DropDownListFor with Dictionaries in ASP.NET MVC and why SelectList wants to kill you

06 Jan 2015

I would like to show you how to use ASP.NET MVC helper function DropDownListFor and SelectList class with generic Dictionaries, such as Dictionary<string, string> or Dictionary<int, string>. Dictionaries can be quite useful for a number of scenarios – serving as a data source for select lists of countries, states, time zones, age ranges, genders – basically any pre-defined, fixed-set options lists.

This article is one of the ‘DropDownList series’ articles that should help you in dealing with DropDownList / SelectList / SelectListItem related problems. Check out other DropDownList articles here:

Also, check out my previous articles on how DropDownListFor works, how to get the selected value in your controller and how to make sure the selected value is rendered back, as well as how to use enums in the drop down lists in a humane, non-cryptic way.

Let’s start with a simplistic user registration page that amongst other things, has a drop down list with names of US states (I used Australian states in my earlier example, so this should balance it nicely). A user needs to be able to see full names of the states, such as ‘Alabama’, and when a state is selected, we want to get its abbreviation, such as ‘AL’, in the controller.

In the example above I used Html.DropDownListFor helper function, which needs a collection of SelectListItem so it can render the correct options. There’s a very handy (yet treacherous, but I’ll get back to that later) helper class SelectList which can convert a Dictionary (or any collection, for that matter) into a list of SelectListItem instances. Let’s see how it’s done.

Firstly, let’s get us some data in the controller – there I pretend that I get an instance of Dictionary<string, string> from a DB layer/helper. Nothing exciting here, let’s move along to the view.

// 1. Action method for displaying the 'User Profile' page
public ActionResult UserProfile()
    // Get existing user profile object from the session or create a new one
    var model = Session["UserProfileModel"] as UserProfileModel ?? new UserProfileModel();

    // Simulate getting states from a database
    model.States = GetStatesFromDB();

    return View(model);

/// <summary>
/// Simulates retrieval of country's states from a DB.
/// </summary>
/// <returns>Dictionary of US states</returns>
private Dictionary<string, string> GetStatesFromDB()
    return new Dictionary<string, string>
        {"AK", "Alaska"},
        {"AL", "Alabama"},
        {"AR", "Arkansas"},
        {"AZ", "Arizona"},
        // some lines skipped

The view is a bit more interesting – the most important bit here is how we convert the dictionary, stored in Model.States, into an instance of IEnumerable<SelectListItem> that’s needed by DropDownListFor.

<!-- ...some lines skipped... -->

@Html.DropDownListFor(m => m.State, // Store selected value in Model.State

                      // This argument needs some explanation - here we take a Distionary<string, string>
                      // and turn it into an instance of SelectList, see blog post for more details
                      new SelectList(Model.States, "Key", "Value"),

                      // Text for the first 'default' option
                      "- Please select your state -",

                      // A class name to put on the "<select>"
                      new { @class = "form-control" }

<!-- ...some lines skipped... -->

That magical line new SelectList(Model.States, "Key", "Value") is what does the job – it basically says – ‘take this collection, and for each dictionary item, create a SelectListItem with its Value property set to the Key property and its Text property set to Value property of a given dictionary item’.

So in the end you get some nice and clean HTML that looks like this:

<select class="form-control" id="State" name="State"> <!-- some attrs=ibutes skipped -->
    <option value="">- Please select your state -</option>
    <option value="AK">Alaska</option>
    <option value="AL">Alabama</option>
    <option value="AR">Arkansas</option>
    <option value="AZ">Arizona</option>
    <!-- and on it goes -->

Check you the full source code of the project here on github or download it as a zip file.

It’s a trap

You might have noticed in the documentation for one of the SelectList constructors a benignly named parameter selectedValue, whose name suggests that you should, naturally, use it to select an item in the list. The description only confirms this. But there be dragons.

This parameter is meant to be used as a default value when a form with a drop down is rendered for the first time. A good example would be trying to pre-fill new user’s state based on their IP address to save them some time.

This default value is only going to be taken into account by DropDownListFor if the corresponding model field (Model.State in our case) that’s used for storage of user’s selection is set null. If the model field has got any value, the default selectedOption parameter is going to be ignored by ASP.NET MVC.

If we were to modify the earlier example to pre-select, say Maine (because there’s a lot of pine trees and the air is clean), that’s how it would look like:

@Html.DropDownListFor(m => m.State, // Store selected value in Model.State

                      // Notice "ME" as the last parameter here -
                      // that's the key for "Maine" in the supplied dictionary
                      new SelectList(Model.States, "Key", "Value", "ME"),

                      // Text for the first, non-selected option
                      "- Please select your state -",

                      // A class name to put on the "<select>"
                      new { @class = "form-control" }

Notice the “ME” parameter in the new SelectList(...) call above - but remember it’s going to be ignored by ASP.NET MVC if Model.State is not null.

Source code

Here is a download link for a complete Visual Studio solution that includes the code used in this article. You can browse the code online or clone the git repository.

But Wait, There’s More!

I hope this article helped you. If you don’t want to miss my next post on how to tame the MVC beast - subscribe to my mailing list. This way you will get freshly baked articles as soon as I publish them. I never spam, period.

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