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How to Look for College Books

Updated on January 3, 2015

College books can be a real drain on your budget for college. However, there are some ways that you can look for college books, and possibly even find them for free off of the internet.

In order to get the best prices, ask yourself these three things:

  1. Is the book required for the course I am taking?
  2. Can I find the book online for free?
  3. Can I find a better price by renting or buying an earlier edition?

Step 1: Figure out what college books you need

This step might be a no brainer for you, but if you need to figure out which college books you need, and more importantly, which ones you don't.

Often professors will list books as required, but sometimes nearly all of their course is lecture-based, and you may only open the book once or twice. In these cases, it would be a waste to spend $70+ on a book you crack open just a few times. A solution to this? Check RateMyProfessors and see what people say about the professor and/or class. Is a textbook a must? Better get it. Is the textbook just supplementary material? There, you can choose whether or not you need it in order to pass your classes.

College books can cost a pretty hefty sum
College books can cost a pretty hefty sum

Step 2: Search Online

Once you have your list of books, it's time to pull out the wallet and-- no, wait.

If you're savvy and can easily tell a good download from a bad download, there's a pretty high chance you can actually find your book online.

Now, if the book comes with a code required to enter for homework, you can fork over money for just the code (which is usually $60-$70), but it is impossible to find a free code online.

There are some sites for finding free books online, but whenever I look, I just use this method, which hasn't treated me wrong yet:

Install a good anti-virus program

In your search for books, you might come across some skeevy sites. If you don't really know what you're doing, you could end up getting a bad virus or some malware. Best to install a good anti-virus program and be careful when you're out there looking.

Type the book name, edition, and either 'pdf', 'online download', or 'torrent'

Usually, the first things that will come up are bookstores and Amazon; ignore those for now. You're looking for downloading sites where you might be able to find these. Remember that if you torrent the book, you're going to need software like BitTorrent to get to the file. For me, I always look for a straight download before looking for on a torrent site. Then, you're going to need to do a few things:

Check the type of download. If it's an .exe file, do not download it. It is not a book, it's a virus. In fact, if it's not a PDF file (.pdf), don't even look at it. If you accidentally download another type, just delete it from your downloads without opening it, and run your anti-virus program.

Also, if a site asks you to download something or take a survey before downloading, it is probably installing malware onto your computer and you won't even get the download. Don't do it.

Check the size of the download. Books do vary, but if the download is just a few kilobytes, it will likely just be the front page of the book, or maybe a chapter of the book- but not the book itself. Books will likely be at least 8K KB, and can even range up in the megabytes if the book is big enough. Checking the size of the download can save you a lot of time and frustration while looking for books.

Once you have successfully downloaded the book, open it. Sometimes, even when you check for all the right things, the title of the download is just plain wrong and you get the wrong book. If you still want the book, or want to use it for later, keep it, but the only thing to do is to continue searching.

It can take a couple hours or so to search for books if they are particularly hard to find. However, those 2 hours are not bad at all, and if faced with 2 hours of looking online or 9+ hours working at minimum wage to pay for a college book, I'll take those 2 hours no problem.

Using this method, I've been able to get all my books this past semester (Fall 2014) for free, and the semester before that (Spring 2014) I got all but one book for free. Not bad!

This link has some more links to some good sites to start your search for college books.

Have you tried to find college books online?

See results

Step Three: Compare Prices

Can't find what you need online? Time to start shopping around. Depending on what you can get, you can get a better price.

I would advise against buying from your university's book store unless it absolutely cannot be helped, as they usually jack up the price, leaving you with the worst deal imaginable.

There are several good sites, including SlugBooks, that help you compare college book prices without having to visit each individual site. Though sites like Amazon may most often have the cheapest price, this is not always the case, so be sure to check multiple sites.

Consider renting. Though you don't get the book forever, you don't have to deal with having to figure out how you're going to sell it, and usually it is much cheaper than buying a book and selling it back anyway.

Consider getting an earlier edition. Especially if the book is just supplementary material, or you don't work questions within the book in your class. You'll have to research a bit, but usually a few editions back are not drastically different from the current edition, and they are usually much much cheaper.

Hopefully you can find your college books for as cheap as possible, and spend those extra dollars on things like not having to worry about rent, food more substantial than ramen noodles, getting your piece-of-junk car fixed, etc. Happy hunting, and be sure to leave a comment here if this article helped you at all with finding college books!

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