Families getting started on the college search process are well-served by keeping a list of schools that the student is interested in. (This should be the student’s job, by the way.) But what does that list look like? What goes in it? Here’s my suggestion:

Create a spreadsheet in Google Sheets (or your preferred online platform). The left-hand column will be school names. Then create the following columns to fill for each school:

  • General information including:
    • Size, location (urban/suburban/rural or other breakdown that matters to you), other demographics of interest to you
    • Is the degree/major you’re interested in offered?
    • Housing information (how long do students live on campus vs off?)
    • Quarters or semesters?
    • Social considerations that matter to you: athletics, theater, Greek life, academic residential communities, interest groups, …
  • Application and admissions information including:
    • Application deadline
    • Application fee and fee waiver eligibility/process
    • Letters of Recommendation
    • Supplemental essays (have a column for the essay prompts)
    • Top quartile GPA (from Collegedata Admissions tab)
    • Top quartile ACT/SAT scores (from Collegedata or College Navigator Admissions tab)
    • Test optional or test blind
  • Financial information including:
    • List price (Cost of Attendance) (from the school’s website)
    • Expected net price (from net price calculator)
    • Is the CSS Profile required?
    • Transfer credit policy (will you get credit for your AP/IB/dual credit classes)
  • Scholarship information including:
    • Is merit aid offered?
    • Scholarships available that are not reflected in the net price calculator
    • Application process and deadline for scholarships
    • Are SAT/ACT scores considered for any scholarships?
  • Why I would choose this school

The Common App includes most of the application information, including essays, and some other data points. However, it’s distributed among various tabs and your student is the one who has access. Having your own spreadsheet before you get to the Common App can help manage the number of schools you ultimately apply to. Because while it’s certainly possible to simply submit your application to multiple schools via the Common App, between application fees, CSS Profile fees and submitting test scores, each application may cost $100 or more. And that’s in addition to the time it takes to write essays and fulfill other application requirements. Which is why the final question on the list might be the most important. If you can’t come up with a reason you’d attend a school, then you should not apply. There are plenty of reasons you might attend, ranging from “It’s my first choice” to “I know I’ll get accepted” or “I’d like to go to school in Boston.” But if there isn’t a decision-tree that gets you to attending a specific school, you’re better off not applying. And by the way, at least one school should have “I can afford this” and “I know I’ll get accepted” listed.

Want to put this to work for you? Sign up for The College Financial Plan masterclass. You’ll develop a detailed financial plan for college, learn strategies to maximize financial aid and merit scholarships, find out how to qualify for tax credits and other benefits, and get your student a great college education at a price that won’t knock your family’s other financial goals off the rails. Sign up now! Introductory price of $250 through Sept. 19, 2021.