These best books set in school provide the most compelling setting for themes like coming-of-age, young love, and drama with classmates.
There’s just something about a school setting! Maybe because it brings us all back to our own youths. They are especially great to read in the Fall, and so this list is also a great companion to my list of best Fall books.
I read as many of the best books set in school as I could and am sharing all of my personal favorites below, from classics to newbies.
My focus is on sharing books set in school where high school and college play pivotal roles in the themes and storylines, not just books where a character or characters happen to be attending school, but the book is about something else.
Top 3 Best Books Set in School
All the Best Books Set in School
Admission by Julie Buxbaum
In the Young Adult novel Admission, Chloe is admitted to the college of her dreams and feels like she has it all… until the FBI shows up to arrest her mother for bribing the school to grant her admission. With the spotlight on her, she must piece together what happened and how much she really knew.
Admissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School by Kendra James
A Most Anticipated Book by Vogue.com, Parade, Town & Country, Nylon, New York Post, Lit Hub, BookRiot, Electric Literature, Glamour, Marie Claire, Publishers Weekly, Bustle, Fodor’s Travel, Business Insider, Pop Sugar, InsideHook, and SheReads
In Admissions, the author is an admissions officer specializing in diversity recruitment for independent prep schools. A few years earlier, she was the first African-American legacy student at a boarding school.
Through her work, she realizes how disillusioned she became with America’s inequitable system, based on both her own experiences and popular culture. It’s an unforgettable memoir of stories that are both funny and troubling.
The Admissions by Meg Mitchell Moore
The Admissions caught my attention because it was recommended by one of my favorite authors, Elin Hilderbrand. The Hawthornes are the perfect California family.
But eldest daughter Angela’s senior year, struggling to maintain valedictorian status and get into Harvard, sets them all into a tailspin. It’s a very realistic modern story with challenges that parents and teens alike can relate to, as well as a few SAT words sprinkled in here and there.
When all of their secrets come to light, they are forced to reevaluate how they feel about achievement.
The Divines by Ellie Eaton
Recommended by Entertainment Weekly, CNN, Harper’s BAZAAR, E! Online, Refinery 29, Bustle, Shondaland, Vulture, The Millions, Lit Hub, Electric Literature, Parade, MSN, and more!
The Divines is another book that caught my attention when author Elin Hilderbrand mentioned it. St. John the Divine is an English boarding school filled with sassy teenage female students.
When Josephine returns to her alma mater fifteen years later, she slowly recalls the details of the dark scandal that unfolded at the end of her tenure there, and it threatens to destroy her entire identity. It’s as dark and intriguing as you may imagine from this description.
Educated by Tara Westover
#1 NEW YORK TIMES, WALL STREET JOURNAL, AND BOSTON GLOBE BESTSELLER
Educated is a book I read a long time ago but never forgot and often think of — I even wrote an entire post about Educated with quotes and discussion questions years later.
It is a memoir by a woman who was raised in the mountains of Idaho as a member of a survivalist Mormon family. Her mother was a midwife and natural healer, and her father ran a junkyard. In his free time, he was a religious fanatic preparing to survive an apocalypse.
As Westover journeys through life amidst this unique backdrop and excels despite a lot of different forms of abuse, she questions a lot of things – most importantly, what is an education? This is one of the best books set in school you will want to deep dive on and back-to-school (whatever that means this year) was a great time to do it. It will leave you gasping.
Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger
- #1 NYT bestseller
- Sports Illustrated’s best football book of all time
Before the movie and the tv show, there was Friday Night Lights the book, the non-fiction story of a Texas high school football team whose season is central to the entire small town of Odessa.
The Permian Panthers were the winningest high school football team in Texas history and while the town is united by football each September through December, it’s divided by race, class, and other societal issues.
The author is an outsider observer of the cultural phenomenon that is Texas football in the Fall for an entire season in 1988, in this unforgettable narrative of one town and one team reaching for a school championship.
The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger
INSTANT NATIONAL BESTSELLER
The Gifted School brings to the surface the emotions that fester under the surface level of many communities of parents and children. This is what happens when a “gifted” school opens nearby and they are consumed with doing whatever it takes, at any cost, to be a part of it.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a long beloved book that reminds me of my childhood. He’s a traditional teacher who learns from a woman that teaching is about so much more. As he opens his heart and develops a sense of humor, he becomes a memorable educator to his students.
