Book Gifts for High School Graduates

by Eliza Smith

Background image credit: Kseniya Ovchinnikova/Getty Images

I graduated high school over a decade ago, and though I’ve purged my bookshelves several times since then, I’ve never given up the book my mom gifted me for graduation — The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch — with a very dear inscription. (Parents, take note! Inscriptions are key!)

Now, I have 12 years before I must choose the book that I’ll bestow on my oldest niece when she graduates, which means 12 years to decide the type of graduation gift-giver I am. Will I go the sentimental route? The concerned about her nutrition/finances/study habits route? Will I just want to pump her up before she heads off to change the world, like the incredibly gifted and kindhearted young woman she’s already poised to be? (I’m not crying; you’re crying!)

Most likely, I’ll give her a stack of books that check off all of the above. If you’re still deciding what type of graduation gift-giver you are, we’ve rounded up some possibilities, paired with their ideal matches. Good luck, and congrats to your graduate!


  • If you want to inspire them to make their mark on the world:

  • The Hill We Climb

    by Amanda Gorman

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    Amanda Gorman’s beautiful poem that she read at the presidential inauguration struck a chord with millions of people, and I think it could also have been read as a graduation commencement address. Her message is an excellent reminder to all people that words have meaning, and that we should continue to strive for unity, heal divides, be authentic to ourselves, and show kindness to all.

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  • If you’re learning to let go, but can’t resist imparting some last-minute advice:

  • College Rules!, 4th Edition

    by Sherrie Nist-Olejnik and Jodi Patrick Holschuh

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    Now in its fourth edition, College Rules! is the go-to for incoming college students — preparing them for the huge transition ahead and offering tips to dodge rookie mistakes. From topics like time management, alleviating stress, the anatomy of a syllabus, and how to interact with professors, this is the kind of guide they might hide from their new roommate, but will be oh-so-grateful to have as a resource when it starts to feel like everyone’s speaking another language.

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  • If you have a nagging feeling they’ll live on ramen for the next four years:

  • Prep

    by Katie Sullivan Morford

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    New high school grads already have a lot on their plate, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn how to cook up a few simple, delicious meals. With Prep, chef Katie Sullivan Morford offers 10 basic lessons for beginners, including notes on essential kitchen tools, how to hold a knife, and what pantry staples to keep on hand. Recipes range from the healthy (actually tasty vegetables!) to the craving-inspired (loaded nachos), so you can rest easy knowing they’re getting at least a little variety in their diet.

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  • If you want to send them off with their head held high:

  • Becoming

    by Michelle Obama

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    Forget the cliché dorm room posters. The best decorations for any room, at college or otherwise, are books from history’s greatest figures — among them, former First Lady Michelle Robinson Obama. In her memoir, she writes of growing up on the South Side of Chicago, being faced with Affirmative Action questions while studying at Princeton, why she chose to support her husband’s presidential campaign despite her feelings about politics, and how she created a role for herself as First Lady. It’s a tough choice between the hardcover — a beautiful object on its own — and the audiobook, read by Mrs. Obama herself.

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  • If you’re the sneaky sentimental type who loves a good pep talk:

  • The Algebra of Happiness

    by Scott Galloway

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    Scott Galloway teaches at NYU’s Stern School of Business, but he’s most recognized for his “no BS” insights that rack up millions of views on YouTube. His anecdote-fueled wisdom is collected in The Algebra of Happiness, where he tackles the “equations” for a life well lived, what career success looks like (and how to get there), the importance of making room for relationships in a capitalist world, and remembering to care for yourself as a human. It’s a refreshing counterbalance for ambitious, results-oriented grads.

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  • If you still have a collection of their childhood artwork and want to encourage more:

  • Big Magic

    by Elizabeth Gilbert

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    Part how-to for living creatively, part examination of great artists’ practices (including her own), Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic encourages readers to embrace curiosity, let go of perfectionism, and pursue their vision of a fulfilling life. Her advice is suited to writers and artists, but also to anyone looking to sustain their passion over the long haul. Simultaneously sincere and irreverent, pragmatic and inspiring, Gilbert serves as an excellent creativity coach, even for readers unfamiliar with her previous work.

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  • If you love to ask the age-old hypothetical, “If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you?”:

  • Originals

    by Adam Grant

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    With Originals, psychologist and author Adam Grant approaches the monumental task of changing the world, arguing that the best way to do so is by valuing new ideas and resisting conformity. Grant tells stories of non-conformists who work in the worlds of business, sports, politics, and entertainment, and he offers readers tangible advice for becoming an original in their own lives: how to be heard, find their allies, avoid groupthink, manage self-doubt, and more.

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  • If you just remembered how you handled money at their age:

  • The Index Card

    by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack

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    There are countless personal finance books you could gift your graduate (and speaking as someone who graduated during the Great Recession, it’s a worthwhile gift!). That said, I’d heartily recommend The Index Card, which boils down everything you need to know about personal finance into 10 simple rules that fit on a — you guessed it — 4” by 6” index card. Co-written by University of Chicago professor Harold Pollack and financial journalist Helaine Olen, this little book packs big lessons.

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  • If you can’t stop bragging about how brilliant they are:

  • The Genius of Women

    by Janice Kaplan

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    Janice Kaplan, author of The Gratitude Diaries, was stunned to read a recent poll in which 90% of Americans said that geniuses tended to be men. Her ensuing investigation is a mix of historical anecdotes, personal narrative, and interviews with dozens of women geniuses working today: mathematicians and musicians, physicists and philosophers, artists and writers. Kaplan celebrates their barrier-breaking work and persistence; together, their stories chart a path forward.

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  • If you’re tempted to send them a steady stream of motivational memes:

  • Gmorning, Gnight!

    by Lin-Manuel Miranda, illustrated by Jonny Sun

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    Another delightful book gift along the lines of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and Congratulations, by the way, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Gmorning, Gnight! gathers the Hamilton creator’s most memorable Twitter affirmations, paired with illustrations from acclaimed artist Jonny Sun, for the ultimate nightstand accessory. One of my favorites: “Good night now, and rest. / Today was a test. / You passed it, you’re past it. / Now breathe till unstressed.”

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