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STUDENT SURVIVAL GUIDE '09: Buying textbooks

DON’T buy the book: How to avoid dropping hundreds of bucks at the college bookstore



If you're a college student, then you -- or someone with deep pockets who loves you very much -- just finished shelling out large wads of dough for tuition and fees. You're probably feeling great, even though your bank account is quietly weeping in the corner. Then comes the first day of class, and you read those terrifying words looming at the top of the syllabus: "required text." In other words, "another huge dent in your bank account."

            Prices of textbooks have been increasing at an unsettling rate in recent years. A study conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that in the last two decades, college textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation, following close behind tuition increases. Most schools in the Rochester area increased tuition by roughly 4 percent or more this year. You're paying more for tuition, and the double whammy is now you're paying more for books.

            While it's not unheard of for textbooks to run some students more than $700 per year, you can avoid at least some of these costs. There are ways to not buy the book at all, and tons of things you can do to cut corners and save that important cash, allowing you to save that moolah for late-night shots of caffeine during intense study sessions. Sometimes jumping through a hoop or two is worth it to save a couple hundred dollars.

Wait and see

The first step is to gauge each class. Don't run out of the classroom with your book list and go straight into the bookstore. Wait it out. Go through the first week or two and see how heavily the textbook is used. In some classes your lecture is an enormous recap of the previous night's assigned reading, and most of the time the information sinks in better through lectures anyway. Why spend $100 just to be re-told what you read? Learn to take better notes, pay close attention, and get involved in the discussion. Hell, you may even drop the class after a week and then be stuck with an expensive book.

            If you don't want to wait, try asking the professor how heavily the class's textbook is used, or if you can just share one once and awhile or find other sources for the material. You might be surprised where he or she may point you, such as the textbook's website. Many textbook websites have large chapter overviews, chapter review questions, and other study material on every single chapter. Why spend an hour every night reading a whole chapter when you can spend 20 minutes reading the recap and get the same material? Be sure to keep these sites bookmarked regardless of whether you buy the book; the extra review material is often a godsend come time for exams.

            In some classes you may need the textbook just once or twice. The professor might assign you pages that you need to present to the class, or chapter questions that you need to do a few nights scattered through the semester. See if you can borrow the book from a friend or classmate for one evening, or write down that night's questions before you leave class. Make some friends in the class and share the book; you'll get a great study buddy to boot.

Free books!

So you're two weeks into the semester and you really do need the text for your class on maple syrup (that's an actual course you can take at Alfred), but your bank account is on its knees, begging you not to spend the money. Before you grudgingly buy the book, exhaust every other means of getting the information first.

            Check your library. It's not just a place to make out after class, or a quiet place to study outside of your bedroom; it's where schools may house copies of textbooks. Unfortunately, not all of the Rochester area colleges have copies of all the required textbooks due to the cost (oh, the irony; check the sidebar for specific library policies). While most school libraries don't have many books, nearly early every school has a portion of textbooks available depending on whether your professor put a request in for the text, or if the professor provided the book himself. Check with the circulation desk at the library or ask your professor. You won't be able to take the book from the building, but you can surely spend half an hour in the library getting the information you need.

            Google is your friend. On Google, you can do a blog search, a book search, and a scholar search. Many bloggers and other websites include downloads and links to legally scanned or electronic copies of textbooks. Textbooks often pop up on Google Books, a large database with actual scanned pages. Then there's Google Scholar, where you can find links to book chapters. Before buying anything at all, Google search it. It doesn't always yield results, but don't get frustrated. You can still get free information elsewhere.

            In addition to Google Books there is an open source -- that means FREE -- book database called Wikibooks. A professor who was sick of costly textbooks started this site, and thousands of books have been scanned or transcribed since its birth in 2003. Many books are not complete, and may only have certain chapters or short sections, but if that's all you need then you're all set.

            If you're really feeling puckish and want to break a lot of rules to get what you need, go take pictures of the book. Some students have been known to take photos of select pages of books, either from inside a bookstore or from a friend's copy. Despite the fair use clause of the federal copyright law, this is most likely illegal, and we do not recommend or condone this option.

