Make your college application short list with these digital tools

A woman fills out paperwork while working at a computer

There's never been more information available about colleges and universities. These digital tools can help you sort out the details to determine your short list of choices.

Making decisions about which colleges to apply to can feel overwhelming. Luckily, there’s a lot of information online to help you with those decisions. The key is knowing how to decipher it all so you can create your college application short list.

Going to college is an investment of time and money in your future, and it’s crucial to make the choice that’s right for you. Creating a short list of options eliminates a lot of “what if?” scenarios so you can focus on what’s possible, what’s preferable, and what’s most important to you.

Here are four steps to help you get there.

1. Start with a spreadsheet

As with other big decisions in your life, it helps to decide first what’s important to you. Is picking a college about finding the most rigorous academic program? Finding the best professional opportunities? Going on an adventure far from home? While college rankings like those by U.S. News & World Report use their own criteria for deciding what’s best, developing a spreadsheet for your college application short list will let you choose your own measurements for what you want in a school. You can even get started quickly by downloading someone else’s template, like this college comparison worksheet Microsoft offers for Word.

Figure out for your spreadsheet which parts of the school experience are most important to you. These become the categories in which you’ll rank your colleges. Some students find it helpful to use a 1–10 point system, with 1 meaning it barely registers and 10 being ideal. Some common categories:

  • Proximity to home
  • Size of the school
  • Affordability, including financial aid
  • Diversity by race, gender, or geography
  • Opportunities for internships, work-study, and study abroad
  • Community engagement and activities
  • Graduation rates and grad-school acceptance

2. Research schools to create your ranking

Once you’ve created your experience categories, it’s time to do some digging to find out how your potential schools measure up. The sites below are great tools to start with.

  • The U.S. Department of Education has an easy-to-use College Scorecard to explore the programs, admissions details, and costs of schools.
  • The College Board’s BigFuture tool can help you compare 3,711 college options by many categories, including location, test scores, majors, sports and activities, housing, and diversity.
Creating a short list can be a long process, but the end result—a clear sense of the schools you should target—is worth it.

3. Explore the vibe

You don’t need to travel across the country to visit campuses as you make your college application short list. Most colleges offer virtual tours through their websites. offers student-generated videos of campus life, and offers interactive maps and video tours so you can get a feel for what it’s like.

Many schools also use their social media accounts to reach out to potential students. But you can also find out what actual students are up to by searching for hashtags and locations related to your school list.

Remember that social media is always a two-way street, and the schools you’re looking at can be looking at you, too. A January 2020 study found that 36% of college admissions officers looked at applicant’s online profiles. So exercise caution with what you do online, and clean up your social media presence if needed.

4. Talk it through

Now you’ve clarified what’s important to you, researched the stats to help narrow down the list, and developed a feel for life at different schools. The final component of making a college application short list? Share with family and friends what you’re finding and what you’re thinking. Their thoughts and ideas can be an important part of the process.

Online forums can be a great place to trade information and talk to other students who are in similar situations. College Confidential is the world’s largest college forum, and there you can search for discussions by school and topic. Sites like Reddit and Quora are also popular options where potential students can talk about applying to schools.

Remember that creating a college application short list and applying to schools doesn’t have to be a linear process. You can and should go back to any step at any time. Research and talking to people could change your perspective and how you feel about different schools. As you learn more, you might revise your ideas of what’s important to you. Creating a short list can be a long process, but the end result—a clear sense of the schools you should target—is worth it.

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