Good Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison
Good Girls Lie is one wild ride that you won’t be able to put down by the last one hundred pages. SO much happens in this psychological thriller set at a girls’ boarding school in Virginia after British student Ash Carr arrives on campus.
At the outset, the reader learns that someone is dead — hanging from the school gates, but the who, why, and how is unknown. But that’s not nearly the only death at issue in this twisted novel.
The story is told from numerous perspectives in small tidbits, laying out a trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to follow as the truth unfolds. With this type of storytelling, it’s hard to know who to believe — and that’s part of what makes Good Girls Lie unputdownable.
There are school politics, secret societies, Honor codes, haunted histories in a sprawling mid-Atlantic campus, and everything you can want from a book set in school, as you wait to learn who lives and who dies and more importantly — who is behind it all.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Over 500 million copies of the series sold
If you haven’t already read or watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, what are you waiting for?!
I first got into Harry Potter as a 37-year-old by watching the movies. As someone who is not really into fantasy, I surprisingly loved them! I then listened to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone the book on audio and loved that as well. It’s a modern classic that was utterly imaginative and escapist for both the young and young at heart.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is the most magical of the best books set in school, as young, orphaned Harry studies wizardry.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
- #1 New York Times Bestseller!
- Goodreads Choice Awards Best of the Best
- William C. Morris Award Winner
- National Book Award Longlist
- Printz Honor Book
- Coretta Scott King Honor Book
The Hate U Give is one of my favorite Black Lives Matter books and one of my all-time favorite audiobooks (seriously, it reads like a movie). It’s the story of Starr Carter, an African American teenage girl who lives in a “thug” neighborhood but goes to an upper-class, white private school. After she witnesses Khalil, her unarmed African American friend, be shot and killed by a police officer during a routine stop, she struggles in dealing with the aftermath while living in two very distinct and different worlds.
The Hate U Give begs for a heroine, and Starr is authentic, brave, honest, resilient, and multi-dimensional as she gets tangled in the web of home life versus school life.
The Hate U Give is a politically charged coming-of-age story that touches upon issues of race, class, and police brutality in the voice and eyes of vibrant characters, and it feels like a fresh perspective, neither forced nor preachy.
The Hate U Give is one of the best books set in school that needed to be told and to be told this way. The Hate U Give is a Young Adult novel, but anyone over the age of sixteen can, and should, read this book.
I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe
I Am Charlotte Simmons is a coming-of-age social satire you will likely either love or hate. Charlotte is a sheltered college freshman who quickly learns that college has a wild side, and it’s inhabited by jocks, frat brothers, and students in powerful positions.
She’s faced with the same dilemma many college students faced — to be true to herself and an outcast or to give up her innocence for acceptance.
The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Fans of The Silent Patient scooped up this author’s second novel, The Maidens. Mariana is a therapist who believes a university’s charming Greek tragedy professor has murdered her niece’s friend and member of the female secret society The Maidens.
After another death, Mariana becomes obsessed with the group and determined to prove the professor’s guilt at any cost.
While it’s gotten mixed reviews, I found it to be really well written overall, with complex layers beyond that of most thrillers that kept me intrigued throughout; however, I admit that I wasn’t particularly crazy about the ending. That being said, I feel like it’s well worth the read.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
New York Times bestseller
My Brilliant Friend is my favorite book of all time!! “Brilliant” is actually an understatement to me — perhaps mesmerizing or intoxicating better suits this modern classic. But, it’s not for everyone. I recommend it to lovers of literature and/or character-driven novels.
My Brilliant Friend is the first book in an epic saga series about two young female friends, Lila and Elena, growing up impoverished in Naples, Italy, in the 1950s. The main theme is how their lives change as Elena remains formally educated and Lila does not. Lila is gritty, impulsive, and “bad,” but she has unparalleled natural intelligence. Elena is polite, analytical, and “good.” Elena’s natural gifts cannot match Lila’s, despite decades of hard work.
Lila and Elena are maddeningly complex, and their friendship and relations with a robust cast of family and neighborhood characters made me feel the deepest feelings I have felt about literary characters and their choices. You will want to scream, “I cannot believe she did that!” more times than you can count.
