15 Books to Give Recent Grads
Good-bye quad. Hello real world! With the school year winding down, millions of graduates are getting their caps and gowns ready to walk the stage and accept their diplomas. But after the pomp and circumstance wears off, they will face the brave new world of adulting. Here are the books that we recommend giving to a new college grad to navigate this exciting, but often uncertain period—plus, a few picks for the high school grad, too. Whether your graduate is launching their career, looking to change the world, feeling lost or just needs help building a better routine, we’ve got you covered.
For every graduate
1. Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness by George Saunders
Based on a commencement address Saunders delivered at Syracuse University, the book is a meditation on the importance of kindness. Saunders shares personal stories and insights that reflect kindness not only as a virtue in itself but also a key to success and happiness. With his signature blend of humor, empathy, and wisdom, Saunders offers a timely reminder for graduates to prioritize kindness and compassion in a world that often prioritizes achievement and "success" above all else.
For the graduate who is an aspiring writer
2. On Writing by Stephen King
Stephen King is a tireless booster of other writers, including debut authors. His now-classic book includes tips for aspiring writers and insights into his artistic process, while also serving as a quasi-memoir. The book is divided into two parts: the first part covers his childhood, his struggles with addiction and his path to becoming a successful writer. The second part is a guide to the craft, in which King offers advice on everything from developing characters to editing drafts.
Perhaps the best lesson of On Writing for aspiring writers is his encouragement to approach work with discipline and humility. He argues that unless you are one of a very few genuine geniuses, there are no shortcuts to success, in writing or otherwise. Every young writer is well-served to internalize that an extreme and persistent dedication to the craft is a prerequisite for success.
For the graduate who wants to see the world before starting a career
3. The Half Known Life by Pico Iyer
Exploring identity, belonging, and the endless human quest for "paradise," a celebrated travel writer and novelist draws on his own far-flung soul-searching to offer insights into the unsettling mysteries of existence. “Iyer’s meditation on paradise... is much more than a diary of his country-spanning travels. It’s a work of philosophy, probing the scientific and the spiritual to understand why the most beautiful places often become such sources of pain, and how paradise might be re-discovered," wrote Elle staff writer Lauren Puckett-Pope.
Iyer combines intimate introspection and philosophical contemplation with sharp observations of the world around him. He relays his own challenges of reconciling multiple cultural identities and reflects on the insights he’s gained over years of seeing many different corners of the world. This book offers a unique take on the travelogue, which is sure to strike a chord with recent grads searching for purpose through travel and intercultural encounters.
For the lit-loving undergrad headed to graduate school
4. Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Literary star Brandon Taylor’s debut novel from 2020, Real Life, strips out the cliches of the coming-of-age campus novel in this powerful portrait of one grad student grappling with his pursuit of a biochem degree at a Midwestern university while suffering from the trauma of his upbringing and the pain of adapting to an environment of white privilege. While it’s not a “feel good” book, any lit-loving graduate will be moved by this acclaimed Booker finalist.
For the graduate coming out of a messy relationship
5. Normal People by Sally Rooney
The extraordinarily popular Irish author’s second novel follows Marianne and Connell, two Irish students from different class backgrounds who first meet in high school, as their relationship shifts between lovers, friends, and something in-between over several years. The book follows the pair as they struggle to reconcile their own desires and feelings with the expectations of their families and peers. As they move on to college and beyond, their connection remains fraught and intense, and complicated by their personal traumas and poor communication.
What makes Rooney’s novels so compelling is her ability to authentically capture the nuance and complexity of relationships. Her work has been profoundly relatable to so many young readers, and young men in particular may be surprised by how much they relate to the characters and their predicaments.
For graduates in need of wisdom and perspective
This memoir recounts the author's weekly conversations with his former college professor, Morrie Schwartz, who is dying of ALS. Through their meetings, Morrie shares wisdom and insights on a range of topics, from love and family to forgiveness to the meaning of life. For many, graduation marks the passage to adulthood when we first begin to grapple with our own mortality. The conversations between the two men in this book may inspire a young person to make the most of his fleeting youth and strive to lead a meaningful life.
For the graduate who still wakes up at noon and needs a better routine
This book offers a practical guide to building good habits and breaking bad ones. Based on the idea that small, incremental changes can have a powerful cumulative effect over time, Clear demonstrates that by focusing on tiny habits, we can transform our lives and achieve lasting change.
Combining scientific research, real-world examples, and personal anecdotes, Atomic Habits is a compelling and actionable guide to improving routines and creating the daily life that is most in line with your priorities. This is a great gift for college grads struggling with the rude wake-up call of a 9-5 job and doing laundry more than once a month.
