High School Reading List: What to Read Before College

Developing a reading habit is critical to success in high school, college, and beyond. Regular reading from a good high school reading list will help you succeed at the college application process. For example, the most effective way to score highly on the Critical Reading section of the SAT is being a lifelong reader. Some college applications will ask you to list the self-selected books you’ve read in the last year. Alumni interviewers will ask about recent and favorite reading in interviews.

As you develop your reading habits, focus on reading broadly across different genres: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and drama. This will look most impressive to future admissions officers and interviewers.

Important note: This high school reading list is intended to provide both a foundation and an expansion for what to read before college. Some of these books (marked “standard”) are regularly assigned in high school classes and will be necessary stepping stones to reading assigned in college courses. Other books (marked “adventure”) are intended to expand your reading repertoire and give you some impressive options to refer to on applications and in interviews.


Author: Toni Morrison (Standard or Adventure)

American novelist and current Princeton professor, Toni Morrison is necessary reading on the historical experiences of African Americans, particularly women.

Try Beloved or The Bluest Eye for standard high school reading assignments.

Branch off from the norm with Tar Baby or Song of Solomon for an adventure.

Author: Sherman Alexie (Standard or Adventure)

Native American writer and poet Sherman Alexie is not only critical high school reading, but a humorous and approachable writer who often focuses on the experiences of teenagers.

Try The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for a standard in a high school reading list (also suitable for middle school readers).

Take on an adventure with The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

Author: Harper Lee (Standard)

Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird follows protagonist Scout’s childhood in the American South and comments poignantly on the history of race relations. This book is universally assigned in American high schools and everyone will assume you’ve read it throughout your life.

To Kill A Mockingbird is typical in a high school reading list.

Author: Margaret Atwood (Adventure)

Margaret Atwood tackles contemporary issues ranging from sexism to environmental destruction in her novels. Her books are less commonly taught at the high school level and have darker themes and more mature content.

Adventure with The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian classic that paved the way for widely popular teen series like The Hunger Games and Divergent.

Author: George Orwell (Standard)

Allegory master George Orwell is one of the most frequently assigned authors for high school readers. No one forgets their first encounter with a George Orwell novel, even if it was required reading for an introductory English course.

Read Animal Farm or 1984 to catch up with this dystopian master’s standard high school reading.

Author: Junot Diaz (Adventure)

Brilliant MIT professor and Dominican American Junot Díaz captures the experience of immigrants in a captivating voice for the 21st century. Díaz’s protagonists are young and their speech and experiences will be immediately relatable for high school readers.

Try Drown or This Is How You Lose Her if you like short stories. Díaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a Pulitzer-Prize-Winning adventure.


Author: Maya Angelou (Standard)

Maya Angelou’s heartbreaking novel is now widely accepted as required reading for literary success. It’s a powerful examination of loneliness, racial stereotyping, and the redemptive power of literature.

Try a standard, but life-changing, high school choice in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

Author: Jon Krakauer (Standard)

Adventure writer Jon Krakauer’s books are riveting for even the most reluctant readers. Less commonly assigned in high school than other standard books on this list, they are nevertheless widely read non-fiction accounts of Krakauer’s adventures in the wilderness.

Try Into the Wild or Into Thin Air for gripping standard high school non-fiction.

Author: Art Spiegelman (Adventure)

Art Spiegelman’s holocaust narrative in graphic novel form is rarely assigned in high school classes. Elie Wiesel’s Night or Anne Frank’s Diary are more popular picks, but Maus ought to be required.

Ready for a graphic novel that will revolutionize your understanding of what “comics” can achieve in terms of storytelling? Try Maus for an adventure.


Poet: Emily Dickinson (Standard)

A recluse for much of her life, 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson produced some of the most popular and widely read poetry today. Her slant rhymes are beautiful.

Read “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” or “Because I could not stop for Death” to get started on this standard high school poetry.

Poet: Robert Frost (Standard)

If you didn’t read “The Road Not Taken” in high school, you must have been home sick that day. It seems impossible than any American high schooler misses the opportunity to read and study this poem in an English class.

Make sure to read both The Road Not Taken and Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.

Poet: Louise Glück (Adventure)

Once Poet-Laureate of the U.S., contemporary poet Louise Glück is an innovative poet who is still concrete. This makes her an unusual, but manageable, choice for a high school reader.

Try her poetry collections Faithful and Virtuous Night or A Village Life.


Playwright: Shakespeare (Standard or Adventure)

Every student needs to read Shakespeare in high school. Notorious for his complex language, Shakespeare is more digestible in performance than on the page. Try any of the famous film adaptations of his plays as interesting complements to the original texts.

To meet the standard requirements for a high school reading list, read both a comedy and a tragedy. Take your pick of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, or Macbeth for tragedies. Enjoy a happy ending with Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Twelfth Night.

Already familiar with The Bard? Try one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays for an adventure: The Tempest, Henry V, The Winter’s Tale, Titus Andronicus.

Playwright: Sophocles (Standard)

Sophocles was a great classical Greek playwright who shaped theater for centuries to come. This three dark plays set in Thebes–Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone–are referenced throughout Western literature.

Antigone is a standard high school assignment.

Playwright: Tom Stoppard (Adventure)

Up for a challenge? Try one of the cerebral and complex plays of widely-popular contemporary playwright Tom Stoppard.

Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Arcadia have appeared as very successful stage revivals in recent years.

Originally published at blog.ingeniusprep.com on January 25, 2017.