My 17-year-old sister, Anna, is in the midst of choosing the college where she will spend the next four (hopefully) happy years of her life.
While much is yet to be determined about her undergraduate experience, I can say with certainty it won’t include my handing her the Her Campus Guide to College Life.
The completely useless quick read is nothing, I hope, what her college life will be like.
I’ll be honest. I wanted to like the Her Campus Guide, which is authored by the founders of the Her Campus online magazine, Stephanie Kaplan Lewis, Windsor Hanger Western, and Annie Chandler Wang, and the publication's writers and editors.
Since 2009, the three women have been running Her Campus, which they bill as the “#1 global community for college women.”
Since then, the publication and the women have been heaped with accolades (which they make quite clear on their website. I wanted them to live up to the hype.
My train of thought ran along the lines of: If this at all meets or exceeds my already-low expectations I will let it go with a pat on the head. Then I opened the book and was told what college is really like. I’m pretty sure reading the Her Campus Guide’s description would make my sister not want to go.
Key to the Her Campus mentality is “collegiette,” the mythical woman who is “strategically career-minded, distinctly fashionable, socially connected, academically driven, and smartly health-conscious.” She “has it all” in the most impossible to achieve, exhausting, unrealistic way.
That’s not to say the Her Campus Guide fails to tackle some very real concerns.
The first part of the book deals with college safety—an important topic, certainly. However, the issue is handled with much more grace by pretty much any orientation presentation than the Her Campus Guide.
“You probably don’t think about the dangers of walking around on what looks like an idyllic campus,” it warns. Danger can be lurking around every blooming tree—and in the “cute upperclassman in your psychology 101 class.”
Telling young women to be safe is good, particularly on campus: The myth of older guys lurking for fresh meat exists in part because it’s true.
But is the alarmist fearmongering useful: the notion that there is danger at every turn? Is scaring college-going you women the best way to empower them?
Certainly, it doesn’t hurt that the book recycles age-old tropes like “stick with friends” and “alternate drinks” to the college-bound set. Sometimes, the repetitiveness begins to sound like the “group dates make good friends” advice I once read in a classmate’s abstinence manual, but I digress.
The handful of pages spent talking about alcohol amnesty policies, fake IDs, and car safety are maybe the most valuable in the book, as is the description of how the rape kit examination works.
The trouble with the Her Campus Guide lies more in talking about pretty much everything else.
Jewelry, electronics, and clothing are some of the most commonly stolen items on campuses, the book warns. “That diamond necklace your grandmother gave you for graduation is easy to swipe from your dresser and even easier for a money-hungry student to pawn,” it reads, with all the hysteria and coded language of someone two generations removed.
My immediate response was to wonder: How many college-bound women receive theft-worthy diamond-studded necklaces that they take to school? How many more have seen family members pawn lesser items to pay rent?
At times, the Her Campus Guide seemed like “Lean In”-lite, but at least Sheryl Sandberg knew her audience.
The Her Campus women, it seems, didn’t learn much in terms of diversity from Harvard, an alma mater we share in name but not experience. Don’t turn your back, lest your money-hungry roommates steal the Manolo Blahniks from your Vera Bradley duffle!
The glaring class-ism aside, the most prominent problem with the book is that the writing suggests that the authors (authorettes?) were so busy reaching for an elusive word count minimum that they didn’t stop to think about what, if any, value their book adds.
Ninety percent of the content is stuff I simply would have looked up online when I was in college. As someone who has Googled her share of “what to do when a tampon is stuck” (for a friend, I swear; answer: go to urgent care) and “can you get HIV through semen in the eye” (another friend; answer: unlikely), I can’t imagine rushing back to my dorm room to consult a book about discharges “down there” (words collegiettes apparently use; I don’t).
In 2015, would a “strategically career-minded, distinctly fashionable, socially connected, academically driven, and smartly health-conscious” woman leaf through any book for flu or mono symptoms instead of typing it into the Internet search machine?
