Friday, December 26, 2008

How I Survived This Semester Without Buying Any Textbooks

I have been going to college on and off since the fall of 2002. While this can be discouraging at times, I feel like I have also learned some valuable things along the way. For example: In most cases, buying textbooks for college classes is completely unnecessary. With the internet and good old-fashioned libraries (heard of them?), you can usually find all the information you need to successfully get through your classes.

For the past fall and summer semesters combined, I took 12 hours (I have to spread it out due to the chronic pain). For those 4 courses, I saved somewhere between $256 and $341.20 according to the Colorado State University Bookstore's "used" and "new" prices. You may be thinking "well don't buy your textbooks from the university bookstore - everyone knows you can get them cheaper online!" But why buy them online when you don't need to spend any money at all?

Here are some resources I used the past six months:
  • Libraries - I almost always check here first, because nothing beats having an exact (but free) copy of what you need. Sometimes libraries only have an older edition available, but in my experience this is not too much of a problem. The only noticeable difference for me has been page numbers and chapter orders. If you have assigned reading and your syllabus only lists page numbers, you can often figure out from the book's website what chapter this will be in older version. Another slight downside is the time limit, but most libraries let you renew up to the point where you could have the book for nine weeks. And you can always check it out again after you've returned it. Be sure to check both university and local libraries. Also see if interlibrary loan is an option - Fort Collins is part of Prospector, which makes items from 22 libraries around the state (along with 1 in Wyoming) available.
  • Google Book Search - This is a great way to electronically view some or all of a textbook. One of my favorite features is that you can search for specific words and phrases. Results are instantly displayed with the searched words highlighted on each page.
  • The Textbook's Website - Most textbooks these days boast online features. In some cases, these sites can be more useful than the book itself, like when I took a biology course this past fall. The site provided online flashcards with all the terms and definitions I needed to study for my quizzes and exams, sorted by chapter and alphabetized.
  • - This is fantastic site if you need more information on a topic, because it combines several resources. For instance, if you type in "endoplasmic reticulum," you get entries from a dictionary, sci-tech encyclopedia, dental dictionary, the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, and Wikipedia.
  • Google - When all else fails, just Google it. Or sometimes starting with Google can be the fastest. Sometimes I've had questions on a study guide where topical searching just doesn't cut it, like "Who said 'sensing + selecting + perceiving = seeing' and what does it mean?” Most everyone knows that Google is going to be your best friend for stuff like this. During an English course in the summer, I had a reading assignment from the textbook which was a reprint of several articles found online. I typed the article titles in Google and survived yet another assignment without buying the textbook.
These strategies are not going to work for every class. Sometimes you have to cough up the money because there is no way to make it through the class without owning your own copy, like a math course where problems are assigned from the textbook every week. Or maybe it's a book you actually think you might use or read again, like the AP Stylebook.

But whether you think you will need the textbook or not, at least wait until the first day of class to see what the professor says. Last semester I had a professor list 2 books (over $80 at the campus bookstore) only to announce on the first day that the same information was available online for free. I once had a history professor who listed a book on his syllabus but explained it would not be necessary for the course, he just liked the book and thought we might too.

So wait awhile before you commit to buying hundreds of dollars worth of books you may only use for 4 months and then never touch again. There are plenty of alternative options out there that are free and usually more efficient.


At 10:36 AM, Anonymous Gwen said...

I've found libraries to be a real blessing. They helped me a lot while I was at university.


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