Book Recommendations for International Relations / Business majors

We recently received the following email:

Subject: Book recommendation request for International Studies

MessageHi, I'm interested in international studies and business/economics. Do you have any book recommendations that combine these two, that will look good on a college application?

We love emails like this. It’s specific, direct, and shows us that the writer of this email is doing research and is trying to formulate a plan. Thank you for this question.

There are two reasons why our reader is asking this question. And they’re both important. If you’re looking at this and wondering why books matter on a college application, definitely keep reading.

  1. Colleges are starting to ask what you read during your free time. Columbia, Wake Forest, and Stanford ask for an entire list, and we’re seeing more and more schools include a book question on their application. What you read says a lot about you, and when colleges ask you what you’re reading they’re giving you an opportunity to highlight your passions and interests. Consider it a gift. Your list should give the admissions team an idea of who you are and what you care about. There is technically no right answer when it comes to what you read, but be aware that conclusions will be drawn based on your responses. A list of feminist novels will tell a different a story than someone who has spent the last four years reading historical biographies. You can include a few books that you’ve genuinely enjoyed (even if it’s a lighthearted book that you read when you want to unplug) but your answer should not be primarily comprised of novels from People magazine’s “Best Summer Beach Reads of 2019” list, because that won’t send the right message. We do not condone listing a bunch of books that you haven’t read but make you sound smart, because A) you’re lying, B) colleges will see right through it, and C) most likely you will sound dumb. But we do support beefing up your book list, as reading helps us all become more well-rounded people and allows us to see the world from vantage points other than our own.

  2. It’s a good idea to educate yourself in your potential field of study so that you can talk about it, write about, and make sure you actually like it. Let’s start with the last part of that sentence. We’ve worked with tons of students that are positive, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they want to major in History, Business, or X major. And then when it becomes time to look into potential classes of interest, the readings on the syllabi seem less than interesting. Way less than interesting. If you think you want to major in something, or are leaning towards a few fields, it’s a good idea to read books and online material on that subject and see how you like it. You might be interested, and might not; and either one is fine. Worst case scenario you’ll end up a Biology major with a wealth of knowledge about English literature. When you start reading books and material that you love, you’re probably on the path to choosing a major. What we mean by reading books will allow you to talk and write about a subject, is that once you start taking in more material you’ll be able to write about it in your supplements. A lot of colleges will ask “Why X school,” and while a majority of your answer needs to rely on classes and extracurricular activities, you can spice it up by including things you’ve read when space/word count permits. If you’re pitching yourself as a business major, “I’ve read everything Seth Godin has ever written” sounds a lot better than “one time I watched Shark Tank.”

To get back to the email, we have some advice for any student asking themselves this question. It’s impossible to read everything about a subject as broad as international relations, business, or any college major for that matter. You choose a major because you want to learn more about that discipline, and no one expects you to show up on your first day of college as an expert in any field. So instead of trying to cover everything, be specific. We always encourage our clients to be incredibly specific with everything they do. You can do this by digging deeper and identifying areas within your chosen discipline that you care about most. We’ll use this question as an example. What is it about business and international relations you want to read about, and what are your goals? Do you want to learn about being an entrepreneur in Asia or how a multinational corporation works? To broaden things, you should look at subsets within the major (or topic) and find things that genuinely interest you. If you like Journalism, you might start by clarifying if you’re interested in print or video, then do research from there.

It’s important to note that history plays a role in most disciplines. If you’re looking into international business in Asia, for example, you should also read about the history of that region. If you want to study Linguistics, read about how the field has changed drastically over the last 50 years. For Art History, if you’re interested in Italian art from a certain time period, you would want to read about the social and political climate of Italy during your chosen time period.

A good way to find books to read is by looking at a school’s website and trying to find the syllabus for a course you’re interested in. Checking in on the social media accounts (usually Twitter) of a program can work too, as sometimes they’ll host guest speakers that hold panels on books that are read in class.

We looked online for international relations / business major related books and suggest the following as a place to start: 

  • Capitalism in America: A History by Alan Greenspan

  • The Making of Global International Relations: Origins and Evolution of IR at Its Centenary by Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan

  • Fortune Makers: The Leaders Creating China’s Great Global Companies by Harbir Singh, Michael Useem, and Neng Liang

  • Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight

  • The Innovator's Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business by Clayton M. Christensen

  • The Power of Little Ideas by David Robinson

  • Mastering Catastrophic Risk: How Companies Are Coping with Disruption by Howard Kunreuther and Michael Useem


If you want help with your reading list and application strategy, contact us here.