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We’ve assembled this collection of 11 books to read before college to help you improve your vocabulary and reading comprehension skills while simultaneously helping you prepare for the SAT

Only have 20 minutes of free time per day in your packed junior year schedule? That’s perfect! According to a study conducted by Nagy and Herman in 1987, that’s enough time to learn 1,800,000 words per year. According to the same study, students who read just 20 minutes a day gain the reading and comprehension skills necessary to score in the 90th percentile on standardized tests. 

Reading is one of the most valuable ways to spend your free time. If you feel like you don’t have enough time to read, you may need to manage your time more effectively. Instead of only surfing social networks, invest some time into yourself by picking up one of these engaging 11th grade reading level books. 

Classic Literature 

The ACT Reading Test includes a handful of long reading passages, while each question on the digital SAT ELA Test is its own mini-passage. Regardless of which college admissions test you’re taking, you should be have strong ELA skills, and reading the classics is a great way to hone your reading abilities.

Piqosity has chosen a series of classic books to read before college so engaging that you won’t even realize you are building vocabulary, improving your reading comprehension, and preparing for the SAT. 

1. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

pride and prejudice book coverSecuring a top spot on nearly every SAT reading list on the web (and in our ELA 10 course), Pride and Prejudice tells the turbulent love story of lively and intelligent Elizabeth Bennet and snobbish aristocrat Mr. Darcy. Set in rural England at a time when one’s reputation was of the utmost importance, Austen explores the theme of social class. As demonstrated by the following quote, her characters are painfully aware of the fact that marrying under one’s social rank is unacceptable in the eyes of society.

“I have an excessive regard for Miss Jane Bennet, she is really a very sweet girl, and I wish with all my heart she were well settled. But with such a father and mother, and such low connections, I am afraid there is no chance of it.” (Austen, Chapter 8)

Elizabeth Bennet, however, rejects these societal norms and refuses to marry for money. Stubborn at first, Elizabeth starts to overcome her prejudice and Mr. Darcy swallows his pride, and they fall in love.

Everyone should read Pride and Prejudice at least once in their lifetime, but you shouldn’t save this one for later. Reading Pride and Prejudice in 11th grade will help you build and strengthen your vocabulary, and you’ll slay on the literary passage on the SAT. (Plus, you can watch—or rewatch—the acclaimed 2005 movie with a deeper understanding of the story Austen developed!)

2. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

tale of two cities book cover“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” (Dickens, Chapter 1) 

These opening lines are from one of the most widely read novels in history: A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel set in London and Paris before and during the French revolution. English novelist Charles Dickens takes readers on a journey back in time to a turbulent period of great social and political unrest. Even though the novel takes place forever ago, its timeless themes remain relevant and interesting to today’s generation.

Dickens uses satire and a little bit of humor to shed light on serious issues like class conflict and social injustice. A Tale of Two Cities is a worthy addition to this list of books to read before college due to its ongoing resonance with readers of all generations. The novel is full of challenging vocabulary, so make sure to keep a dictionary close by. 

3. Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

don quixote book coverThe oldest novel on the list and the most widely translated, this classic Spanish novel secures the third spot on our list of books to read before college. Miguel de Cervantes blurs the line between imagination and reality to tell the epic tale of unlikely hero Don Quixote. Accompanied by his faithful squire, self-proclaimed knight Don Quixote seeks out adventures and opportunities to conquer evil and restore chivalry. 

“Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves.” (Cervantes, Chapter 8)

Though delusional, Don Quixote inspires readers to imagine the impossible and act on their dreams. As demonstrated by the quote above, his vivid imagination turns the windmills into giants so he can achieve his dream of conquering evil. In addition to taking readers on chivalric adventures, Don Quixote offers a plethora of medieval vocabulary and a glimpse into the historical past of España.

¿Hablas español? Try reading the original Don Quijote de la Mancha en español!

Poetry and Plays 

Coming up on our list of books to read before college aren’t actually books, but rather poetry and plays. Reading poetry is a great way to build reading skills and boost your vocabulary. If you are planning on taking the SAT or ACT, we recommend jotting down words in a vocabulary journal as you read. 

4. Macbeth, Shakespeare

Enhance your vocabulary and improve your understanding of the English language with Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s most popular and easy to read plays. Yet another story that exposes the innate evil that lies in every man, Macbeth is a classic tragedy that centers around a tragic hero with a fatal flaw that ultimately leads to his downfall. 

Portrait of William Shakespeare, playwright of Macbeth and dozens of other plays.

“Yet do I fear thy nature

It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness

To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,

Art not without ambition, but without

The illness should attend it.”

(Shakespeare, Act 1 Scene 5)

Macbeth is a must-read for any college-bound 11th grader, but reading Shakespeare can be a little daunting. Before you start, consider watching the play first, or reference an online Shakespearean glossary to familiarize yourself with common terminology. 

5. Odyssey, Homer 

The Odyssey is a classic poem that every student should read before college. Being that it is an epic, it is a long, often book-length, narrative in verse form that retells the heroic journey of a single person or a group of persons (3). The Odyssey follows the journey of the legendary king of Ithaca back home after the Trojan War. 

“As the sail bellied out with the wind, the ship flew through the deep blue water, and the foam hissed against her bows as she sped onward.” (Homer, Book II)

During his 10-year-long journey on his boat, Odysseus bravely battles both natural forces and mythological creatures. A classic adventure story, readers will be entertained by the challenges Odysseus faces and will be inspired by his will to overcome adversity. This read is riveting for all ages, even 11th graders, and it’s a feature in our ELA 9 course!

Contemporary Classics

The remaining novels on our list of books to read before college are contemporary classics. 

