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"Gaming" the College Admissions Process

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Dave Herholz

For many high school students, the fall semester means it's time to get serious about the college admissions process. While some graduating seniors have a good idea of which school they'd like to attend, many don't. And even if the student has a stellar academic record and hopes to score an acceptance letter from Harvard or Stanford, it's never a gaurantee. Grade point averages, SAT scores, extra-curricular activities, application essays --  universities have a lot of factors to weigh, and as such, a lot of things that make the application process confusing, particularly when students are urged to apply for their first choice as well as several "back up" schools.

All that confusion and uncertainty probably contributes to the fact that college counseling is a multi-million dollar industry (and that's excluding the billion-dollar test prep industry).

A couple of new startups -- Parchment and Acceptly -- have entered the space recently, aiming to help deliver better advice and assistance for high school students and their parents -- for free.

Although both the startups offer guidance to students going through the college application process, they each take a different approach. Parchment helps provide data-oriented assessments to help point students towards what it calculates is a good fit, while Acceptly helps students keep up-to-speed with the various activities they need to do to look like a "good fit."

Acceptly helps students get organized for the application process. The site uses points and badges, the latter of which can be posted to the student's Facebook profile, in order to help guide them through the various steps. It isn't simply about filling out the paperwork of the application itself; it's about helping prompt students to engage in a multitude of activities that will help boost their chances for admission to their dream schools. There's a badge for signing up for the SAT. There's a badge for doing test prep. There's a badge for participating in activities, and there's one for thinking through what those activities can (and should) be, as well as encouraging reminders to try for leadership positions. There's a badge for talking to the college counselor at school. There's a badge for signing up for the types of college-preparatory classes that are known to look good on the application. You get the point.


All of these steps make it clear what students should do to pull together their materials, and the easy-to-use interface can also serve as a reminder or "To Do" list of sorts to help keep students on track.

Acceptly is clearly aimed at students. That's great for students who are prepared to really own their future and their direction, but perhaps less helpful for students who'll need more help and encouragement than just a virtual badge.

The startup is still in beta and is actively seeking feedback from its testers to help build its service.

Parchment approaches the questions surrounding college admissions from a data-oriented, rather than a "gamified" perspective. The startup was founded by Blackboard co-founder Matthew Pittinsky and describes itself as an "education data company."

Parchment taps in to Docufide, a service through which students send their transcripts to colleges. Parchment builds on the Docufide platform, so that students' credentials can be transferred to universities, but also so that the company can help students gauge whether or not their credentials are adequate to gain admissions into certain colleges.

According to Parchment, the company works much like Netflix or Amazon recommendations -- using vast amounts of users' data -- GPA, SAT scores, extracurricular activities and so on -- the site can assess whether former applicants with similar profiles gained admission into certain schools. Parchment also says it can help point students towards schools that match their profiles, helping them find schools that are a good fit.

The question with using this model is whether students would overlook or discount colleges or universities not recommended by Parchment. It's one thing to weigh your odds and apply to schools you have a good chance of getting into, but it's another not to try for the longshot.


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