Advertiser disclosure

College Comparison Spreadsheet: A Step-by-Step Guide to Create One

With so many options available, it can be difficult to narrow down your college options to a workable list. This is where a college comparison spreadsheet can come in; they are a great way to lay out all of your options in one document and compare their advantages and disadvantages. This can be a good way to decide what you want to prioritize in your prospective colleges, and ultimately it can help you save on application fees, which can add up quickly.

In this guide, we’ll lead you through every step of creating a college comparison spreadsheet. That includes a guide to what information to include for each college, where to source the information, how many schools to add, and how to read your sheet once you’ve finished it. We’ll even give you some options for programs to use for the spreadsheet. Let’s get into it!

Jump ahead to…

What should a college comparison spreadsheet accomplish?

When you’re digging into a college decision, there are a lot of factors that you need to weigh at the same time in order to make a good choice. It’s easy to become scatterbrained if all of this data isn’t in the same place.

A college comparison spreadsheet solves this problem by aggregating all of this information in one place. It mixes official, objective information, such as average test scores, salaries, tuition, and location, with personal preferences and impressions.

Don’t ignore the process!

Part of the beauty of a college comparison spreadsheet is that it can help you out with your decision making in several ways. Once it’s finished, it’s a great resource to look back at and narrow down your options. But on top of that, you’ll receive considerable benefit just by making it.

By filling out entries for each school you’re considering, you’ll find out more about the schools in the process. You’ll also be given opportunities for personal reflection in some of the columns. So, you’ll be doing half the work just by making the spreadsheet!

What columns should be on my spreadsheet?

Your first step when creating your spreadsheet should be laying out what categories you’ll use to assess your prospective schools. Each category will occupy its own column in the spreadsheet. In general, your categories will fall into one of the following themes:

  • General information
  • Academics
  • Finances
  • Personal preference

General information

The general information section will be the easiest to fill out. All the information you need should be on any college profile. Here is everything you should add in the general information theme:

  • Name of the school
  • Public or private?
  • Location
  • Demographics of location (urban vs. rural)
  • Total number of students
  • Total number of undergraduate students

This part may seem basic, but it’s important to fill out for every school, and can help inform your later themes, such as personal preference.

Related:  Top 15 college majors for the future


The academics section is important for two reasons. First off, it’s a good indicator of your admissions chances. If you fall within the range of typical admitted scores, you have a higher chance of being admitted. And if you fall above it, you have a better chance of scoring merit scholarships at the school.

Second off, it’s a good way to get an idea of whether the school has the level of academic rigor you’re looking for. Looking at the percentage of students who go on to grad school can help you decide if this is a good option to set you on track.

Since these categories are a little more complex than the previous section, we’ll briefly explain each one.

Average high school GPA for incoming freshmen

This will show you the average GPA for students who were admitted and decided to attend. It’s a good benchmark of how your potential future classmates did in high school.

It can also indicate whether you’ll earn merit-based aid at the school. If your GPA is higher than the listed number, you may have a better shot at getting financial assistance.

Average admitted test scores

Similar to the previous category, this is a benchmark number to show you what academic level your future classmates would be at. Tests aren’t everything but it can be a good at-a-glance statistic.

But keep in mind, test scores are becoming less relevant in recent years, and many schools have stopped requiring them. So, don’t take this number too seriously, especially if your scores are low.

Graduation rate

A good indicator of a college’s academic strength is its graduation rate. The graduation rate shows what percentage of students who start the program go on to graduate. Schools with strong academics tend to retain their students and a high percent of students graduate from the program.

Percentage of students who go on to grad school

This number measures the percentage of students who go on to grad school within a set number of years after graduation. If you’re considering grad school, this is a very important statistic for academics.

It can indicate how well the college prepares students for grad school, as well as the support structures at the school to help students with the application process. If you have an idea of what you want to major in, you might even be able to find the grad school percentage for students in your major. This could be more accurate to your situation, as some majors lend themselves to grad school more than others.

Top 25% of test scores

This number shows the top 25th percentile of admitted students’ test scores. If you’re in this percentile, you’ll have a good shot at getting some merit-based aid from that school.

Financial information

Now we’re getting deeper into the numbers. This section is more pragmatic, as it gives you an idea of whether you can afford the school you’re considering. Here are the categories you should include for financial information.

Total cost

Total cost should include your tuition, room and board, supplies, and additional fees. Most colleges have a breakdown of all of their costs on their website. Some call this the “sticker price” – it may seem intimidating, but most students with financial need will qualify for aid to reduce the price.

Percentage of students who receive merit-based aid

This is the percentage of incoming students who receive financial aid that is based on their application strength rather than their financial need. This gives you an idea of how likely you are to receive aid on top of your need-based aid.

Average merit award for freshmen

This number is the average amount awarded for students who qualify for merit-based aid. So, if you earn merit-based aid at the school, this gives you an idea of how much it will be.

Average percent of need met

Once you submit your financial information to a school, it’ll be up to them to decide how much financial need you have. They gauge your ability to pay, and subtract that from the total cost of attendance. The remaining number is your financial need.

