Graphing notebook on table with colorful pens and sticky notes

Cut Down Your College List With a College Search Rubric

Looking at too many colleges during your search? Cut down your list with this easy and fun college search rubric method!

Are you interested in 20 colleges or more? Well, this may come as a surprise, but that’s probably too many. In my experience, most high school seniors apply to about seven colleges. But a lot of students apply to many more because they’re scared they won’t get in anywhere. Of course, the number of colleges you apply to is different for everybody, and there’s no “magic number.” But even the experts say 20 colleges is a lot. So perhaps it's time to start cutting down your college list. (Besides, do you really want to write more than 10 application essays?!)

It may seem hard to narrow down which colleges you truly want to take into consideration. That’s why I’m here to share an easy and fun way to shorten your college list so you can compare different schools and figure out which one is the best fit for you: with a college search rubric!

The importance of organization

A college search rubric is one of the best ways to cut down a lengthy list of colleges. It will help you find and evaluate everything that’s important to you in a college—you might even give each category ratings or a scoring system, if you want to get really crazy!

The idea of a rubric may remind you of school projects, where you followed the specifications of a rubric to make sure you did everything you were supposed to. Well, a college search rubric is pretty similar—but much more fun. And with so many different variables to consider when searching for the perfect college, a personalized rubric is a simple solution.

Creating your own college search rubric 

The first step in creating your college search rubric and narrowing down your college list is to get in the mood for some serious organizing and chart-making. If you’re anything like me, just the thought of organizational tasks make you giddy. (Color-coding, tabs, spreadsheets—woo!) And if not, this rubric might just change your mind.

Next, it’s time to make a list (yay, more lists!) of the elements that are important to you in a college, if you haven’t already. For example, college tuition and location are usually big criteria to consider. Some other factors that might be important to you might be a major/minor a college is famous for, student demographics, housing options, religious affiliation—even the local weather!

Related: How to Organize Your College Search 

Basic college search criteria

Here’s a list of basic categories you might want to think about including in your college search rubric.

  • Academics and majors. Does the college have major you like? Professors you want to work with? Cool facilities?
  • Cost, financial aid, and affordability. What’s the overall cost? What’s the average financial aid package and amount of student debt? What percentage of students graduates on time?
  • Location and distance from home. How far do you want to be from home? What location do you want and why?
  • Campus community and social life. What’s the campus vibe like? What do students do for fun?
  • Athletics and other extracurriculars. Are you favorite activities available? Is the school known for any extracurriculars in particular?
  • Size of student body. How many students attend the school overall? What about in your major? How big of a campus do you want?
  • Admission selectivity. What’s the acceptance rate and stats (GPA, test scores, etc.) for the average admitted student? Is the school a safety, match, or reach for you?
  • Career services and other support. How will the school help you succeed throughout college and when it’s time to find a job? How quickly do graduates find jobs in their fields?
  • Type of school. Are you looking for any type of college in particular? Public or private? HBCU? Single-gender or co-ed? A religious school?
  • Your overall feelings about the school. What’s your gut opinion of the college? How did you feel when you visited campus?

Pro tipThe Ultimate Guide to the College Search: How to Find Your Perfect College Match walks through all these areas in lots of detail!

Personalizing your college search rubric 

The fun part about this rubric is that it is all about you! You get to decide what's important to you in your college search so when it comes time to actually deciding which school you’ll attend in the fall, the decision is easy. (Well, relatively speaking.)

After thinking about the topics above and writing out 10–15 factors that are crucial to your happiness and well-being in college, it’s time for the real list-making to begin. Write down all of the colleges you're thinking of. All of them. (And if it looks overwhelming, don’t worry: in a few short hours, that list should be down by half!)

Depending on your creativity and organizational skills, your “rubric” could merely be a scribbled list on a piece of scratch paper. Maybe you’re savvy with computers and want to type up a nice spreadsheet. (This college search spreadsheet might help too!) I suggest a tri-fold poster board with charts and graphs—all color-coded for the school's colors, of course—with sticky notes and maybe even some glitter. But seriously—do whatever your heart desires to make your college search rubric specific and special to you.

Researching your schools

The next step in the rubric-making process is putting on your research pants and doing some work. That’s right, research outside of a school project! But this kind of research should be fun because it's designed to let you get a better idea of the colleges on your list.

Besides Google, an unprecedented research tool for college searchers, CollegeXpress has a ton of resources about thousands of colleges. As you refer to your list of college wants and needs, take time to delve into each school's website to get a better feel for their vibe.

Most of the elements on your rubric—tuition, location, etc.—should be easy to find with a quick search of the school’s website. (See? Research isn’t so bad!) While looking at college websites and comparing them to your criteria, you might cross some schools right off the bat. This is perfectly fine and can even be reassuring. Throwing out schools is a natural reaction to deep college research. It’s all part of the plan.

Narrowing down your final list

The final step in narrowing down your list of colleges is stepping back at your tri-fold poster (or spreadsheet) and admiring all the hard work you have done on your college search rubric. After this fun project, you should have a pretty good idea of which colleges are your favorites, which meet certain wants or needs, and which are no longer in the running.

Hopefully your college search rubric is the beginning of wonderful things to come in your college journey and doesn’t make you anxious about getting an A+ on your research. For this project, you are the grader, so take as long as you need to see the benefits of your hard work. Happy list-making!

What’s on your college search rubric? Research different criteria in our College Admission section, then start finding your dream schools with our College Search tool! 

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About Sydney Missigman

Sydney Missigman

Sydney is a current high school junior living in Arizona. She has never met an extracurricular activity she didn’t like. She is a member of National Honor Society and is involved in her school newspaper, Key Club, tutoring club, and student ambassador program, having leadership roles in many of these. She is in her third year of Spanish classes and is a TA for her Spanish teacher. Sydney loves using the power of the written word to connect with people throughout the world. Her family, studies, and service work are just a few of her many passions.


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