Don’t Get Caught By Expensive Textbooks

When I first came to Harvard, I made the same mistake that almost every freshman does: I bought all my
By Tina Wang

When I first came to Harvard, I made the same mistake that almost every freshman does: I bought all my books.

Whichever paperback, textbook, or coursepack my class reading lists said I needed, I bought——at list price—from the Coop or Harvard’s Printing and Publication Services. I spent more than 500 dollars on books during the first week of my first semester alone.

Getting a small rebate check from the Coop in the mail almost a year later was only a small comfort. Having since learned many other ways to save on textbook and sourcepack costs, I still regret that naive September shopping spree.

Probably the most cost effective way to deal with your reading lists is not to buy the books at all. I’m serious. Because the truth is, you won’t read them. You probably won’t even read 25 to 30 percent of the gigantic textbooks and coursepacks you buy, especially for social science courses. Many students are busy with too many extracurricular and social commitments to tackle the behemoth reading lists professors compile. They find that they can usually get by in class with a few comments, which need not necessarily be based on the readings.

For large classes, come exam or paper time, many students rely on study guides that float around over e-mail. Others form their own study groups and assign one another small clusters of readings to summarize, so many students will only have touched a few sections in their individually-owned, mint condition, comprehensive class notes.

Courses like Historical Studies A-12, “International Conflict and Cooperation in the Modern World,” which students attend by the hundreds, require massive and costly coursepacks that get dumped at the end of the semester, often still in mint condition, into Habitat for Humanity bins.

As for textbooks, you can sell them back to the Coop. The trouble is, because professors usually don’t submit their reading lists for the fall semester before you go on summer break, students who do not have space to store books end up selling them back to the Coop for a tiny fraction of the original price—much less than the half price they can get in the fall.

So, for the 25 percent of your assigned reading list that you might actually read, where do you get the books or coursepacks? The answer is the reserves desk at Lamont Library. Every course has its required books and coursepack put on reserve. Large courses, like Social Analysis 10, “Principles of Economics”—more commonly known as “Ec10”—have multiple copies of coursepacks, sometimes as many as 10. Some students may not like the trek to the library, or when they get there, they don’t like the three-hour time limit they have with the book.

But I’ll let you in on a secret—you can concentrate much better in those three hours you’re limited to than with an expanse of time in your dorm. Focusing on the book in a quiet space and being away from the dorm, you feel a healthy pressure to read fast.

One disadvantage of depending on the library reserves, though, is that come exam or paper crunch time, you may find every single reserve book already checked out, or you may simply not have time to make the trek to the library. You might also like to mark your books, which isn’t allowed with the reserve copies.

There are, of course, the other popular fall-back methods for scrimping on textbook costs, such as buying used books from other Harvard students or vendors on You might also try gathering a group of fellow classmates, buying one coursepack at regular cost, photocopying it (thus bypassing copyright costs), and splitting the costs among the group.

From experience, this tact works. Last semester. I didn’t buy a single book or coursepack on my course reading lists. I saved a lot of money—and I got my highest grades at Harvard thus far.

—Staff writer Tina Wang can be reached at