“List a few of your favorite books.”
This common supplemental essay question might be the most difficult of them all. And, we hear you! You’ve gotten through most of your high school academic courses and AP exams, the SAT or the ACT, Subject Tests, the main college essay. You finished remote learning and started hybrid learning, waded through canceled sports schedules and kept yourself sane during a global pandemic… and now you’re wondering, how could I have possibly had time to read more books over the past few years?! If you’re already an avid reader, that’s wonderful – and keep it up! But for those of you who might need a bit of inspiration to help organize your thoughts on these questions, we enlisted the help of the best and brightest we know: the Carnegie Prep team. We asked our tutors and teachers what books, podcasts, and other media got them through 2020… and what might pique your interest and offer a few suggestions!
What came back was an overwhelmingly long list, filled with everything from short stories to true crime podcasts to entrepreneurship how-to books. A few of their favorites are listed below and are geared towards people of all ages!
The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
These are two recent novels that follow their young protagonists for decades, well into adulthood, as the stories track the immediate fallout and lingering aftermath of the events that shaped their lives as children. Both of them have an incredibly powerful sense of place and setting, so they can be fun to read when you’re losing interest in whatever place you happen to be (and I think we’ve all done that many times this year…) And both of them are deeply moving, with characters that haunted me long after I’d finished reading. – Angelica B.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
You might come to this book because it’s topical, but you’ll stay because of the incredible character portraits that St. John Mandel paints. Starting with the concept behind the title, this book goes in directions you’d never expect. – Connor M.
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
This book actually came out six years ago, but it remains a beautiful and timely examination of race in America, a blend of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, performance, and visual art that movingly depicts the daily realities of Black Americans. – Suzanne B.
The Beach by Alex Garland
Explore the farthest reaches of the globe and darkest depths of the human psyche in this debut novel by Alex Garland. Long before he wrote movies like Ex Machina or 2020’s mini-series Devs, Garland wrote The Beach and left this reader marveling at the imagination and writing ability of someone [once] in their early 20s. – Jerry C.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
An absolutely gripping and emotional novel written by poet Ocean Vuong in the form of a letter to his illiterate mother. The book is complex, full of metaphor, and paints a beautiful picture of Ocean’s complex relationships with his mother and those around him. – Rohit J.
The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories edited by Tobias Wolf.
This collection consists of stories like “Dog Heaven” and “Wickedness”. They are sometimes funny, almost always dark pieces about characters living in small town America. – Molly K.
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
Shorter and sweeter than Steinbeck’s more famous novels like Grapes and Wrath and East of Eden (my favorite book of all time). It reads more like a collection of short, quirky stories than a cohesive novel. The characters will make you laugh, cry and feel about 1,000 other emotions. You definitely will not get bored reading it. – Jon G.
Atomic Habits by James Clear
This book has helped me to utilize my time a lot better because I just have to remember to be 1% better each day.” – Gayle G.
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
This is a bit hard to describe: it’s not quite a romance and not quite a mystery, but it’s definitely the most romantic and mysterious queer interdimensional time-travel novella you’ll ever read. – Suzanne B.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
This is a sort of dark fantasy/mystery set amongst the secret societies of Yale University. A freshman student who had a very unlikely path to Yale finds herself part of a secret society and attempting to solve the murder of a local teen. Also, she can see ghosts. It’s a good time. I love Bardugo’s world-building and the distinct voice she creates for her protagonist, Alex, who is intelligent but insecure, strong but also traumatized, and who continually follows her curiosity and her desire to make things right in the face of constant discouragement. – Holly L.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
There is nothing better in my world than well written historical fiction. This family saga takes place in Korea and Japan throughout the 20th century. I know very little about Korean history, and this book was the fascinating story of Koreans who found themselves forced to move to Japan to find jobs, overcoming hardships and discrimination while living there. This is a beautifully written book, full of captivating scenes, relationships and dialogue. This is a great book to read when you have a long weekend and can get swept away into a different place and time. – Amelia C.
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman.
This book almost entirely takes place in one apartment during a bank robbery gone wrong. While I haven’t been involved in a bank robbery during quarantine (at least as far as the police are concerned), the limited setting provided for a lot of introspective and human conversations in the book. – Trevor N.
Kevin Costner, Montana and a ranching family full of drama. The scenery is incredible and you are transported to a different world each time you start another episode. Kevin Costner is the head of the family that controls the largest ranch in the US, and is constantly under attack by developers, an Indian Reservation and politicians. There are three seasons, with more in the works. – Amelia C.
The Great British Baking Show
The accents. And the recipes. Come for the baking tips; stay for the friendships. – Matt C.
