to finals.

Mary Wollstonecraft, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” -- One of the earliest works of feminist philosophy, responding to traditional 18th century political and educational theory that believed women should not have an education.


J.S Mill, “Utilitarianism” -- Essential reading for any budding philosopher. One of the most important and contentious works of moral philosophy. Its articulation of a ‘hedonic calculus’ and its development of Mill’s mentor’s (Bentham) ideas on what makes mankind ‘happy’ make it a classic.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “The Social Contract” -- Rousseau argues for the preservation of individual freedom in political society. An individual can only be free under the law, he says, by freely embracing that law as his own.

John Gray, “Straw Dogs” -- This is a march through the history of philosophy.

Alain de Botton, “Consolations of Philosophy” -- Botton explores different philosophies to cope with the stresses of modern day living. A great introduction to the philosophers he uses, while at the same time being a useful way of feeling better about your life (and not getting in to your chosen university if that is the way it turns out).

Thomas Kempis, “The Imitation of Christ” -- One of the best known books on Christian devotion. An insight into how Catholic devotion was changing in this period in Northern Europe and how far removed it was from common practices today.

Mohsin Hamad, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” -- A novel exploring how American culture might have fostered Islamic fundamentalism.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge, “God is Back, How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World” – A new book by editor-in-chief of the Economist and Washington bureau chief about the rise of fundamentalism in the West as well as the East.


James Gleick, “Chaos, Making a New Science” -- Covering the physical side of math, this is an accessible introduction to Chaos Theory, which has been quite popular over the last 50 years.

Niall Ferguson, “The Ascent of Money” -- Tells the history of banking, brilliantly written, giving great insights into how globalization came about.

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, “Nudge” -- How you can get people to do things by making them opt out rather than opt in; a more psychological approach to economics.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “Black Swan” -- Arguably the most pertinent book to read right now on flawed economics.


Adrian Vaughan, “Isambard Kingdom Brunel” –- The biography of one of the greatest engineers who ever lived.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, “Emperor of all Maladies” –- A look at modern day views on cancer as a disease and its various treatments.

Oliver Sacks, “Musicophilia” –- Professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University looks at the healing effect of music on the brain. An interesting interdisciplinary approach.

Richard Dawkins, “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” -- Everyone has read “The Selfish Gene,” but this is the latest offering from Dawkins. With every book, he continues in his relentless crusade against creationist theories. Like his others, this is well written, but be careful not to adopt too many of his opinions without proper thought and deliberation. Even better .... what DON’T you agree with?

Steve Jones, “The Single Helix” -- “I read this when I was applying,” says one of Oxbridge Applications’ PPP graduates (Psychology, Philosophy and Physiology) – brilliantly written overview of where research currently stands on genetics. Obviously a few years old now, so not fully up-to-date but still fascinating.

Also, worth noting, Jones has recently published a book called “Darwin’s Island.” He is a less well-known Dawkins, but with similar values and an excellent scientist. One Oxbridge Applications’ tutor suggests it may be interesting to put his writing in the context of "Everyone reads Dawkins, but does Jones give a much better argument?"

Richard Feynman, several different works - From “Six Easy Pieces” to “Six Not-So-Easy Pieces,” right through to his imaginative Lecture series. A great read from a prestigious and witty physicist. Some would say legendary within the physics community.

By Valerie Strauss  | October 26, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, Reading  | Tags:  Books, College Admissions  
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The list is clearly flawed, and I don't think it would be appropriate for US high school students.

On the history side, there's no texts dealing with US history--which is pretty important for Americans--and the overwhelming focus is on WW2, which while important, doesn't warrant 3 of the 11 selections from history and the humanities. HS students should certainly read some of these books though--Persepolis and anything by Ryszard Kapuscinski. I would switch out Le Feu for All Quiet on the Western Front, as the latter is far more widely known in the USA.

There are too many philosophy books--8--compared to science and engineering--7. Far more college students are going to be engineers, scientists, and doctors than philosophers, and they should read texts that are appropriate to their subjects. For the science and engineering, this list is far too focused on biology and evolution, and the remainder include a biography of a 19th century civil engineer. Other appropriate texts might be Hawking's A Brief History of Time, Sagan's Cosmos, and a text about global climate and another about some aspect of geology.

Finally, almost all of these books are non-fiction. Some of the great american novels and stories should be here: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Twain...

All in all, it's a fair model, but it would need fixing.

Posted by: nero42 | October 26, 2009 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, where's the fiction? That list does not look like much fun, which I guess isn't the point.

Posted by: mdmoment | October 27, 2009 4:25 PM | Report abuse

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