The last resort

OK, fine. Surrender. Wave your white flag in shame and just give up. Jumping through all these hoops and running in frantic circles during exam time can be extra stress you just don't need. It's cool. Your bank account will forgive you eventually. You can still cut corners and save loads of cash on the books you do need to break down and buy.

            Make some friends and split the cost. If there's someone in class who you have easy access to outside of class, and who has a schedule that matches yours, become study buddies. This works especially well if your roommate or floor mates are in your classes. Ask to split the cost of the books between the group, and make sure to share it evenly. If you can't get matching schedules to study together just work out a schedule for custody of the book. Say you get the book Thursdays and Fridays, and your partner gets it Saturdays and Sundays. You might have to do some work ahead of time, but at least you only paid 20 bucks instead of $40.

            A good money-saving way to get books is to buy used copies. You can score used textbooks at your campus book store; however, they often still carry a hefty price. You should definitely compare prices with other Rochester used textbook stores, such as Rochester Textbooks (2995 W. Henrietta Rd, 427-0740, rochesterbooks.com). Even math books can be a steal used; screw paying $90 for a new book when you can get a slightly dog-eared copy for $35. Don't forget to go back to the previous editions when you buy used. It is generally safe to go buy a used book that is edition eight instead of edition nine. Just be sure to check with the professor for page discrepancies that might occur in newer editions.

            You can also buy used books online. Many folks use half.com, a spin-off of eBay, to buy and sell used books. Sure, they can be cheap, but figuring out who is selling and whether they can be trusted is another question. The same goes for Amazon.com. I've had books from Amazon take two months to arrive; that's going to be a problem when your first exam is the fourth week of class, and you bomb it thanks to some lazy jerk on the internet. The diamond in the rough of online book websites is BigWords.com. Search for your book on this site and its search engine will scour the dark depths of the World Wide Web to find every single website selling the book. The site even looks into any coupons or discounts available to you.

            An alternative to buying from an online store and waiting for shipping is BookMaid.com, a book-trade website. It's a local website, similar to Craigslist, where Rochester-area students can list their used books or search for books in the area. Instead of an online checkout, you communicate with your peer directly. You might even be able to talk the seller down a few bucks, especially if the book has been listed for a while. The website was created and is managed by an RIT student.

            Short of flat-out buying a book there are a handful of online sources where you can rent a book for a semester, Chegg.com and Bookrenter.com are popular sources. Renting lets you pay a fraction of the price, and receive most of your money back at the end of the semester when it is returned. The downfall to renting a textbook is the generally rigorous guidelines on how the book must be kept and returned, so if you're a heavy highlighter or are rough on your books, you might end up losing money. Be sure to price check rentals, too; sometimes renting the book costs more than buying it used.

            If you do end up buying a few books here or there, don't forget to sell them at the end of the semester. You can do this at many bookstores or online (again, bigwords.com) to make back some money. Either take the money and run, or use the money to buy textbooks for the following semester. Paying $200 for books in the fall, then regaining the money to use for next semester's books, saves a ton of cash over the course of a college career. It's like recycling your money to yourself!


Local college library textbook policies

Finger LakesCommunity College Textbooks only available if professors bring the book themselves.

MonroeCommunity College No textbooks available. Very rare if professor brings them to be put on hold.

NazarethCollege Textbooks only available if professors bring the book themselves.

RIT Does have a number of books. If the professor is the author, requests the book, or brings the book in, then the library will have it. There are a number of reference books available in place of textbooks.

Roberts Wesleyan Carries some books. Some general education books and books brought in by professors are available.

St. John Fisher No textbooks available. Very rare if professor brings them to be put on hold.

SUNY Brockport Some textbooks available, only if department orders them.

SUNY Geneseo No textbooks available; very rare if professor brings them in to be put on hold.

UR Some textbooks available, only if professor requests that the book is carried or provides the book to the library.

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