The Art of the College Spreadsheet (You NEED This)
Keep your facts straight and your thoughts clear on colleges using a spreadsheet - it's easier than it sounds!
August 24, 2016
The fateful time has come: the time for college applications. Now, maybe you have one dream school that you just know you’re absolutely going to attend, so applications aren’t such a vast undertaking for you … but if you’re like most people you’re looking at a variety of places, with a variety of programs, which means the application process can be a daunting endeavor. But wait—which schools have early decision? Which one offered that theater program? Which ones have great engineering departments? What city was that design school in? Which schools are you even applying to?
The fact is that college visits, programs, and professors tend to blend together after a while (to say nothing of notoriously difficult-to-navigate college websites). It may seem next to impossible to keep them all straight, especially if you’re looking at applying to several schools. Well, allow me to let you in on a secret: it is impossible. You can’t possibly retain that much information in your head. And so I offer you my humble organizational tool: the college spreadsheet.
A good college spreadsheet is truly invaluable. As I write this, I am looking at (too many) schools in the northeast—UPenn yesterday, Princeton this morning, Columbia and NYU tomorrow—eleven in total. Left to my own memory, or even my handwritten notes (though these are important), I would be flying home in a week with a skull full of soup, no closer to narrowing down my list of options than I was upon departure. I would have a longer list of applications to complete, but still no idea of where I want to go.
Fortunately, I came prepared.
Keeping a spreadsheet may not seem like fun, but let me assure you that it will be worth your while. Here are a few reasons why.
1. The Basics: How to Build Your Spreadsheet
Your spreadsheet can be very personal. The main idea is to have all the relevant information about your schools of interest together in one place. You get to decide what qualifies as relevant. My spreadsheet has the names of schools down the left-hand side, and categories across the top: undergrad size, price, deadlines, programs / majors I’m interested in (I have columns for “theater,” “art,” “literature & creative writing,” and also “additional” for anything else I stumble upon at a given school), community, campus life, etc.
The programs / majors columns will be your bread and butter, but as you look into different schools, you may decide to add columns for things you didn’t realize you cared about—for example, I added a “campus” column when I realized that the school’s architecture and location were very important to me.
How about an athletics column? Or a column for clubs? Your spreadsheet is the place to record all the tidbits you’ll want to remember when you’re making a decision about where to go.
2. Pros and Cons
Arguably your two most important columns are the pros and the cons. Now, pros and cons can be obvious things—this school doesn’t have a premed track, this school has a top-ranked music conservatory—but they can also be things unrelated to academics that will be still be important to you as a student. Is a school too urban? Not urban enough? Or maybe it lands in your perfect spot: a cute college town just a hop, skip, and a jump away from that bustling big city.
Your pros and cons columns are for everything that makes you go “Oh!” or “Oh …” NOTHING is too small or too silly. You will be glad you wrote them down later. These little positives and negatives are the details that will help you get a full picture of the schools on your list. And just think: without your trusty spreadsheet, you might never have paid them any attention.
Similar to pros and cons, your “impressions” column is the place to record any personal reflections or general feelings about a school. Did one university feel like a good fit, even though you can’t articulate quite why? Or maybe one school that has everything you’re looking for just doesn’t feel like a place you could see yourself.
Those impressions, however vague, are important, and deserve to be recorded. If nothing else, they’ll keep you from convincing yourself you want to attend a school that isn’t actually a good fit. Better still, if you’re deciding between a long list of schools that offer similar opportunities, the impressions column can help you narrow down that list and save on application fees.
As you write and reread your impressions, you’ll start to see patterns in what you like and dislike—like how I recently realized that I don’t actually want to be in the middle of a big city the way I thought I did. These patterns will help you evaluate potential schools with a better idea of just what it is you’re looking for.
This is the place to note anything about the student organizations, traditions, or culture that you find particularly attractive (or otherwise). For me, it’s important that there be an active Christian presence on campus. A quidditch team is also a plus. Maybe you aren’t athletic, but it’s important to you that there are sporting events you can attend as a fun activity. Check! Put it in the community column. Maybe you are athletic, and there just absolutely has to be intramural badminton at your school of choice. (Okay, in that scenario I might recommend a badminton column. But you get the idea.)
If you’re anything like me, the thought of deadlines—especially vast, foggy, vaguely looming deadlines—makes your chest tight and your breathing shallow. Good lord, I’m having to calm down as I write this. The spreadsheet, however, makes sure you’ll never be caught off guard, even at schools with three or four application deadlines, which can be confusing. Just decide when you want to apply, and put down, “January 5, regular decision, non-binding.” Next row: “November 1, early decision, binding.” Easy as pie.
In conclusion, the possibilities for your spreadsheet are endless. Start with academics, and build out from there. The more you personalize, the more useful this tool will be! Ultimately, nothing beats having all the information in one place, where you can review schools side by side, strike through the ones you’re no longer interested in, and check off the ones you’ve applied to.
When you can scan down the deadlines column to see what’s coming up this month, glance down the residential column to check up on the living and dining situation, and take a look at the clubs column to make sure your a cappella needs will be met, all within a matter of seconds and without wasting a single unnecessary moment on a university website—Congratulations. You’ve made it. Welcome to the spreadsheet life.
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