How to Make a College Comparison Spreadsheet
The college search process can sometimes be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be disorganized. As you research colleges, start looking for scholarships, take the SAT or ACT, and eventually submit applications, you’re going to have a lot of information on your hands. Creating a college comparison spreadsheet to compare colleges on your list is a great way to keep everything organized.
Also called a college search spreadsheet, a college comparison spreadsheet is a single consolidated document on which you can record information about the colleges you’re considering. Maintaining a spreadsheet like this makes comparing colleges and financial aid offers easy.
Wondering how to set up your college spreadsheet? Searching for a college search spreadsheet template? Your search ends here. In this guide, we walk you through everything you need to know about creating this all-important document.
You can also jump to the end of this article for a free college spreadsheet template.
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Why You Need a Spreadsheet to Compare Colleges
Getting into college is one thing — choosing the right college is a whole separate challenge. It’s one that starts with college research and application and ends after you’ve received and chosen from your many offers.
So how can a prospective student benefit from a college spreadsheet?
You can compare schools side by side
As you’re choosing between several schools, you might find yourself flipping from one to the next because each is the best according to different criteria. This is why a college comparison spreadsheet is a useful tool for comparing schools.
It can clarify your thinking by presenting all of the important criteria on a single page. No more flipping or digging. No more getting bogged down with extraneous details. With a college comparison or decision spreadsheet, you only need to include the information that’s relevant to you in your college search.
You can compare or track financial aid offers
The financial package you're offered is an essential part of the equation and decision for which offer to accept. With a spreadsheet that lists aid packages and total tuition costs, you can evaluate financial aid offers, seeing which school will cost you the most and least after financial aid awards.
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How to Create Your College Comparison Spreadsheet
Creating a college spreadsheet isn’t rocket science, but it still requires a bit of organization to set up. To get started, you’ll need to know your potential colleges and your most important criteria. After that, you’ll have to input each of these pieces of information into columns and rows respectfully. Then, it’s time to research, fill in the blanks, and find a winner. Let’s start with step one.
Step 1 - Add your colleges
Start your decision matrix by listing each college you are considering across the top of the spreadsheet, with one column per college. These colleges should be displayed left to right just under the spreadsheet toolbar, so you can always see them.
If you don’t have all your colleges figured out, it’s okay to add and subtract columns from the top as you go. That’s part of the process. You’ll be doing the same thing once you learn which colleges gave you a “yes” and which ones gave you a “no”.
Step 2 - List your college comparison criteria
The next step is to fill in rows with your college comparison criteria. These criteria rows should be stacked in a column on the far-left side of your spreadsheet. For instance, if your first college is Stanford University and your first criterion is the annual cost of tuition, the cell block where the two meet will have the annual cost of tuition at Stanford.
There are tens (if not hundreds) of potential criteria to list on your spreadsheet. The ones you choose to list are up to you. While we certainly don’t recommend listing anywhere the total amount of possible criteria, there are a few criteria rows that we think every college planning worksheet should have.
- Net price: Include at least one row for affordability, using a metric such as the net price. The net price is the discounted sticker price after subtracting grants, scholarships, and other forms of gift aid.
- Graduation rates: It's also helpful to understand the level of success students at each school experience, and the graduation rate is one way to track this.
- Average income after graduation: Most college graduates hope to earn more money than they can without a college degree. So keeping tabs on the average salary for graduates at each school can be a handy comparison point.
- Average debt at graduation: While you hope to earn more with your degree, you also want to make sure you're not graduating with a mountain of debt. Noting the average debt at graduation can help you understand what you're likely to graduate with too.
- Academic programs: If you can't pursue your passion at a particular school, then it's worth thinking twice about going there. That is unless everything else is exceptional. And that's where your comparison spreadsheet comes in.
- Application timeline: It can be helpful to note when items for your application are due, as well as when schools make their big decisions. Keeping this information handy can be helpful in case you end up getting waitlisted or deferred and need to look at plan B and C.
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Step 3 - Do the research and compare colleges
Now you'll want to begin researching and filling in your spreadsheet. You can access most of the required information within your free Cappex account.
Once you’ve added information for all rows and columns, it’s time to start comparing. This is perhaps the most challenging part of the entire process, as it requires you to think critically about the information in front of you. You’ll need to have ideal benchmarks for each criterion, such as target tuition, study body size, and top majors offered. You’ll also need to decide which criteria are most important to you.
As you begin to narrow down your decision, it’s important to remember that not all criteria are set in stone. For instance, if one school has a lower net price than the others but you prefer a different college or university, ask them for more financial aid. Tell them they are your first choice, but you can’t afford them with the current financial aid offer. Tell them about any special circumstances that affect your ability to pay. They might not provide more money, but what do you have to lose?
Even if your first choice is more expensive, consider your income after graduation. If your favorite college or university yields a higher income for graduates, calculate the payback period. How long will it take for the increase in income to cover the difference in debt?
Step 4 - Identify initial “winner” colleges
For each criterion, identify one school as the winner. If two are tied for first with the same number of wins and losses, it could be a coin toss decision. Or choose the college with the lower net price or better location.
A decision matrix fits the most important information that will influence your decision on a single sheet of paper. It helps you see all the differences at a glance, so you don't go around in circles. It should help you clarify your decision.
Grab Your Free College Comparison Spreadsheet Template
Now that we’ve told you how to create a college comparison spreadsheet, you can download this Excel template for your college search.
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