The college admissions process has never been more competitive and consequential for students, but you wouldn’t know that looking at the average public high school’s budget for guidance counselors.
In fact, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, the average student receives only 38 minutes of guidance across all four years of high school combined. Most kids spend more time finding a quote to go under their yearbook photo.
Johan Zhang, Zack Perkins and Vinay Bhaskara experienced these shortcomings firsthand. In 2012, they went through the admissions gauntlet while attending a public high school in New Jersey.
The three classmates dove into the process head first, doing their own research, ramping up their studying and speaking with anyone who they thought could offer advice. Deservedly, their obsession with the college admissions process paid off: Both Zhang and Perkins went on to attend Harvard University while Bhaskara attended the University of Chicago.
But after the celebrations were over and their lives in cramped freshman dorms began, the three students realized they didn’t want their newfound expertise to go to waste.
Soon they started advising high school students on the college admissions process and, as demand for their services grew, they turned to their classmates at Harvard and UChicago for help. That’s when CollegeVine was born.
Over the next year and a half the founders worked from their dorm rooms to pair high school students with mentors attending top universities. In the fall of 2015, the three founders began using the Harvard Innovation Lab, where they met edtech veteran and i-lab mentor Jon Carson.
Carson had spent a decade running the Family Education Network, which built the largest education website on the internet and was bought by Pearson in 2000. Fresh off of a separate successful exit that summer, Carson was looking to get back into the edtech space.
When Carson met the founders, the business had done $100K in revenue in just that month alone. The three passionate millennials and the business savvy baby boomer quickly realized they complemented each other well.
“Jon was bringing so much to the table every time we met with him,” Zhang says. “He helped us focus on what was important for the business. At that point we had a ton of opportunities, but Jon helped us focus on what really mattered.”
In January of 2016, Zhang, Perkins and Bhaskara decided to take a leave from their respective schools to work on CollegeVine full-time and Carson was named CEO.
Today, CollegeVine provides a range of services to high school students ranging from academic guidance and essay prep to finding extracurriculars and developing leadership skills. With mentorship programs starting as early as freshman year, the company focuses on putting students in a position to succeed in college and beyond.
“We started by helping students in their senior year with college applications, but we really wanted to do more for students,” Zhang explains. “So we decided the best way to do that is to get to them when they’re younger. That’s how this notion of mentorship started. Mentors basically do what guidance counselors would do if they didn’t have so many students to deal with.”
Before entering a CollegeVine program, students fill out a questionnaire to give the company a feel for their goals, working style, interests and personality. CollegeVine then matches the student with a mentor who is typically already studying in a field the student has interest in.
“If you’re a high school student passionate about mechanical engineering, for instance, we can pair you with someone from MIT that’s majoring in that and took a ton of robotics extracurriculars in high school,” Carson says.
Depending on the program the student is in, they may meet with their mentor once a week or once a month, although much of it is on an as-needed basis and meetings become more frequent the closer students get to the admissions process.
The CollegeVine curriculum is aimed at helping students discover their interests, develop self-motivation and become high-performing individuals.
“There’s a variety of sessions students go through,” Zhang says. “One session might be forecasting where your grades will end up and talking with your mentor about how to improve them. There are also sessions devoted to extracurricular activities, and then what we call mind-broadening materials. Basically we have a database of super interesting concepts represented by articles that mentors will share with students over a period of time, so it’s about exposing the student to real world ideas.”
Only one in five mentor applications are approved in a rigorous vetting process that’s followed by extensive mentorship training. Competitive pay and lots of room for growth within the company help CollegeVine attract mentors. CollegeVine’s appeal has never been more important: the company is planning to scale to 1,000 mentors this year.
“We’ve branched out every year, whether we’re growing our network at existing campuses or opening up to new campuses,” Zhang says. “Two years ago we were in the top 15 universities.
This past year we were in the top 25 and this year we’re going to be in the top 35 or so. But the important thing is that, regardless of what schools we’re in, we’re always looking to get the top students at that university.”
The results for students have been life changing. Out of all students enrolled in the CollegeVine program, 74% have been admitted to one of their top three college choices.
“We’ll never guarantee you’ll get into a school,” Carson says. "We’re in the probability improvement business. Our service gives students the opportunity to put their best foot forward via smart school list creation, deadline
management, application branding, essay writing and more.”
Because the vast majority of CollegeVine students come from public high schools, the founders see themselves as leveling the playing field in the college admissions process. They take that concept even further by offering a pro bono program to especially disadvantaged students.
“Offering pro bono services is something we’ve been doing since year one of the company,” Zhang says. “Just seeing the impact we could have on student’s lives made us think it was something we should do. We’ve helped students [through the pro bono program] every year.”
The company has also been collecting a large amount of data on the admissions process that it’s beginning to leverage to better understand and predict student admissions and gain insights into what makes a good mentor.
The data will no doubt give CollegeVine a leg up on competitors, but in the world of talent marketplaces, human relationships and experiences can be the biggest factor for success. The CollegeVine team hasn’t lost sight of that.
“I think the process of helping others is really satisfying,” Zhang says. “It’s about making a difference and paying it forward. As a mentor, when you get that message in all caps from a student who was accepted to their dream school, you just can’t beat that.”
Images courtesy of CollegeVine.