A guide to the guides

Every fall, eager students head off for the college experience. Some graduates are eagerly awaiting freedom from parental constraints and a four-year long party full of mayhem. These college-bound cannot wait to close the book on high school and taste the freedom of campus life where anything goes.

"We can do anything we want. We're college students!"

This cry was the theme of the 1978-filmed spoof "Animal House" starring the late John Belushi. The hilarious filmed conflict surrounded the members of a highly disreputable fraternity made up of elder (Saturday Night Live alums) ne'er-do-wells who smear the good name of Faber College.

A stock villain with an appropriate moniker of Dean Vernon Wormer would like to get the goofballs off campus so he enlists the help of members of a fraternity of rich and self-righteous young men harboring a mean streak. Life on campus evolves into chaos and toilet jokes, resulting in two hours of belly laughs and the expectation for some that college life is really a last fling of adolescence, and a let's get drunk and party experience, rather than a putting away of childish tendencies.

Several years after the film's release in 1984, author and humorist Lisa Birnbach and her team of researchers scoured colleges across the length and breadth of this country seeking the inside dirt. The result was the entertaining "The College Book." Ms. Birnbach came to the public eye as author of the best-selling "The Official Preppy Handbook," and the college guide was another effort in the same genre.Ms. Birnbach had a sly and original approach for selecting colleges based on the oft-repeated cry of the times heralding sex, drugs and rock 'n roll.

Her team of researchers brought back statistics such as the schools with the best-looking males followed by ones having the worst looking. (Indiana University of Pennsylvania won the ugly accolade and good-naturedly responded by holding an Ugly Male Contest.) The ball was a-rolling: college planning was fodder for entertainment and a source of income for publishers. Ms. Birnbach also pointed out colleges with inedible food, substandard dorms, lackluster instructors and drugs a plenty; in other words, schools where partying was the be all and end all of the college experience.

Schools where serious study reigned were delegated to the Den of Nerds category throughout her guide, characterized as places where spectacled students buried themselves in cavernous libraries. Ms. Birnbach dissected college life in ranting and raving prose. And although this guide is out of print, those plucky enough to seek it for a highly entertaining evening should look on eBay or at used bookstores.

Recognizing the success of Ms. Birnbach, other more traditional college guides took heed and began to add larger portions of the text on life outside the classroom. Examples are the 30-year-old "Insider's Guide" published by the Yale University Press and the "Fisk Guides" written by a former education editor of the New York Times. They now feature gossipy tidbits on college life. However, the most rabid interloper has been the vast conglomerate called Princeton Review founded by John Katzman, a brilliant marketer, in 1981.

I first got wind of the a new exciting SAT prep class from students attending high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who traditionally hired tutors or were driven to the original Kaplan Center in Brooklyn for classes. Now they were euphoric, attending prep classes, which offered dances where private school students intermingled, and had bagel parties upon completion of the course.

Recent cute and smart college graduates taught the classes, providing further incentives. Advertisements for the Princeton Review espoused its Ivy League home when actually the photos on the front of the original brochure were of an elite private school in Brooklyn.

Not content with being a test preparation program, the Princeton Review soon branched out, ultimately covering all aspects of the market, including its own insider's college guide, taking the Birnbach style and regurgitating to make it more palatable for the mass market. Touting this as "The Best 351 Colleges," schools are categorized with cute slogans such as Schools that Run like Butter, Dorms like Dungeons and Reefer Madness.

Each selection starts with a coy segment entitled "Students Speak Out," though one can never be sure if a student really spoke the attributed words or how many voiced their opinion, be it full of praises or disgruntled complaints. As with Ms. Birnbach, the entertainment value is built in and, like the popular reality shows, there to be enjoyed. However, because of its definitive title, this guide has become the ultimate source for some students and their families who set their sights on getting into one of the 351, and, when and if this does not happen, they shrink into the sidelines, afraid to admit failure and portending all their efforts in high school did not result in acceptance at one of the chosen schools.

With the advent of widespread Internet use, Web sites have sprung up providing more inside information about real college life. No matter how dubious the sources and reliability, many college-bound youth become addicted. They take to heart all statistics and messages posted about life inside schools. College Confidential is one of the larger sites and professes to have everything for everyone. One could easily become so addicted to the site that graduating from high school itself might be put in jeopardy. Thus, the schlock value capitalizing on anxiety about college acceptance has grown and made many rich since the days of "Animal House."

A word to the wise: enjoy reading the books and remember college is much more about books than all-night sprees. Incoming freshmen, be wary or you might find yourself coming home after the first semester. After all, John Belushi was an actor way over the typical college age.