As an eighteen-year-old headed to college in the fall, I can safely say the transition from high school to “wherever I’d end up” (a tiny women’s college in SoCal, if you’re curious) is the most change I’ve experienced in my life thus far. I‘ll be moving into this elusive new era called “Independent Adult Life” with nothing but 1,000-word essays and all-powerful admissions counselors to decide my fate.
But the great thing about being a senior is you’re experiencing these changes alongside so many other people—and the great thing about being a teen obsessed with YA books is how many of those books have been written about this very experience. To help my fellow college-bound teens, or to remind those who want to remember the feeling, here are seven novels that truly capture the essence of the journey from senior year to university.
Always and Forever Lara Jean, by Jenny Han
Lara Jean is back, and in this final installment of Han’s To All the Boys series,she’s a second semester senior. Life couldn’t get any better: she’s got a cute boyfriend, a happy family, and best of all, she’ll get to hold onto it all when she starts college approximately 10 minutes away. But then the unthinkable happens: she gets rejected. Always and Forever Lara Jean was the book that inspired me to write this post in the first place. I read it right before my graduation, and when I turned the last page I found myself smiling at how much Lara Jean’s experience resembled my own (although our year was definitely lacking in the chocolate chip cookie department). From the mourning the loss of a hypothetical future to the bittersweet high school traditions that signal the end of an era, Lara Jean’s story was all of our stories. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say this book will make you feel the truth behind such clichés as “things happen for a reason’’ and “you’ll end up where you’re meant to be” (seriously, they’re overused for a reason!) and the importance of taking risks for your happiness.
Not Now, Not Ever, by Lily Anderson
In this contemporary riff on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, heroine Elliott doesn’t want to join the airforce, and she doesn’t want to stay at home, either. She wants to study science fiction literature at a small liberal arts college in Oregon, and she’s ready to Bunbury her way there. To Ever it is a truth universally acknowledged that graduation is the deadline of all deadlines: a “next step” that will determine the rest of your life, from which there’s no going back. Anderson examines this “truth” through the eyes of Elliot, who feels like her future following high school can only lead down one of two paths. But, as she discovers, there is no invisible time limit, and you do have the ability to explore myriad different roads during your lifetime; one choice does not define you forever.
Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell
Cath is a capital-F Fangirl, of Harry Potter-esque fantasy series Simon Snow. And she’s not just any fan, she’s the author of a ridiculously popular fanfiction centered around two of the series’ leads. On top of being a fangirl, Cath is also a girl headed to her freshman year of college, where she’d rather lose herself in the familiar world of Simon than navigate anxiety-inducing university life. Fangirl is the quintessential nerd-girl college book, and I’m pretty sure it’s required reading for all us YA geeks (my official reread count will be five by the time I step foot onto campus). This iconic coming of age story is a classic for a reason: Rowell masterfully depicts Cath’s difficult journey into embracing the unfamiliar and adjusting to college life. In doing so, she gives us nerds the push we need to (metaphorically) stop eating protein bars alone and go out into that dining hall, because when you take a step away from your comfort zone and toward a balanced diet, amazing things can happen.
I Hate Everyone But You, by Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin
Ava and Gen are inseparable best friends with one huge problem: they’re going to college on opposite sides of the country. But that small matter of distance isn’t going to stop them from being uber-involved in each other’s lives, and their messages make up this delightful alt-medium novel. As a girl whose own best friends are now scattered across the country, I was struck by how accurate its portrayal of friendship and freshman year is. From the choice of storytelling technique (thank you, technology, for making long-distance relationships easier), to the contrast between their schools and majors (Emerson vs. USC, journalism vs. film), to the divergent ways in which the two explore and grow (Gen wildly, Ava more timidly), Dunn and Raskin perfectly illuminate, in a very raw and real way, the plight of the first semester college student.
Nice Try, Jane Sinner, by Lianne Oelke
Jane Sinner needs a change. After a personal crisis leads to her replacing days at high school with binge-watches of America’s Next Top Model, she decides to head to community college early—but under one condition: she gets to move out of her parents’ house. She moves, not into a dorm, but into the House of Orange, the set of a fledgling reality TV show offering its cast free rent. Though Jane’s experience involves more on-camera challenges than classes, Oelke has gifted us with something I’ve been searching for for so long: a YA novel set at a community college. Jumping head-first into a four-year academic career right out of high school isn’t the best choice for everyone, so it was refreshing to finally have some divergent representation. Jane’s path to contentedness and confidence offers an accessible story for so many college-bound seniors (again, aside from the whole living-in-an-reality-TV-house thing).
American Panda, by Gloria Chao
Mei is a seventeen-year-old Asian American girl attending MIT, majoring in biology, and on track to become a highly paid doctor. By her parents’ standard she’s successful, and that means she should be happy—right? Except Mei secretly prefers ballet slippers to bedpans, and dreams of owning a dance studio, not a doctorate. So it seems she must make a choice: her parent’s happiness, or her own. American Panda gives me feels similar to those I imagine I’d experience on hugging a panda: heartfelt and humorous. It’s a stunning exploration of identity, as Mei’s experiences her first year of independence in the modern world while trying to live a life defined by respect for ancient Taiwanese tradition. Throughout the novel Mei walks a line between wanting to be her parent’s perfect daughter and having the heart to fight for her right to be happy. Chao’s story of accepting and loving who you are is incredibly important, and I hope many other teens will find solace and strength in Mei.
Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between, by Jennifer E. Smith
Claire and Aiden are ready for college. The flights are booked, the bags are packed. All that’s left is one minor thing: they need to break up. Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between is the story of the night before either of them leaves, and the journey of a decision neither of them wants to make. Smith does a beautiful job capturing the bittersweet melancholy of being on the precipice of the biggest change of your lifetime. Throughout the novel I relived the nostalgic feelings representing the beginning of the end; how time seems to slip through your fingers, and how both college and high school seem so far away. Claire and Aiden represent the challenge facing most people during The Big Change: needing to get on with your future while also wanting everything to stay exactly the same.