My Brilliant Friend is an intimate portrait of life at this time and place, to be observed for its truths from a distance. This is what makes this immersive novel exceptional and one of the best books set in school.
My Oxford Year by Julia Whelan
My Oxford Year is “smart chick lit.” It follows 24-year-old Ella on her year living her dream of studying literature on a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University in England. In doing so, she walks away from a career in American politics, working for a female presidential candidate.
Along the way, she meets a few bold, quirky British friends that could have been straight out of Bridget Jones’ Diary, as well as her young, pretentious professor, Jamie Davenport, also known as the “posh brat.”
Sure enough, despite that which makes Jamie unlikable, Ella and Jamie become “teacher and student with benefits.” It’s just a physical thing, as Ella already has her Oxford year fully planned, as well as her return to American politics thereafter. Also, Jamie is known as a “three dates” kind of guy.
As My Oxford Year progresses, Jamie tells Ella a lie, and then deeper secrets are revealed. Cue the tears. The story goes places both expected and unexpected, and Ella is forced to make a life-altering choice. This is one of the best books set in school that I recommend to everyone because it is so universally beloved.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go was one of the most unique of the best books set in school, as it’s science fiction. The writing is so refined, which makes it a page-turner, but the mystery story is revealed in little tidbits throughout, which makes it a slow burn.
Hailsham is the kind of boarding school where students are supported and trained heavily in arts, but its students are allowed little contact with the outside world and are watched over by “guardians.”
After leaving Hailsham, Kathy becomes a “carer” for what are called “donors” and alongside her former classmates, Ruth and Tommy, they uncover the truth about Halisham and themselves.
It’s very much a science fiction mystery book, but also a love story and a statement on the value of human life that you won’t soon forget. I would recommend Never Let Me Go for fans of literary fiction and science fiction. I’ve also heard a lot of people say it was required reading for them.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Ninth House is a wildly popular book about secret societies in the Ivy League school, Yale. Alex has seemingly thrown her life away after a difficult upbringing and a stream of bad choices. But, when she’s the sole survivor of a homicide, she’s offered a second chance to start over at Yale with a full scholarship.
There, she’s tasked with monitoring the school’s elite secret societies, which are full of more sinister activity and dark magic than she could have ever anticipated.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
New York Times Bestseller
Normal People is a book that people either love or hate. I think those who love character-driven novels may fall into the “love” category. It’s all about character, and despite a lot of darkness, it remains one of my favorite love stories.
Normal People begins when Connell and Marianne are in high school. Marianne is an unpopular outcast, and so Connell keeps their relationship a secret. Ultimately, the burden on him of keeping this secret pushes them apart.
When Connell and Marianne attend college, she is the popular one and Connell has become a recluse. They drift in and out of each other’s lives in ways that tug at the reader’s emotions and, for better or worse, they change the course of each other’s lives.
Normal People is one of the best books set in school because it is a thought-provoking novel that explores themes of class, youth, worth/shame, abuse, and mental health. It also embraces the highest of highs and the lowest of lows that can be so characteristic of young love.
Old School by Tobias Wolff
Finalist for the Pen Faulkner Award
Old School became known to me because it’s on the Rory Gilmore book list of books mentioned on Gilmore Girls. Set in a 1960 prep school, it’s about a student who yearns to become a writer but must first learn how to be himself rather than fit in with his privileged classmates.
One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus
One of Us Is Lying is one of the best books set in school that is for Young Adults and has the vibe of the 80’s cult classic, The Breakfast Club, with a deadly twist. After five students walk into detention at Bayview High (the brain, the beauty, the criminal, the athlete, and the outcast), one ends up dead, and the others are left suspects, scrambling to uncover the truth behind the death.
Everyone has a secret in high school, and this maxim certainly applies to the characters of One of Us Is Lying. As they struggle with protecting or revealing their secrets to getting to the bottom of the mystery, there are satisfying twists in this beloved read, as the truth is ultimately revealed.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
- #1 New York Times Bestseller
- Over 5 million copies sold
I expected The Perks of Being a Wallflower to be another angsty teenage high school drama, but I was completely blown away by it, and it ended up becoming one of my favorite novels ever!