If Hitchcock had reimagined One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you would have this “yes, Netflix, I am still watching” thrilling short series. And while the plot intricacies and suspense mean you can’t look away, you’re just as glued to the screen for how visually beautiful all those 1940s sets and costumes are. – Matt C.
Little Fires Everywhere
Features the acting prowess of Reese and Kerry gripping storyline.. Unreal. – Kate L.
This is a television show I binged in one weekend when it first popped up on Netflix, and I’ve been recommending it ever since. What struck me most about this show was how unlike anything else it really was. It’s a police procedural, but it’s nothing like Law & Order. It explores painful and thorny issues, specifically sexual assault, but it never feels preachy or exploitative. It was made by women and features some of the most interesting female characters I’ve seen on screen in years, with an incredible lead performance by Kaitlyn Dever (totally different from her role in Booksmart, a movie I loved last year!) – Angelica B.
Its six-season run ended in 2020, and this final season was in turns hilarious, exasperating, and deeply moving for a cartoon about a toxic horse. – Suzanne B.
Without a doubt, one of my favorite shows of all time. It’s clever, funny, and fundamentally about love–the antidote I think we all need for this dumpster fire of a year. – Pascale C.
The Queen’s Gambit
No way I’m alone in this one. It has everything. solid plot, beautifully shot, stunning fashion – all anchored in a girl’s journey toward dominating the game of chess. – Everyone
Never forget the human drama that captivated us all when we needed it most, aka Carole Baskin definitely killed her husband. Like, definitely. – Matt C.
This series is especially wonderful because it twists historical moments and pulls out the comedy in them, and as a history buff I love that media is being produced that makes history more appealing to modern audiences. I’ve been listening to a really interesting podcast called Revisionist History, which I enjoy because it takes obscure historical moments and really puts them under a unique lens to uncover what it all really means. – Daniel K.
“…And then Tik-Tok has taken off so I of course tune into that.” – Cooper D.
Crazy Stupid Love, Palm Springs, Everything on Disney+.
I feel like the Disney+ inclusion goes without saying. You really can’t miss with anything on there. I thought Palm Springs was genuinely one of most cleverly-done movies of the year – obviously there aren’t many contenders this year, but I was really surprised and impressed. And as a big rom-com guy, Crazy Stupid Love is just the best one out there. I’ve watched it a dozen times, probably have a dozen more in me. Maybe this also goes without saying, but I unironically love Ryan Gosling. – Hunter K.
Aamir Khan is an Indian actor who makes, quite simply, the best movies in the world. His best are all on Netflix at the moment, namely 3 Idiots and Dangal. – Sean S.
The Social Dilemma.
It’s a “docu-drama” on the effects of our increasing dependence on social media and digital technology… incredibly scary. – Steve Y.
The Last Dance
A saga about Michael Jordan’s career that got me through the cancelled NBA post season. – Michelle Z.
I Am Not Your Negro
A documentary of James Baldwin’s last work detailing his relationship with Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X, and Megar Evers. Samuel L Jackson narrates this documentary and I was blown away the entire time. – Rohit J.
This podcast has been a tool that I have turned many of my friends to. If you are unfamiliar, the hosts are extremely personable and easy to listen to, and make discussions revolving around race and intersectionality much more accessible to people who do not have a ton of experience discussing those topics. – Phil G.
This is a once-weekly podcast hosted by the Times’ opinion writers, who discuss and debate current events. In a time of partisan division, “The Argument” is a welcome repository of intelligent and engaging discussion of today’s many controversies. – Ken H.
All of its hosts and guests are women, and it is filled with smart and often humorous commentary on politics and popular culture. I love nerding out about gender and legal analysis, so this podcast is very much my thing. – Monica S.
A podcast about the greatest rewatchable movies of the past 50 years. With a carousel of guests that have great chemistry, this podcast has fun commentary on a wide variety of movies in all different genres. – Luis V.
Emotional stories about people grappling with past regrets, trauma, misunderstandings as the host tracks down the people involved in these past events to try to bring healing. Although told in an often comedic way and not overly sentimental, each episode packs an emotional punch. – Chris P.
A podcast that touches on much less pressing topics. It’s great for a laugh, or to hear an absurd story where you end up learning all about something you didn’t know existed (like the entire media sound effect industry or teenage hacking groups). It is generally focused on tech issues and more obscure/niche/under-covered current events. – Phil G.
Our number one piece of advice? Write down the books and media that you’re actually interested in, not those that you think a college wants to see. Above all, colleges and universities are looking for curious, thoughtful, and motivated individuals, ready to engage in their institution of higher learning and the world around them. We already know that’s you. Show them!
P.S.: Looking for more? Check out a full list of CP tutors top reads, watches and listens for 2020.