What higher education can learn from my five-star reads of 2023


Getting a Kindle changed my life. 

No, I’m not being dramatic, and yes, I have never been so sure of a single statement in my whole life. 

Okay, maybe the second part is a bit dramatic. But on Christmas Day in 2022, I unwrapped an Item I Swore I’d Never Use, claiming that I was a Paperback Gal through and through. 

“I like the feeling of holding a physical book!” I’d say to anyone who didn’t ask. “I’m building a library!” I’d tell my fiancé when he asked why I was hoarding boxes of books in our closet. “There’s just something about flipping through the pages!” I’d remind myself when another targeted ad for the newest Kindle came across my social feeds. 

Based on this article’s opening line, you can probably surmise that I was wrong in my anti-Kindle rhetoric. So, so wrong. 

By Christmas Day 2023, I was closing in on 47 books. Out of those 47, some struck me to my core, some brought forth emotions that should be illegal for a single book to do, and others were, well, fine. Good additions to the reading roster, nonetheless. 

As a full-time copywriter, so much of my reading inspires my writing. So as I inched closer and closer to my reading goal, I found myself employing new storytelling strategies in my work. Between my job and my fictitious dream of becoming a full-time BookTok influencer, there are few things I know to be true, and this is one hill I will die on: To tell a story takes skill, but to captivate a reader takes artistry.

Many of my 2023 five-star reads showcased this level of craftsmanship, but, as someone who is incredibly particular about her book-rating system, only three novels went above and beyond anything I had ever seen. 

Regardless of the work you do at your college or university, you’re a storyteller and brand ambassador. In each of these three books, there is a storytelling opportunity — whether from the plot or the author’s skill — that all of us can learn and benefit from. 

Book 1: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Genres: Novel, Romance, Historical Fiction, Fantasy, War Story 

Synopsis: A tale of gods, kings, immortal fame, and the human heart, The Song of Achilles is a dazzling literary feat that brilliantly reimagines Homer’s enduring masterwork, The Iliad. An action-packed adventure, an epic love story, and a marvelously conceived and executed page-turner, this monumental debut novel has already earned resounding acclaim from some of contemporary fiction’s brightest lights.

How can this apply to higher education? 

There are only a few books that have made me sob uncontrollably. This was one of them. When we feel a deep connection to a character, understand their tribulations, and root for them to triumph, we buy in. Big time. 

I’m not suggesting you make prospective students cry. I don’t think that would have a positive effect on yield rates. What I am suggesting is that your storytelling should evoke emotion. Prospective students want to feel a sense of connection before they step on campus. They want to feel seen and heard in your university’s marketing efforts. They want to gain confidence that they will thrive, not just as students but as people. 

Tip: Create student profiles that empower and inspire others, develop a Q&A series with faculty that showcases personality and educates readers, or feature alumni to show how their (hero’s) journey has evolved since graduating. 

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Book 2: Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau 

Genres: Coming-of-Age, Humorous Fiction, Urban Fiction 

Synopsis: Almost Famous meets Daisy Jones & The Six in this delightful novel about a 14-year-old girl’s coming of age in 1970s Baltimore, caught between her strait-laced family and the progressive family she nannies for — who happen to be secretly hiding a famous rock star and his movie star wife for the summer.

How can this apply to higher education?

College, just like this book, is a coming-of-age story. Traditional first-year students are experiencing many firsts. Maybe this is their first time sharing a room with someone or the first time they’ve ever been away from home for an extended period. With all of these changes and a new environment to navigate, students, like this novel’s Mary Jane, need a strong support system to flourish and grow into the people they’re destined to become. 

In an ideal world, and as we see in every coming-of-age movie, first-year students would meet one to three salt-of-the-earth people the minute they step on campus and would instantly become best friends with them. But realistically, building a strong network of friends takes time, so this is where the university gets to be the hero. 

All colleges offer an array of student support services, from counseling to state-of-the-art fitness facilities to tutoring and mentorship opportunities. Incredibly, students are not without options when it comes to their well-being. But most times, when schools talk about student support, they often do so from the university’s perspective. What would it look like to flip the point of view and let students become the advocates for the school’s support systems?

Tip: Create an Instagram or TikTok series where students talk about the support services they’ve used and benefited from. By flipping the POV, first-year students will feel less alone in their experiences, and they’ll learn about new services. This kind of content will go beyond talking about a support service to showing its value.  

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Book 3: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus 

Genres: Humor, Tragicomedy, Political Fiction

Synopsis: Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. But it’s the early 1960s, and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute takes a very unscientific view of equality. Except for one: Calvin Evans, the lonely, brilliant, Nobel Prize-nominated grudge-holder who falls in love with — of all things — her mind. But like science, life is unpredictable.

How can this apply to higher education?

As the title suggests, there are many lessons to be learned, both from covalent bonds and the author’s craft. Since I only took one science course in college and passed by the skin of my teeth, I’m going to refrain from speaking about the role that chemistry plays in craft — though as I type that, I don’t hate the idea of someone (who’s not me) publishing an article on that next. 

The character of Elizabeth Zott is a brilliant chemist and academic. Like so many graduate students and professors, she is well-versed in her research area and determined to leave her mark. It’s common for higher education institutions to highlight students and alumni across their marketing materials, and it’s not uncommon for students to choose or stay at an institution based on their teachers and the mentorship they can provide. 

Your faculty deserve to be the main characters in some of your stories. I believe that my alma mater is home to some of the most brilliant minds around. As an alumna, I get giddy with excitement when I see my university publish an article about one of my past professors or share their accomplishments. I have a feeling your students will feel this way, too. 

Tip: In admission materials, highlight the work your faculty are doing, whether that’s relating a success story, developing a feature on their research, or detailing how their classes are making an impact. Imagine how encouraging it will be for students to see the level of academic brilliance they will be privy to. 

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At Ologie, we believe in shopping and supporting local businesses. Every book mentioned in this article is linked to Serenity Book Shop, a small, Black-owned bookstore located in Columbus, Ohio. 

So what can higher education learn from an Ologist’s five-star reads? The short version: placing people at the center of storytelling is a winning strategy that builds connection with readers, establishes distinction across the industry, and provides a space for change-makers to share their stories and feel recognized and seen by their university. 

Your campus, regardless of size, is packed with people with fascinating stories just waiting to be told. Go find them. Your target audience will be so grateful you did.