Northwest Grad Builds The eHarmony of College Search Tools
CollegeZen uses compatibility algorithm to match high school students with colleges
Germantown native Neil Soni built The College People with hopes of making the process of searching for college easier. But simplifying the process was only part of the problem, the site’s users told Soni.
The online college search is a lot like dating. Sometimes you kiss a lot of frogs before you find The One. Couldn’t there be an online tool that helps weed-out bad matches, like a dating site for college searches?
CollegeZen was born.
“We try to narrow down that list for the student so they won't have to be browsing around aimlessly looking at schools that wouldn't fit their criteria in the first place,” said Soni, a graduate of Northwest High School who is now a senior at Carnegie Mellon University.
CollegeZen folds in the interactivity of social media. Users can chat with students and alumni of schools they’re hoping to attend and can “follow” prospective schools as one would on Twitter. There is also a developing partnership with LinkedIn that would enable access to anonymous profile data for where a college’s graduates wind up working.
“The college search is social,” Soni said. “Parents are talking to each other all the time. Kids are talking to each other all the time. But as soon as you go online, on any of these sites, it's completely solo. We realized people searching the Internet today are completely used to things being social.”
Currently in beta testing, a fully functioning version of CollegeZen is expected to be released this week.
Timing the tech industry
Soni, 21, arrives in the tech-startup arena at a good time. The cost of launching tech products has gone down, but that also means more startups are forming, according to Jim Jen, director of AlphaLab, a tech-startup accelorator based in Pittsburgh.
Jen said The College People had potential. AlphaLab invested $25,000 in Soni’s company in exchange for 5 percent of its common stock. Soni’s company was among the six AlphaLab accepted into its 20-week program — which had more than 100 applicants.
“The overall market problem seemed like a good opportunity to go after,” Jen said. “He gets it. They had already started making progress as they were applying, had beta customers lined up. As a team we could see they could get things done.”
Need to fill
Within public high schools, the process of picking a college is largely traditional, according to Laura Newton, director of school counseling, residency and international admissions for Montgomery County Public Schools.
“Technology is a tool you can use to assist you, but you cannot do without the human side of the selection process. I say that because there are so many questions,” Newton said. “You want to be able to talk to someone who's familiar with the process and tells you what's going to happen down the road.”
Newton said guidance counselors focus on meeting requirements of college admission — taking the right classes, the right tests, the right extracurricular activities, Newton said.
The first step is letting students know that college is a possibility, that they can go to college, a seed that gets planted during the middle school years, according to Newton.
High school freshman craft a four-year plan mapping out which courses they’ll need to take if they want to go college. By junior year, students learn more about the requirements of college admission. The process gets kicked into high gear at the start of senior year, with students using the usual suspects to narrow their list of potential schools — in-state or out-of state? Public or private? Big school or small? MCPS also hosts college fairs held throughout the year.
“The counselor can only guide them as to how to go about doing the research, but the final decision really needs to be done with the family,” Newton said.
Soni said The College People was inspired by his younger brother’s college search process. His brother wanted to know what University of Michigan was like, but Soni could only speak to how it felt to be a Tartan, Soni told Patch in September 2011. The idea has grown into something bigger since then.
“We got a lot of feedback from parents, students in particular from college admissions reps,” Soni said. “We were thinking a little too small.”