5 Ways College Students Can Shop Smart for Textbooks


Many college students are surprised to learn that textbooks for their courses can sometimes exceed $1,000, especially if their schedule has more than one STEM course. In fact, for students who attend community colleges, textbook costs can rival actual tuition.

If you’re preparing to head off to college soon, procuring all of the textbooks for your classes should be a top priority. Textbooks are essential to many courses, and they are often used within the first week. While there are a variety of cost-effective alternatives to your campus bookstore, taking advantage of those options typically takes extra time—so begin shopping as soon as possible.

Here are a few guidelines to help you make the most of your textbook search:

    1. Explore options for financial aid.

There are actually textbook-specific scholarships, and your regular financial aid packages can often be used to cover textbooks in addition to other costs associated with attending college.

You can even claim your textbook costs on you or your parents’ income tax return with the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

    2. Make sure you know the required texts and their ISBNs.

In order to find the best deal on your textbooks, you should find out the titles, the names of their authors, and the edition number being used. The best way to comparison shop is to use the International Standard Book Number (ISBN), which is a 10-digit number usually located above a book’s barcode. Simply go to your college’s campus bookstore and examine the copies they have on hand to find it.

    3. Don’t buy from your school’s campus bookstore until you’ve explored other options.

It will almost always have higher prices than other stores or websites, although there are services they can offer that offset their high prices, like guaranteed buyback programs. And some materials are exclusive to campus bookstores, like packets printed out by a professor for a specific class.

Nevertheless, the ISBN can help you comparison shop. There are competing textbook stores that are often near campus you can check out. In addition to the typical consumer sites like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or eBay, there sites that specialize in discounted textbooks and sites that compare prices. However, research any sites you use to make sure they are reputable, and make sure you understand their policies on things like shipping and returns.

Finally, many colleges’ libraries keep copies of textbooks on reserve for student use. You may not be able to remove them from the library, but that can be a good thing as libraries are often the best place to study anyway.

    4. Compare different formats.

Like regular books, textbooks are often in different formats. There can be hardcover, paperback, and loose-leaf editions at significantly varying prices. Some books are available in different languages. Over 80 percent of the top 1,000 textbooks are now available as e-books, which are typically cheaper, and there are even Netflix-style e-textbook subscription services like Scribd.

    5. Check out used books, rentals, and in some cases, older editions.

Almost all of the sellers discussed above offer used textbooks that can be much cheaper than brand new copies, and some will rent copies to you for the semester for even cheaper. However, beware of editions with online content you need—sometimes the access codes cannot be reused.

Textbooks usually have different editions with updated material, but some are not significantly different. If possible, compare them side by side along with your professor’s list of assignments to ensure you have what you need. Even if there are important differences, you may be able to use an older edition for day-to-day use and supplement it with a copy on reserve in your school’s library.