Then again, that is the downfall of a whole genre of advice books. The best practical advice book of all is right there in smartphones (or watches).
Not that you should necessarily trust the book’s advice. It too often relies on scare tactics that are questionable at best and factually inaccurate at worse.
A section called “Everything You Need to Know About Having Safe Sex” would be better replaced by a visit to PlannedParenthood.org.
The Her Campus Guide offers blind championing of the pill, which is a great choice, but the 99 percent efficacy statistic used by the book is useless and misleading (according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, if 100 women take the pill, nine may get pregnant over a year because of inconsistencies in use).
A more foolproof choice, the IUD, (whose failure rate truly does approach zero) is instead portrayed as a disaster waiting to happen.
After advising women to check “every few days” for the much-maligned IUD strings, Her Campus advises: “Although it’s nice to have an option where you’re protected from pregnancy for years without having to think too much about it, you should have regular check-ups every couple of months to make sure everything looks fine. It’s possible that you could get an infection during insertion, or it may push itself up through the wall of the uterus, which may require surgery to fix.” (Emphasis mine.)
A more common side effect, expulsion from the uterus, is still less likely to happen than a pregnancy while on oral contraceptives. The endless listing of IUD side effects not only stokes fears, but it sounds like filler text. This isn’t a college response paper.
A quick section on STIs would make anyone have nightmares about herpes, of all things, despite the fact that most people exposed will never show symptoms. “It’s highly contagious,” the book warns, adding that the “first symptom you’ll have is pain or itching, and you may also develop small red bumps and blisters or even open sores around the genital area.”
Yet it fails to mention that condoms may not actually prevent herpes transmission—or the fact that many doctors have even stopped recommending testing for herpes as part of a routine STI screening, unless a patient has symptoms.
Though the authors are kind enough to mention that the morning-after pill is not an abortion pill, the book is awfully silent on the Big A—which is egregious when considering that one in 10 women will have an abortion by age 20 and one in three will have one by age 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute. (In contrast, WebMD says only one in four women have genital herpes.)
Queer women also don’t exist in the Her Campus world. A chapter on mental health doesn’t even gloss over the stress of figuring out your sexuality; the partner referred to in conversations on consent or safer sex is always a he, as is the cute upperclassman who caught your eye (but watch out, he’s dangerous!).
This, perhaps, would not have been surprising in a book all outfitted in traditional femininity and pink.
I wouldn’t have even mentioned it if, having opened the back cover, I hadn’t see the team boasting about their coverage of “LGBTQ+” issues. I’m not sure what “+” they can be talking about, since they didn’t even cover the first letter of the acronym in this book.
The other notable absence is a focus on the life of the mind—which is one of the important, if underrated, parts of college. If there is such a thing as intellectual excitement and the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, it exists in a universe far from the Her Campus collegiette. (Chapter 16 starts: “College isn’t only about classes and exams,” and it’s not—but that’s a part of what you’re paying for!)
A section on pushing intellectual boundaries (even against difficulty, or in subjects that don’t relate to your intended career) may have been more useful than one on begging for higher grades.
Though Her Campus advises collegiettes that they would do well to stop by office hours “even if you don’t need help,” the end goal is apparent: “You can share your interests, get their insights, and become more memorable; that way, you can turn to them if you find yourself struggling in the future (or if things are going well and you’d like a letter of recommendation for an internship, job, or study abroad opportunity)!”
Here is what Her Campus could have said to future collegiettes instead: You will read things that upset you. You will read things that shock you. You will read things that change the way you think. And you should savor them all.
Her Campus Guide falls far short of what it could have been. In the age of instant access to information, what makes advice columns—like Dear Prudie or Savage Love—thrive, while encyclopedias falter, are the personal stories.
That would have taken more work for the Her Campus Guide authors, along with more nuance, more outreach, more real, uncomfortable stories. Had they compiled that, I can imagine a Her Campus Guide that would truly teach girls about college life.