Average percent of need met shows how much of that number the college will cover. Many schools pledge to meet all financial need, while others only cover part of it. So, schools with a higher percent will have a higher chance of giving you a workable aid package.

Average undergraduate financial aid

This gives you a portrait of how much financial aid the school gives to the average student who demonstrates financial need. It might be difficult to make sense of this figure on its own, but it should be telling when you compare it to other schools’ numbers.

Average graduate salary

If you’re going to have to take out student loans, it’s a good idea to check out average salaries for recent graduates of the school. You want to ensure that you’ll be able to pay any loans back.

But also keep in mind that salaries are influenced not only by school, but by the major and profession you choose. An English major at a prestigious school may go on to earn less than an economics major at a less prestigious school.

Related: What is the average starting salary out of college?

Personal preference

In this section, you’ll start reflecting on what you know about the college. Not everything fits into numbers and statistics, so this is kind of a catch-all for everything else about the college that could impact your decision.

The columns are less standard in this section. If you’ve visited the campus, you could include a description of what you liked about it and what you didn’t like. If you’ve talked to a student or alumnus, you could discuss that experience.

Even if you haven’t visited or talked to anyone there, you can quickly run-down your feelings about the statistics you already entered. For example, if you prefer urban schools and the school is rural, you can note that here. If a school has an especially renowned department in a field you’re interested in, you can note that here too.

Here are a few sample columns for this category:

  • Campus feel
  • Gut feeling about the school
  • Personal testimony about the school

Where should I source data for my colleges?

You can source data for college comparison spreadsheets from a variety of mediums. Once you have an idea of the schools you want on your list, you can start by going to a site like US News or Princeton Review to pull some statistics and basic information. Oftentimes, these sites will have average admitted GPA and test scores, location, and some financial aid information.

College websites will have further information on the surrounding area and total cost breakdowns. They’re also an important part of the data sourcing project because they’ll have photos of campus and additional resources to help give you a better gut feeling about the school.

Finally, firsthand testimony is a very important part of the process! This can include college visits, Q&A sessions online, and conversations with current students. Oftentimes, you can ask your high school guidance counselor to match you with any alumni of your high school who go to the college now.

Related: What is a safety, reach, and match school?

How many schools should I include on my college comparison spreadsheet?

The answer to this question depends on how many schools you’re considering. Adding a school to a thorough spreadsheet is a fairly intensive class, so you should decide that you are actually considering a school before you add it.

Sometimes, the process of adding a school to the spreadsheet might be enough to tell you that it’s not a good fit. If so, the spreadsheet is doing its job by narrowing down your choices.

It’s a good idea to get at least five colleges on your list, and probably somewhere closer to ten or even fifteen. From here, you can whittle it down and decide which places you actually want to apply to.

Also see: How many colleges should I apply to?

What programs are useful for making college comparison spreadsheets?

The most popular spreadsheet programs are Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel. You can use whichever you are most familiar with; functionally, they are very similar. However, there are a few advantages to using Sheets.

Sheets is free software, so you’ll be able to use it as long as you make a free Google account. It also has a sharing function that makes it easier to collaborate with other people. So, if you want some input on your choice, Sheets might make it easier to share your options with friends and family.

College comparison spreadsheet template

Just to make things a little easier for you, we’ve cooked up a template to help you start your comparison spreadsheet! You can access our template here. Once you’ve arrived on the page, just click File – > Make a Copy, and it’ll copy an editable version of the spreadsheet into your own Google Drive.

Remember, you can edit the spreadsheet however you’d like to make it work for you. Especially when it comes to the personal preference columns, students may have their own categories they want to add. Everyone has different priorities when it comes to finding a college, and you should make your spreadsheet reflect what those are to you.

Next steps

Now that you know how to make your spreadsheet, you’re ready to go! Here’s a step-by-step rundown to help keep you on course.

  1. If you don’t already have a Google account, you can make one now to gain access to Sheets. You can use this or Microsoft Excel to host your spreadsheet
  2. Make a list of each college you want to consider for your comparison spreadsheet. It’s good to have at least five colleges on here, and even somewhere between ten and fifteen
  3. Start your research by getting the easy information. That includes location, average GPA, average test scores, cost, and financial aid
  4. Next, do some more in-depth research on each school to get a better feeling of the qualities that can’t be quantified
  5. Reach out to people with personal experience at your colleges to help fill out your “personal preference” section
  6. Start going through your list and eliminating schools as you realize which ones are not the fit you’re looking for

Good luck with your college decision! And remember – we’ve got a lot of other resources to guide you through your decision-making process. We’ve got a guide on how to write a successful college application, how to write an essay about yourself, and we can help you fill out the activities section on the Common App.

And once your applications are in, don’t forget to look into scholarship opportunities. Luckily, we can help with that too. We’ve got a free tool that custom-matches you with vetted scholarship opportunities based on your interests, demographics, and age. In addition to that, you can check out our list of scholarships for high school seniors. Best of luck!