These are modern stories that will expand your knowledge, broaden your perspective, and, hopefully, help guide you toward a successful future. These novels are so readable that even the most reluctant readers won’t be able to put them down. 

6. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzerald 

great gatsby book coverAn American classic, The Great Gatsby details Jay Gatsby’s pursuit of the American dream. In an attempt to impress and win back the girl of his dreams, Gatsby gains an exorbitant amount of money and throws large extravagant parties. As demonstrated by the following quote, Daisy Buchanan, the object of his affection, is obsessed with money and material luxury.

They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such – such beautiful shirts before.” (Fitzgerald, Chapter 5)

Overwhelmed by the wealth of the man she left behind, Daisy realizes she’s made a mistake. Will Daisy stay with her husband Tom? Or will she leave him for Gatsby, now that he is rich? Read the book to find out! Full of symbolism and sophisticated vocabulary, this novel (featured in our 11th grade English course) is perfect for any junior who wants to prepare for the SAT or boost their reading comprehension skills.  

7. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

fahrenheit 451 book coverFahrenheit 451 tells the riveting story of a dystopian society where books are censored and burned in order to keep citizens happy. It follows protagonist Guy Montag as he transforms from obedient book-burning fireman to a rebellious book-reader. In addition to teaching us a lot about books, Bradbury covers themes of conformity vs. individuality and distraction vs. happiness. The internal and external conflicts plague the characters, building unmatched suspension throughout the novel. 

Fahrenheit 451 presents a great opportunity to gain exposure to the different kinds of figurative language used in literature, which will ultimately make you more prepared for the reading section of the SAT. As the shortest book on the list so far, we’re sure you will burn through this one. 

“There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.” (Bradbury, page 24)

8. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger 

catcher in the rye book coverThis list of books to read before college wouldn’t be complete without The Catcher in the Rye. More crude than the novels listed above, The Catcher in the Rye is a coming-of-age novel that explores themes like loneliness, depression, loss of innocence, phoniness, and alienation. It is a classic high school book, and for good reason. Holden Caufield, angsty 16-year-old protagonist and narrator, has a voice that resonates with readers, especially teens.  

“I am always saying “Glad to’ve met you” to somebody I’m not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though.” (Salinger, Chapter 12)

Holden Caufield has an opinion on just about everything and everyone, especially people he considers to be phony. Due to his painful past, Holden holds himself personally obligated to protect children from growing up, preserve their innocence, and most importantly, prevent them from becoming phony. Interestingly, the word phony appears in The Catcher in the Rye 48 times (4). Phony isn’t the only vocabulary word you’ll learn by reading this classic novel. Its complex and unique vocabulary and essential literary devices make Catcher and the Rye worthy of a spot in this collection of books to read before college.

9. Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden

memoirs of a geisha book coverCurl up in a chair with this page turner to get a glimpse of early-1900s Japanese culture and tradition. Memoirs of a Geisha follows the life of Chiyo, a young Japanese girl from a destitute fishing village on the coast of Japan. When she is just nine years old, her impoverished father sells her to an okiya, more commonly known as a geisha house, where she endures years of rigorous geisha training. 

“My name back then was Chiyo. I wouldn’t be known by my geisha name, Sayuri, until years later.” (Golden, Chapter 1) 

The novel presents a unique take on your typical coming-of-age story. Her major life events happen within the context of becoming a geisha, a destiny she did not choose for herself. Her new geisha name represents a complete change of identity, both in appearance and mind.

If you want an even more realistic look at this topic, read Geisha, A Life—a firsthand account of the life of Mineko Iwasaki, one of the geishas Golden interviewed when researching for Memoirs of a Geisha.

10. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez

love in the time of cholera book coverAnother novel originally written in Spanish, Love in the Time of Cholera takes place in an unnamed Colombian town devastated by war and illness. Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez draws parallels between lovesickness and literal illness to tell of the lifelong love that his protagonist Florentino Ariza feels for Fermina Daza. Their dreams of getting married and spending the rest of their lives together are crushed by unfortunate circumstances, ultimately  turning their romance into an epic love triangle. 

“The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.” (Márquez, Chapter 4)

Márquez is a master storyteller who will transport you to his home country with his vivid descriptions. The complex plot and dense prose make it challenging, but it is well worth the read. 

11. Lord of the Flies, William Goldin

lord of the flies book coverThe last in our list of novels for 11th grade tells the timeless man vs. nature story of a group of British boys who find themselves stranded on a deserted island. While Ralph, protagonist and elected leader, attempts to create an orderly civilization from scratch, others succumb to savagery. As demonstrated by the following quote, Ralph undergoes the difficult realization that man is inherently evil. 

“Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of a true, wise friend called Piggy.” (Golding, Chapter 12)

Golding’s use of descriptive language brings the story to life, making you feel like you are stranded on the island too. You’ll be so involved in the story that you won’t even realize you are boosting your vocabulary. 

Improve Reading Comprehension with Piqosity

We hope this list of books to read before college has motivated you to find a fictional world to immerse yourself in! The books featured on this list were chosen not only to help you improve your vocabulary and comprehension skills, but also to open your mind and broaden your horizons. 

If you’re struggling with these books or looking for ways to improve your English skills, Piqosity’s here to help! Along with our SAT and ACT test prep courses, we also offer full online English courses—each includes dozens of concept lessons, personalized practice software, and over 100 reading comprehension passages.

The best part? You can try out all of Piqosity’s features with our free community account, which feature a free mini diagnostic exam to evaluate your current ELA skills. When you’re ready to upgrade, Piqosity’s year-long accounts start at only $89.