written by: Haley Drucker•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 6/1/2011
Writing a college level book report can be a very different task from what you did on similar assignments in high school. Here is what a critical book review should look like, along with some tips for writing a high-quality paper.
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College Book Reports
Chances are, you’ve written more than one book report during your school career. And if you’re taking any English classes in college, you’ll likely be required to do a few more. In college, though, book reports are a little different than the kind most high school teachers expect. This type of assignment also goes by a couple different names, including “book review" and “critical review."
High school book reports are mostly about summarizing the book, proving you’ve actually read it. A college level book report is a little more complex. Instead of just explaining what happened in the book, you’ll be required to provide a critical analysis of its contents. This isn’t as hard as it sounds, and it isn’t much different from the other essays you’re used to writing in English class. Follow the advice below, and you’ll be well prepared to turn out a thoughtful and college-worthy report.
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The first and most important thing to do when writing a college level book report is to actually read the book. It might be tempting to use something like Spark Notes, but that won’t give you the knowledge you need to write an effective critique. So read the book carefully, and if possible give yourself some time to reflect on it before starting your paper.
When you’re ready to write the book review, the first you’ll need (after the introduction and thesis) is a short summary. Notice the word “short." The summarization should take up no more than a third of your paper, and a forth would probably be better. You don’t have to explain every plot twist and every chapter—just give the reader an overview of what happens in the book and what it’s about.
Before you start writing this part of the book report, you might want to figure out what you’ll be covering in the analysis section (see below). That way, you can summarize with an eye towards what you’ll be discussing later on. If you spend most of the paper talking about how the theme of greed plays out in the book, your summary should focus on those parts of the book that illustrate greed and its consequences.
It’s possible you might not need to include a summary in your critical review. Some professors want you to assume your reader has already read the book. In that case, you could omit this first part altogether. So read the assignment carefully, and check with your teacher to make sure you know what he or she is expecting.
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The bulk of your paper should be an analysis of the book. Instead of just repeating what you read, you’ll be asked to go beyond the obvious and show your understanding of what the text by providing a critique. You won’t be able to critique everything about the book, of course. So again, be sure to read the assignment carefully because your teacher might tell you what to focus on.
If not, choose a specific aspect of the book to build your paper around. Narrowing your focus to a particular character, theme, relationship, or plot point keeps your book report from rambling and your thoughts from becoming disorganized. When in doubt, go with a theme since that approach proves you’ve thought carefully about the novel. Explain the theme’s role in the book, and how it relates to the various characters and events. Use plenty of concrete examples and a few quotes (not too many—no more than one or two per paragraph).
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In any critique, you’ll want to draw from your personal opinions and reactions to the book. But if your teacher is calling the assignment a “book review" you might be expected to actually evaluate the book. In this case, expand on your analysis by including your own (reasoned and supported) opinion on how well the novel is written and whether it does a good job with its stories and themes. Read a few book reviews online or in the newspaper if you’re not sure how to do that.
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Going Outside the Book
This part is optional—some teachers expect it and some don’t. But it can really improve your analysis to go beyond the text and analyze the novel as it relates to the outside world. Learn something about the author, and the time and culture in which the book was written. Consider the author’s intentions and influences. In what ways does this outside knowledge inform your reading of the book, help you understand why it was written the way it was? Professors love it when you treat a book as part of the real world, rather than just an isolated text. Don’t be afraid to use a little research here—just be sure to cite your sources.
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A few final things to consider:
It can’t be stressed too much—make sure you know what your professor is looking for. A college book report can be written in a variety of ways, and you don’t want to find out too late that you’ve chosen the wrong approach.
It can be a good idea to read the book more than once. This takes extra time, of course, but you’ll pick up on things during the second read that you didn’t notice the first time around. A second read also lets you reflect on the deeper aspects and themes of the book, since you already know the plot. And you can keep an eye out for good examples and quotes to include in your critical review.
Write about something that’s interesting to you. Book reports and especially book reviews are all about engaging with the text on a personal level. Even in the most boring novel there’s likely one idea or character that grabs your interest. Focus on that—the writing will go more smoothly and the paper’s quality will be higher.
These are the basics of how to write a college or university level book report. For more help and information, you can check out the following resources. Also, here’s a short, sample book report that is not about a college-level novel, but does a good job of illustrating the mix of summary and critical analysis that should go into a college level book report or review. And don’t be afraid to ask for help during the writing process. Professors love to chat with you about papers in progress, and librarians and writing centers are also valuable resources.