My favorite books are the ones that make me feel right at home in someone else’s shoes. I love reading fiction and historical fiction because of how the characters open up my world to their experiences.
Putting myself aside for a few minutes to step into the life of a person with gods living inside of her, or to imagine leaping through a magical portal in search of freedom to think and live as I please - that simple exercise has opened my eyes to parts of myself I hadn’t recognized. What I used to see as an overactive imagination that allowed me to feel all the feels in the stories I read is actually a tool for introspective thought.
Wake Forest and Columbia Universities, among others, ask applicants about the books you’ve most enjoyed reading in high school. As is true for most admissions essays, colleges are not testing your writing abilities here nearly as much as your capacity for self-awareness. Plus, your reading habits send strong signals about your capacity for open-mindedness, curiosity, wonder, and discovery. You’ll be expected to give careful consideration and offer insight in your responses. Colleges are generally curious about whether you have a sense of your place in the world and your communities. Whether or not they directly ask about a book, reading can be a gateway to a better understanding of your sense of self.
As a counselor, I most enjoy helping students tell their own stories in a way that can be relatable to an audience of (actual human beings on) admission committees. And it’s always easier when a student has built up their empathy to see the world from different points of view. This is a key skill in writing compelling essay responses that demonstrate critical thinking and thoughtful self-reflection.
This is a list of books that are great for understanding the world around you through the eyes of fictionalized characters. Some of these stories are based on real people, their lives embellished by imaginative authors. In any case, real or imagined, these characters represent themes and experiences anyone can connect to.
1. The Murmur of Bees by Sofía Segovia
When the world shut down amid a pandemic in March of 2020, I sought out comfort in stories originally written in my native language - Spanish. As the story unfolded, I saw some striking similarities between history and the present. Amid a pandemic, civil unrest, large scale economic changes - every bit of this novel drips magic.
2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Ada has never felt a strong grip on her own life. It seems like all of her choices are just slightly out of her full control. The gods living inside of her dictate many of her actions. This story resonates deeply if you’ve ever felt an internal struggle between what you want and what you may need.
3. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Some people experience persecution and terrorism to degrees we can’t even fathom. Nadia and Saeed walk through magical portals chasing a freedom they don’t fully understand. They grow and adapt along the way, and the journey is just as enlightening for those of us observing from a distance.
4. Malinche by Laura Esquivel
The cultural significance of Malinche in Mexico is a belief that this woman betrayed the great indigenous civilizations of her time in order to side with Hernán Cortés during his conquest. The reality is that this Nahuatl woman was desperate to save her people from the Aztec empire. Esquivel’s fictionalized account bursts Malinalli’s story wide open for us to see her in a new light.
5. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
Three sisters get deeper and deeper into the revolutionary fight against Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo. The characters are real, and their experiences are painted vividly with care. This is a story of regular women who, in standing up for their loved ones, became the heroes of a nation.
6. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I absolutely love the use of magical realism in historical fiction. Coates’ novel is a tribute to those who make enormous sacrifices in pursuit of freedom for all people. Seeing the abolition of slavery from the eyes of our protagonist, Hiram, was a gift.
7. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
We all have secrets. Only you know yourself deeply, more than anyone ever will. But then, sometimes, holding on to secrets is more trouble than it’s worth, and you miss opportunities with the people you love. This one really got me thinking about everything we hold in our hearts.
8. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
I hope you’ve caught on by now that all of these stories are wonderful because of the complexity of the characters within them. The Pasha family is no exception. This novel reimagines the play Antigone unfolding among British Muslims. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll leave it at that...
9. A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
Three siblings growing up in a strict, religious household in Northern California have to figure out a balance between their individuality and fulfilling their family duties. In this story, there are no heroes or victors. Everyone gives a little in hopes of gaining a little. There is cruelty and love and forgiveness, as in any family.
10. Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Casiopea goes on a cross-country odyssey with the Mayan god of death. She had been living as a housekeeper in her wealthy grandfather’s house when Hun-Kamé appears and offers Casiopea an opportunity to make all of her dreams come true. The catch? She has to help him win back his kingdom.
11. Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat
No two stories of migration are the same. Each of Danticat’s stories brings a different view of a common experience. There aren’t many happy endings here, but there is an opportunity to see joy in every heartbreak.
12. Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
These tales of the Southwest are based in and around the Denver area throughout distinct moments in history. They are delicately interlaced to show how all timelines connect.
A good story makes you believe in the impossible and see previously unimaginable experiences unfold before you. Put your curiosity, empathy, and imagination to work by stepping into these stories.
I’ve learned valuable lessons by walking into the unknown worlds of characters in these pages - sometimes with trepidation, excitement, dread, or delight. Wherever the adventure leads, curiosity is my most resourceful and reliable companion.
Curiosity softens your edges, allowing new experiences to seep in, as if it were you being inexplicably guarded by a friendly swarm of bees.
About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counseling, test prep, academic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates.