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How to Make a College Comparison & Search Spreadsheet

College decision matrix spreadsheet

The college search can sometimes be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be disorganized. As you research colleges, accumulate test scores, and eventually receive financial offers, you’re going to have a lot of information on your hands. Creating a college spreadsheet is a great way to keep everything organized.

Also called a college comparison spreadsheet or college search spreadsheet,  a college spreadsheet is a single consolidated document on which you can enter and store information about the colleges you’re considering. Not will a spreadsheet improve accessibility — it will also improve efficiency by giving you the power to include only the essential information. On top of that, it makes comparisons easier and clearer than most other methods. 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.


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Staying Organized in Your College Search

Getting into college is one thing — choosing the right college for you is a whole separate challenge. It’s one that starts before you’re accepted (so you can choose the right colleges to apply to) and ends after you’ve received the good news (so you can choose the right school from among the final candidates). Making both of these decisions is nothing short of a big deal, so you want to have all the relevant info you need to make the best choices for you. This starts, and ends, with a college decision spreadsheet.

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 decision matrix, or 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. So, how do you go about creating a college comparison spreadsheet? In the sections below, we’ll provide you with a college comparison template you can use to get started.


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How to Create Your College 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 criteria

The next step is to fill in rows with your comparison criteria. These criteria rows should be stacked in a column on the far-left side of your spreadsheet. Just like a multiplication table, your spreadsheet will combine your college columns with your criteria rows to have an answer at each individual cell block. For instance, if your first college is Stanford University and your first criteria 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.

Include at least one row for affordability, such as the net price. The net price is the discounted sticker price after subtracting grants, scholarships and other forms of gift aid.

Also include rows that focus on outcomes, such as graduation rates, average debt at graduation, student loan default rates and average income after graduation

Other information you may want to include as criteria on your college spreadsheet could be:

  • School size
  • Availability of programs you’re interested in
  • Fill in other ideas from research


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Step 3 - Do the research and make comparisons

Now the work begins: filling in your spreadsheet with the criteria you’ve selected for each school. Some of this information is available from the College Scorecard. Created by the United States government, the College Scorecard is an online tool that allows you to compare colleges and universities across five data points: cost, graduation rate, employment rate, average amount borrowed, and loan default rate. Follow the link to find your colleges. If you’re looking for more info to fill out your spreadsheet, the best place to find reputable information in each college’s official website. Head there to fill out your criteria rows.

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 “winners”

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 Search Spreadsheet Template

Now that we’ve told you how to create a college spreadsheet, we’re going to show you. You can download this Excel template that you can use and fill out for your college search. Want more college searching and scholarship tools? Sign up here on Cappex to access scholarships and start creating your college list.

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