While it IS an angsty teenage high school drama, it’s SO much more than that. It’s one of the most beautifully crafted coming of age, character-driven stories about overcoming trauma through friendship, family, art, and most of all, participating in life, difficult as it may be.
It’s both haunting and hopeful, and I hope you pick it up.
For more, read my The Perks of Being a Wallflower summary with quotes.
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
Prep was one of my favorite books of the early 2000s, and it’s one of the best books set in school because it reads like a Judy Blume coming-of-age novel.
Scholarship student Lee Fiora is an observant teenager from South Bend, Indiana, upon her arrival at the Ault School in Massachusetts, with rose-colored eyes for the school’s glossy brochure, with boys in sweaters and girls in kilts amongst stately brick buildings and meticulous green fields.
She is both intimidated and fascinated by her classmates, as an insider and outsider in their world. Then, her identity is shattered when she publicly self-destructs.
Ultimately, her experiences as a student, friend, daughter, and girlfriend can be said to be a portrait of each of us dealing with adolescence.
Rush by Lisa Patton
In Rush, Cali is a small-town girl with secrets, desperate to get into a sorority at Ole Miss. But, the elders in the Alpha Delta Beta house bring more drama than you can imagine.
The students become determined to make changes as older and newer generations and traditions clash, and these complex women are faced with how to deal with each other. It’s a really riveting story that tackles age, race, and class in nuanced ways through the eyes of memorable characters.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Secret History by Donna Tartt, author of The Goldfinch is a MUST READ for book lovers, and it’s the ultimate thriller/suspense/mystery book. A favorite of Reese Witherspoon and Jenna Bush Hager, I knew I had to read it! It’s a modern classic for sure, with some of the best writing (especially dialogue) I’ve ever read.
The Secret History is about an outcast from California, desperate to fit in, who attends a preppy college in Vermont in the ’80s and becomes friends with his fellow Greek classmates, a dark crew. Ultimately, their obsession with Greek has deadly consequences, and the novel explores the lead-up to these events as well as the aftermath, in which the crew spiral downward in processing the gravity of their actions.
It gave me the vibes of The Catcher in the Rye and The Talented Mr. Ripley. The ending had a lot of suspense, and I felt like there was a lot of payoff and really no way of “figuring out” where it would go. I also adored the picturesque setting and 80’s school mood. It’s one of the best books set in school because I felt transported to the time and also like I actually knew the characters, and I was constantly trying to “cast” them for a hypothetical movie.
In conclusion, PUT THIS ONE ON YOUR LIST!
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
A Separate Peace is the most classic of the best books set in school, and I remember my high school class universally loving it. It’s a commentary on lost innocence at the time of World War II when America itself lost its innocence.
At a New England boys’ boarding school, Gene, a lonely intellectual befriends, Phineas, a handsome athlete, and over the course of one Summer, what happens between them shatters their innocence forever.
I recommend A Separate Peace to those who want a classic that’s easily readable and very satisfying in a modern context.
They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman
They Wish They Were Us has been described as One of Us is Lying meets The Secret History and Gossip Girl, and I would agree with that!
At Gold Coast Prep in Long Island, New York, scholarship student Jill’s best friend Shaila, was killed by her boyfriend three years earlier, and he is now behind bars.
But like the lives of Jill and her group of friends – “The Players” — nothing is really what it seems. Jill begins to question Shaila’s death while also dealing with prep school issues like cheating and getting into an Ivy League college.
They Wish They Were Us is one of the best books set in school because it’s exactly what you may expect it to be — a quick, engaging YA mystery with a prep school setting.
True Biz by Sara Novic
- NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
- ONE OF THE MOST ANTICIPATED BOOKS OF 2022—Oprah Daily, The Millions, Lit Hub, Publishers Weekly, BookPage
True Biz is a unique book with a deaf school setting, and it was a popular Reese’s Book Club pick. It’s the story of colorful students like Charlie, a rebellious student who’s never met another deaf person before; Austin, the school’s golden boy, whose baby sister was born hearing; and February, the hearing headmistress, a CODA (child of deaf adult(s)), who is struggling to both keep the school open and keep her marriage intact.
Their lives become changed forever when a series of crises challenge them and take the reader deep into the Deaf community with a story that celebrates human connection.
That concludes the list of the best books set in school.
If you read this list because you are looking for Fall books, also check out my list of the best books set in the Fall.