Making the College Search Easy

Published by Wendy Nelson on

Woman looking through a magnifying glassMaking the college search easy is something most families want to do, but struggle to figure out.

Many factors go into the college search and different families may have very different needs when it comes to finding the “best fit” colleges. 

What to Search For When It Comes to Best Fit

Sometimes the student is seeking the best fit for one or more of the following areas:

  • Academics
  • Social
  • Athletics

Very often the family is looking for the best Financial Fit, which may be comprised of one or more of these areas:

  • Need-Based Aid
  • Merit-Based Aid
  • Lowest Sticker Price

There are really two main steps that must be done up front:

  1. Determine what factors will go into finding the best “college fit” for your student
  2. Find the colleges that will meet these factors

Although neither of these steps are easy, families struggle most with the second step. Once they have determine what to look for, they aren’t sure where to easily find the schools with the right combination of factors.

How to Search for Best Fit Colleges

The best free online college search site to use to find the right fit schools is You can use their College Match function to search for colleges that meet the criteria most important for your student. Some of the things you can search for include:

  • Colleges in specific states and geographic regions
  • Student body size
  • Gender mix
  • Public vs private colleges
  • Freshman satisfaction percentage
  • Graduation rate percentage (we typically recommend looking for 50% or higher)
  • Cost of Attendance categories
  • Percentage of financial need met (for students identified as having financial need)
  • Average student debt of graduates
  • Percentage of students receiving merit aid (can also select this for only students with no financial need)
  • Specific men’s and women’s sports offered (can include intercollegiate & club level)
  • Specific student ethnicity
  • Academic majors

By searching for any combination of these factors, you will receive a list of matching schools. You can then review these one by one to learn even more details about the schools. After you have reviewed these search results, you can save these schools to your “data locker” on the site or transfer any schools you are interested in to a college search spreadsheet template to track throughout your student’s college search process.

I have used this process successfully, but it takes a lot of time to go through schools one by one to review all the data points we have found to be important.

A Better Way to Make the College Search Easy

A friend of mine in the online college search resources space, Michelle Kretzschmar, has been providing a tool for many years that I found to be a tremendous help in making the college search easy. Using this tool saves countless hours over searching colleges one by one. It is called the DIY College Rankings Comprehensive College Search Spreadsheet. It’s a ready-made Excel spreadsheet filled with all the important data points (and more) for colleges around the country. It compiles data from the Common Data Sets and IPEDS into one easy-to-use tool.

The best way to use this tool is to use it as your working college search spreadsheet. You can sort and filter for the criteria that matters most and delete schools that don’t meet your student’s needs. This is easy enough for anyone to use, without advanced Excel skills. However, if you are a more advanced Excel user, the tool allows you to create pivot tables for anything you wish.

I wish I had known about the DIY Spreadsheet when I was first helping my oldest daughter search for colleges because I would have saved 100s of hours scouring the internet for the best fit colleges!

To recap, you need to start by figuring out the “best fit” factors for your student’s college search and then find schools that meet these factors. You can do this for free by doing a College Match search on and then reviewing the schools in the search results one by one.

If you want to save countless hours reviewing schools one by one and collecting the most important data points on your own college search spreadsheet, I recommend purchasing the DIY College Rankings Comprehensive College Search Spreadsheet to start with the data from all the colleges and narrow down to the best fit schools from there.

If you need more assistance on what process to use to find the “best fit” colleges and narrow them down, check out my Upside Down College Search framework. You can learn about the steps in the framework, get links to posts with further details and register for my next Free Upside Down College Search online training by starting here.