CM’s Ultimate Guide to Finding Cheap Textbooks

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Also written by Ronnie Cohen.

Long gone are days when teachers passed out ancient, three-pound chemistry books on the first day of class. Say goodbye to the excitement of opening the front cover to see if you know the person who previously “owned” the book, or if there are any weird doodles hidden among the pages. In college, you get to keep those books, but it will cost you your soul and two months rent. At least you get to sell them back…for a quarter of the price. Unless you have an unfortunate professor who forces you to buy the mediocre book he wrote himself (seriously dude, $70 for a glorified syllabus?), check out this arsenal of websites that will leave you with money in your pocket at the end of the semester. Goodbye chemistry, hello Cabo. 

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1. Chegg

Chegg lets students rent books for less than half the original price and they provide you with a prepaid UPS label so you don’t have to worry about shipping costs when you send it back. Mark away if you’re feeling highlighter-happy; just avoid those doodles from high school. Chegg allows you to highlight the books you rent, but not to write in them. The website also offers homework help, an internship search and a scholarship database.

Continue the slideshow to get the full list!

Still low on cash? Check out 10 more professor-approved secrets to buying cheap textbooks.

1. Search Facebook for Textbook Exchange Groups

Social media will double as your best friend here. While you’ll find an official textbook exchange program at your campus, you should also start by searching for textbook exchange groups on Facebook. A good format for the search could look like “textbook exchange [insert the name of your college here].” I mean, of course theoretically, you don’t have to find one specific to your school, but it might save you the heartbreak when you find out shipping costs more than the book itself.

2. Talk to your professor

You may ask yourself, “But what if my professor didn’t put a book on reserve?” For those who didn’t, they might oblige if you point out to them the demand for said service. I’ve even heard of professors who were willing to loan a few private copies to students. “I would certainly be willing to offer them my copy until they’re able to find something more affordable,” said University of California, Los Angeles English Professor Sara Burdorff. “If it’s a choice between a student not being able to take my class or not being able to complete the assignments because they weren’t able to afford the books, I would certainly do whatever I could with my resources in order to facilitate their ability to do that.”

3. Buy a different publication or edition

Exercise caution if you try this. Some earlier editions of textbooks appear nearly exactly identical except for a change up in page numbers. Others end up completely different in every way possible. “I’ve been more careful about not necessarily assigning the cheapest but also trying to find a good compromise between high quality editing and as inexpensive as possible a price,” said Saree Makdisi, professor of English at UCLA. If you have a different edition, you might run into issues. “With a work in translation it is really critical that all the students have the same edition because of the variations in translation and because of the variation in line numbers and things like that but there’s just really no way to standardize a class discussion if everybody’s using a different translation, unfortunately,” said Burdorff.

4. Wait it out

“I try to be flexible in terms of how soon in the course I assign work from the textbook because I do want to give people a chance to kind of collect them in the most cost effective ways possible,” said Burdorff. Think of the syllabus as your guide. If you see a title that appears every single week in bold italicized letters, you should probably make sure you have it on hand. If a book shows up once on the syllabus for week five, you can probably find a way around actually buying it. If it’s really going to be a while before you need the book, you might find it worth it to wait it out to see if it pops up on that super handy textbook exchange Facebook group you just joined.

5. Research early

“Early? But you just said…” Hear me out. You can never start your research too early, especially since shipping takes a while. You don’t want to find yourself pressed into a corner having to pay double for a textbook because you need it for class the next morning. I know it’s tragic to think about, but your semester doesn’t start when classes start. It starts as soon as you get your list of textbooks. Compare prices and make an informed decision, whether you’re going to wait or be that one person in class who everyone resents for coming prepared on the first day.

6. E-books

Although e-books cost much less, proceed with caution. “Because I put the legwork into selecting a reasonably priced edition to begin with I’d say as a last resort an e-book is better than nothing but I am a very enthusiastic proponent of tangible interaction with the text,” said Burdorff. Don’t start crying and emptying your wallet, however. “It depends heavily on the book and what we’re going to be using the book for,” said Burdorff. If you purchase a giant textbook that you’ll need to read through entire chunks of every week, it might not work as the best option. If it’s a compilation of articles and essays that you only need to access once in a while however, it might not be so bad after all.

7. Search the Internet for Free

Google your book titles, since you might find them available online or on other book apps for free. But if they’re not the specific publication your professor assigned, avoid the temptation to use them. “I’ve also discovered recently that sometimes the price and quality can correlate to one another,” said Makdisi. Don’t get clever, because you might run into consequences. According to Makdisi, he once realized the cheapest edition of a novel he assigned had all sorts of typos.

8. Buy Used

“To find used copies is probably pretty straight forward these days,” said Makdisi. “The editions can be very very significantly different textually in terms of editing and so forth. The paginations will almost always be very different from what they are and there can be whole much bigger changes from edition to edition beyond just that so I’d say if anything try to find a used copy of the same edition.” I don’t wish to suppress anyone’s creativity but sometimes you don’t have to think so far out of the box to save money on books. If it’s a common method it probably means there’s something to it.

9. Split the cost

Feel free to lean on each other in the same way you’d split up a bar tab. However, splitting the cost on a book and sharing it with your classmate may prove tricky. You’ll probably need to come to some agreements before you make the purchase to decide who gets it when, who gets to keep it or how to handle it during finals week. If you work in tandem, you’ll both likely benefit from the arrangement. Also, try not to end up the one to spill your morning coffee all over it.

10. Check the library

If it’s that obvious, then don’t ignore it. Always always always check the library. There is a good chance that thanks to someone who read this article before you the book is already on reserve. If not, check the regular library sections it might show up there. No? Try a local library that’s off campus. Commit to your search. Be vigorous. Be determined. I believe in you.

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Madison is a senior at San Francisco State University, pursuing a degree in Journalism. College has been her favorite adventure so far. Much like the prolific musician Asher Roth, she’s wondering if she really has to graduate, or if she can just stay here for the rest of her life.

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