The average public high school student receives less than 38 minutes of college assistance from their guidance counselor across four years—less time spent preparing for one of life’s most crucial decisions than it takes to watch an episode of TV. Johan Zhang, co-founder of CollegeVine, an ed-tech startup based in Cambridge that offers a new take on college admissions guidance, wants to give students more than just what amounts to 10 minutes in a given school year for this preparation process.
CollegeVine hires what its founders consider to be the finest consultants available in the market to guide high school students: other students who have just previously been in the same position, otherwise referred to as “near-peer mentors.” In a bio on the CollegeVine website, Zhang explains that throughout high school, he was lucky enough to learn from many “incredible” teachers.
But when he reflected on the people that made the largest impact on his life during those high school years, it was his friends who were a year or two older than him.
Hailing from Montgomery (N.J.) High School, Zhang felt first-hand the need for reform in the public school system. As he sees it, private school students have a tremendous head start, usually paired with their own college counselor who guides them through the entire college process. That same level of tutelage is a daydream for most public schools, in which the average guidance counselor to student ratio is 1:472. Zhang believes that students acquire all this knowledge, but it typically goes to waste.
“What we do is connect these successful college students and provide formal training so that they can impart what they’ve learned,” Zhang said.
High school students sign up, choose the desired service, and fill out a profile that determines what type of mentor they’ll receive. Upon matching, clients and consultants meet up online where the admissions magic happens.CollegeVine’s team currently consists of 300 undergraduate consultants on over 20 college campuses. One perk of hiring exclusively college students is that costs stay low. Zhang noted that competitors charge between $4,000 and $6,000 on average for their services, whereas CollegeVine’s full programs are priced at a third of that.
On the startup’s website, the founders state that CollegeVine’s mission is “to level the playing field of college admissions, regardless of socioeconomic status.” As such, the business operates a “pro-bono program, where [they] provide services to students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds for free.” This year, 21 selected pro-bono students were accepted into schools such as Princeton University, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of Michigan.
In the game of college applications, however, universities constantly try to one up each other in selectivity. This leads students from all backgrounds of education to feel an urgency to add formal undergraduate education to their repertoire. The founders of CollegeVine, which is now in its third year of operation, have fine-tuned their mentorship model, and subsequently seen business take off. What initially began as a few friends mentoring on the side has now turned into a multi-million-dollar business that attracts students from around the world. The founders now have impressive numbers to show for their work.
For the team behind CollegeVine, acceptance to name-brand colleges—perhaps even prestige—seems to be the key metric of success. According to its website, 78 percent of clients are accepted to an ivy league school and 88 percent are accepted to a top-20 university. On top of that, the average client receives $120,000 in scholarships—a fact prominently displayed on the CollegeVine website. “We don’t just help you get into school. We also help make it more affordable,” reads a line underneath the statistic.
The business, reminiscent of the many others born on Harvard’s campus, started in a dorm room. Zhang, along with co-founders Zack Perkins and Vinay Bhaskara, attended public high school and migrated together to prestigious universities—Zhang and Perkins went to Harvard, Bhaskara to the University of Chicago.
Zhang made his first moves after graduating from high school in 2013, picking up customers and eventually turning his work into a part-time gig while studying economics on the side.
“After our first year of students began receiving acceptances to top-tier schools, we knew we had a system that worked,” Zhang said.
Following the success in year one, Zhang hired other mentors and “results were even better.” But CollegeVine’s exponential success came with an equally exponential amount of work, and the founders were faced with the fact that they could no longer balance their school lives with the needs of their blossoming business. So the team was left with the choice: would they take the plunge and pursue their business?
Zhang and company decided to risk it, dropping out of school to build their business full-time starting, what would have been, their junior year.Since then, the company has seen considerable success. In 2015, the number of CollegeVine clients rose by 300 percent and last year, CollegeVine completed a $3.1 million Series A funding round led by Morningside Ventures.
It’s easy to forget that not long ago, Zhang was also a student, with eyes set on attending a prestigious university. This spring, Zhang would have graduated from Harvard. His decision to leave school for CollegeVine is filled with equal portions of inspiration and irony.
“Doing something different from what’s expected is always complicated, so on some level it was challenging” Zhang said. “But when a wave comes, you gotta ride it.”
Featured Image Courtesy of CollegeVine