Germantown startup helps seniors search for college by enlisting the help of other students


From their home in Germantown, high school senior Elakian Kanakaraj and his mother Valarmathi use The College People to chat online with students at various colleges he is considering applying to. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Capital Business)
September 25, 2011

When Neil Soni, who graduated a few years ago from a high school in Germantown, tried to help his younger brother apply to college last year, he discovered he only knew a lot about one college — the one he went to.

“I realized I could give him general advice, but I really couldn’t give him” specialized advice for each school, said Soni, who is now a student at Carnegie Mellon University.

So when his brother expressed interest in the University of Michigan — a school Soni knew little about — he looked for friends who went there. He found a student at Michigan, but he also found a business idea.

“I thought, if I don’t know anyone at one school, why isn’t there a place I could go online and find someone?” he said.

The College People was born.

Soni’s new company aims to match high school students with students at the colleges they are applying to, to provide them with personalized advice and help in editing the essays on the application, for a fee.

Begun last July, The College People ran a rudimentary service last application season for 10 students at Northwest High School in Germantown. The company is preparing to run a broader pilot this year, and has partnerships with schools in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

The services range from $75 to $150, based on the type of application, and the company is shooting for 100 paying clients this time around.

There are hurdles to the business plan. The application season tends to be short and the clients and advisers are perpetually turning over.

“I think it is a cool idea, but it is an execution issue,” said Luke Skurman, who runs College Prowler, a popular Web site where college students provide candid reviews and grade their schools. Skurman has a deal in place with The College People to provide the site with some of his content.

The College People recruits college students through personal networks and through job portals such as barefootstudent.com. It puts them through a series of tests and a training program, and pays them around $20 per hour, Soni said.

The College People is keeping its upfront marketing expenses low by teaming with booster clubs and parent groups to give them a 10 percent discount on the services for their students, and donating another 10 percent of the revenue to the club.

The company could run into problems if schools try to aggressively manage their reputations by recruiting students to offer favorable impressions. Online reviews matter. In 2002, for example, Skurman said, one school offered a “five digit sum” to The College Prowler to change a rating from a B to an A.

The College People, though, thinks its site will find fans among high school seniors.

Private college counselors can often cost several thousand dollars, and visiting each college often is not a possibility.

“Compared to how much we are going to pay [for college], it’s fine,” said Palanisamy Kanakaraj, whose son is applying to colleges this fall and is planning to use the essay review services ($90) offered by The College People.

Soni’s brother decided on University of Michigan after speaking to current students there.

“I think that helped him a lot,” Soni said. “He wasn’t originally thinking about going, but after hearing about game days and school spirit” he was sold.

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