For the graduate who is a dreamer — and could do with some downhome practical advice
8. Excellent Advice for Living: Wisdom I Wish I'd Known Earlier by Kevin Kelly
“The title really says it all. Buy more than one, or people will keep stealing it out of your bathroom,” wrote Kirkus in its review of this new collection from the founding executive editor of Wired, Kevin Kelly.
Releasing May 2, the book began as a list of 68 tips, marking the author’s 68th birthday, and intended to serve as advice to his adult children. Instead, the idea snowballed and Kelly now presents us with 450 practical aphorisms to help navigate life’s hurdles, both small and large.
Recent graduates are faced with the daunting task of navigating the "real world" and establishing a career, while also balancing relationships, finances, and personal growth. Excellent Advice for Living offers practical and actionable advice on a range of topics, while also providing inspiration on how to pursue a fulfilling and meaningful life.
For the graduate who wants to change the world
9. The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power
In this memoir, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power recounts her journey from a young idealist who joined the civil rights movement and worked as a journalist in war-torn countries to a seasoned diplomat who played a key role in shaping U.S. foreign policy during the Obama administration.
The book offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of diplomacy and international relations and provides valuable insights into the challenges and complexities of working to promote peace and security in the 21st century. It’s an especially great choice for future wonks or human rights activists who studied international relations and foreign policy.
For the graduate who is financially illiterate, yet hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt already
10. The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness by Morgan Housel
This book is a best-selling phenomenon that unpacks the sometimes intimidating lessons of personal finance into a set of accessible short stories. At the surface, the stories in the book are about topics like World War II or the Ice Ages, which don't seem to be about how to manage money. But these stories reveal something about how people behave and the psychology of money that is sometimes hidden in plain sight. Whether a grad is headed for her MBA or somehow avoided taking a single quant class since high school, the timeless lessons in this book act as a memorable and relatable guide to financial health.
For the graduate who is very indecisive
11. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
This beloved bestseller from Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman provides wonderful insight into the way our brains work and offers practical strategies for improving our decision-making abilities.
Kahneman's book divides the human mind into two systems. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and automatic, while System 2 is slow, deliberate, and analytical. The book examines the ways in which these two systems work together and sometimes against each other in our thinking, and provides a comprehensive overview of how we make decisions.
As graduates set out on the long road with many forks in it, they will be able to make more informed choices by understanding the cognitive biases and heuristics that influence our decision-making.
For the grad who is having an identity crisis
12. How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life by Sheila Heti
Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2013, Sheila Heti's breakthrough novel is part literary novel, part unconventional self-help manual and part exploration of the artistic and sexual impulses of narrator Sheila (a character once-removed from the author). Marie Claire once compared the book to Lena Dunham's TV series Girls for its upfront sex scenes and musings on life in your 20s. If your grad seems a bit tortured about how to show up in the world and spends a lot of time thinking about how they look to other people, they'll feel right at home in this entertaining novel.
For the high school grad on the verge of making what might be the biggest investment of a lifetime
13. How to Get the Most Out of College by Elliot Felix
A practical guide to college that offers advice on everything a college student can expect to face in their new life. The book is divided into three sections: "Academic Life," "Social Life," and "Career Planning," which offers tips and strategies for maximizing the college experience and preparing for the future.
Felix draws on his experiences as a student and a higher education consultant to offer practical guidance on everything from time management to networking to building enduring friendships. The book offers valuable lessons on the importance of goal-setting, self-reflection, and planning for the future, and is filled with real-life examples and case studies.
Whether students are looking to excel academically, make lasting friendships, build social connections, or prepare for a career, this is an accessible companion to help them achieve their goals.
For the high school grad: A beloved contemporary campus novel
14. The Idiot by Elif Batuman
This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows Selin, a young Turkish-American woman navigating her first year at Harvard in the mid-1990s. Over the course of the book, she navigates the challenges of college life, falls in love with an upperclassman, and travels to Hungary to teach English.
What makes The Idiot so compelling is the author’s ability to capture the nuances of young adulthood with humor and sensitivity, while also providing vivid descriptions of college life. Both incoming freshmen and recent college graduates navigating the challenges of early adulthood and trying to figure out who they are and what they want in life, will find a lot to relate to through her keen observations about life and love.
For high school graduates taking a “gap” year or trying to find themselves
15. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
This foundational Beat Generation text is a perennial inspiration for anyone suffering from early-onset quarter-life malaise. On the Road follows Sal Paradise, a recently divorced young writer recovering from an undisclosed illness. Disillusioned with mainstream society and yearning for a more fulfilling life, Sal embarks on a series of road trip adventures with his friend Dean Moriarty. The book is told in a frenetic stream of consciousness which reflects the protagonist’s often drug-addled mind as well as his quest for meaning in a chaotic world that he is just beginning to know as an adult.