How to Create a Better College List

Published by Wendy Nelson on

Building a better college list Let’s talk about how to create a better college list. The traditional method would be to use a college search spreadsheet template like the one I offer on my Resources page, start listing “known” colleges and then add to the list by using one of the big college search websites. I used this method for several years and while it can work well, it is also very time consuming.

After using the traditional college list method for my oldest daughter, I discovered a tool that made the college list process so much easier and faster. So in my mind, there are two ways to create a college list. Let’s look at both.

Traditional College List

When using the traditional college list method, there are several things you need to do to create an initial college list:

  1. Find a college search spreadsheet template you like (like the one I linked to above)
  2. Analyze what columns you need on your template – what are the things that are important to you and your student for each school?
  3. Change the template to add the columns you need
  4. Find a college search website that has the data you want to track – I recommend and college navigator. In some cases, you may need to use more than one college search website to find all the data you want to track. You will usually have the best luck finding everything in one place if you use
  5. Look up known colleges on the college search website and add the appropriate data to the college search spreadsheet.
  6. Do a college search (usually several college searches) to find additional colleges that fit the criteria your student is looking for.
  7. Determine which search results are schools your student wants to explore further and add these to the college search spreadsheet.
  8. Continue to use the spreadsheet as your student explores this initial list of colleges further – My method is to create a color-coding system to indicate which schools to visit, which schools your student liked best after visiting, etc.

A Better College List

In order to create a better college list, I believe it would need to allow for the following:

  1. Have the data you want to see for colleges already pre-populated in a spreadsheet.
  2. Have the ability to use it as your “working” college list.
  3. No need for copying and pasting from websites into spreadsheets.
  4. No need to look up known colleges or do searches to see what other schools out there might match the criteria your student is looking for.
  5. Easy side-by-side comparison between schools on any data points.
  6. No searching the colleges” websites to find the data and tools you need.
  7. Access to additional demographic information that isn’t usually included on college search websites.
  8. Be able to quickly exclude schools that don’t meet certain desired criteria.

Sounds great, right? Several years ago when I was still pretty new to the online college search business world, I met Michelle Kretzschmar. She created a tool that does all this and more. If I had known about this tool when my oldest daughter was searching for colleges, I would have saved many, many hours!

The tool is called the DIY College Rankings Spreadsheet. I use it anytime I want to search for potential colleges for a student. It costs $42, but you get all data updates for one year and the time savings more than makes up for the cost.

The DIY College Rankings Spreadsheet is a compilation of data from the Common Data Set and IPEDS. It is the most complete compilation I have seen. I mentioned two college search websites above – and College Navigator. compiles IPEDS and Common Data Set data and although it has most of the data that the DIY College Rankings Spreadsheet includes (but not all), you can only look at this data on a single college at a time. The beauty of the DIY Spreadsheet is that you can sort and filter to easily compare multiple colleges against each other and easily find the colleges that are the “best” for a particular data point.

The other college search website I mentioned, College Navigator, only uses the IPEDS data, so it is missing a whole different side of data that is found in the Common Data Set. This particularly comes into play with respect to merit scholarship data as only the Common Data Set gets specific about who is getting merit-based aid. IPEDS lumps need-based and merit-based scholarships and grants together in the same statistics.

While you can go to Google and search for the Common Data Set for a particular school, again you are only getting a single school view. Plus there are pages and pages of data points included in the Common Data Set and it can be quite overwhelming to try to look through the data for multiple colleges in one sitting. I like the fact that the DIY College Rankings Spreadsheet pulls out specific data points that are the most meaningful for students and parents during the college search process.

One other thing to note: Not all colleges report into the Common Data Set. You will find that some colleges will be blank for certain data points in the DIY Spreadsheet. Common Data Set comes from a private organization so there is not a requirement for colleges to report this data. It is voluntary. IPEDS, on the other hand, is government-sponsored data and is available for all colleges. You can search IPEDS directly for a school here, but again, it is one school at a time and the College Navigator site is the “prettier” interface for consumers to use to see the data.

Here are some of the best search features available in the DIY College Rankings Spreadsheet:

  1. Link to the school’s Net Price Calculator – no more searching on the school’s website. Just copy and paste the link in your browser to use the Net Price Calculator.
  2. Degree of Urbanization – if you are not familiar with the school’s location, this column will tell you whether it is in a City, Town, Suburb or Rural and how large or remote the place is.
  3. Percentage of Part-Time Students – see whether the campus attracts primarily full-time or part-time students
  4. % of Full-Time Undergraduates Age 25 and Above – Does the school primarily attract students right out of high school or primarily older students?
  5. % Freshmen In-State – Does this school draw students primarily from its home state or from other states?
  6. 4-Year Graduation Rate – Is the school graduating a good number of students within four years? A general rule of thumb would be to look for schools with at least a 50% 4-year graduation rate.
  7. % of Students Admitted – How many applicants are offered admission? This will tell you how competitive admissions at the school will be.
  8. Mid-50% SAT and ACT scores – Use this to determine where your student falls compared to admitted applicants. If they fall within the mid-50%, it would generally be considered a “target” school. Below the mid-50% would make it a “reach” school, or above the mid-50% would most likely make it a “safety” school for the student. Additionally, students who fall above the mid-50% are usually more likely to be offered merit-based aid by the school.
  9. Average High School GPA of Freshmen – This can be used in conjunction with the mid-50% scores to determine reach/target/safety status and likelihood of merit aid.
  10. % of Freshmen Without Need – How many incoming freshmen were judged not to have financial need (will not be awarded need-based aid)?
  11. % of Freshmen Without Need Receiving Merit Aid – Of those students without need, how many were offered merit aid? (If you are a family who will not qualify for need-based aid, but are looking for a school that will offer substantial merit aid, you want this % to be high.)
  12. Average Merit Award for Freshmen Without Need – On average, how much merit aid are these incoming freshmen without need receiving? (Again, if you are a family who will not qualify for need-based aid, but are relying on merit aid, you want this amount to be high.)
  13. Freshmen required to live on campus? – At a glance, find out if freshmen are required to live on campus at this school.
  14. Athletic Information – Find out what division the school competes in as well as what conferences for major sports.

My favorite way to use the DIY College Rankings Spreadsheet is to do a “save as” to create a second working copy. On that working copy, I can delete schools I am not interested in and narrow down the rest as we go along with the college search process until we reach a final list of colleges under consideration. That way we have all the statistics we are interested in right at our fingertips for each college.

To sum it up, if you are a do-it-yourselfer like me, you are probably using the traditional method I described above to help your student create a college search spreadsheet. It works well, but takes a lot of research time. $42 for a tool that will help you research colleges faster and better is more than worth the money spent. Check out the DIY College Rankings Spreadsheet here.