Online Matchmakers: Finding the Right College


ARLINGTON RESIDENT DEBBIE KAPLAN is thrilled that her oldest daughter is happy with her decision to attend Tufts University. The school suits her daughter’s talents and interests as well as they hoped. But finding the perfect college match came at a cost — $3,000 to hire a private college counselor. As Kaplan gears up to navigate the college admissions process yet again with her youngest daughter, she plans to explore alternative options.

A new company headquartered in Alexandria helps students find the right fit via a medium today’s youth are intimately familiar with: the Internet. Prospective students fill out an exhaustive profile, including a 238-question personality test, data on academic standing, extracurricular activities and preferences (such as location and price range). Parents can register and input details, too, but they can’t override the answers to their teenager’s personality test. Then, with the click of a mouse, the site generates a list of 32 best-fit matches, categorized by reach schools (long-shot chance of admission), target schools (pretty good chance of admission) and safety schools (almost certain chance of admission). The compatibility analysis is the result of a two-and-a-half-year effort from a group of psychologists and psychometricians. “It’s like eHarmony, except for colleges instead of dating partners,” said Ben Britt, the company’s senior director of finance.

Wisechoice.com isn’t the only online resource where students can explore options. Sites such as Unigo.com and Collegeprowler.com allow candidates to branch out beyond traditional means and use high-tech tools that use interactive social media — for free.

“A big mistake high school students make is looking at U.S. News & World Repor and deciding on a school simply because of its rank,” said Jordan Goldman, Unigo.com’s founder and CEO. “NYU might be ranked highly, but if students can’t deal with Northeast winters, they’ll transfer.” Or worse, the students will “swirl” — a term that describes attending several schools before graduating. According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, nearly 50 percent of college students have taken classes at multiple institutions. Swirling is a phenomenon these sites are hoping to stop.

Among other features, Unigo.com serves as a platform for 50,000 students who are attending colleges and universities across the nation. They post reviews, videos and photos. Watch a “campus tour” of the University of Notre Dame, for example, and you’ll find two sophomore guides, one who offers the “official” tour, and her friend who chimes in with the “unofficial” take (official: the lakes are good places to go running when the weather’s nice; unofficial: students go to the lakes to hook up). Or get an insider’s sneak peak at the best and worst dorms rooms at the University of Texas at Austin (Jester “smells” but Duren has “plenty of closet space”). Unigo.com has an editorial and research team in place to corroborate the reviews and ensure its content accurately represents the school.

Collegeprowler.com has digitized the contents of its 286 guidebooks, also written by college students. Each one details “off the record” stats, facts and opinions about individual schools. “You get the inside scoop from the students’ point of view on traditional and nontraditional topics, ranging from Greek life to the parking situation to the campus drug scene,” co-founder Luke Skurman said. So much for sugar-coated brochures from the marketing gurus and administration.

Other not-so-helpful factors applicants might rely on when picking a college include “where their boyfriend/girlfriend plans to attend, or suggestions from guidance counselors who may manage as many as 400 graduates and limit suggestions to the immediate region,” said Rebecca Chanin, Wisechoice.com’s senior creative director. “Wisechoice.com’s personality test will suggest laid-back schools if you’re an introvert, or highly competitive schools if you’re the type that thrives with challenge.”

Susie Sabaitis, an 18-year-old high school senior in Grand Rapids, Mich., is in the thick of college applications. She knows she wants to study architecture and experimented with Wisechoice.com. She was happy to see the University of Notre Dame, her top choice, popped up as her No. 1 match, but she was also surprised by a number of the site’s other suggestions. “I will look into schools I wasn’t previously considering, like Miami University (Ohio), North Dakota State University and the University of Detroit Mercy,” she said.

Yet it was the Web site’s scholarship finder, not the matching system, she found the most useful. With more than 2 million scholarships in its database, Wisechoice.com culls through the user’s information to determine which ones the student is eligible for. “It took the guesswork and stress out of searching myself,” Sabaitis said. She discovered a music scholarship she didn’t know existed — perfect, since she hopes to play saxophone in her college’s jazz band.
While Web sites can offer good information, they are only part of the decision-making process. “There’s a place for them, but I don’t recommend them early on,” said Leslie Kent, a private educational consultant based in Fairfax. “I’d rather students form their own opinion first and then review the anecdotal comments on the sites.”

And remember: There are other options. Fairfax County Public Schools also has a personality assessment. Its program, “Do What You Are,” is a student version of the Myers-Briggs personality inventory. Visiting the campus might be the most helpful factor in deciding where to apply. “Being on campus gives you a completely different feel for the school than researching online,” Sabaitis said. Plus, campus visits provide an appropriate time to investigate questions that might have arisen with Internet research.

The important thing to keep in mind is that while many students feel like their entire life path depends on the school they pick, those who have been through the process agree that while it’s important to find a good fit, the daily decisions made in classrooms, library study carrels and dorm rooms played the biggest role. So, enjoy the journey and relax about the final destination. That is, until faced with the next agonizing decision: picking a major.

Written by Express contributor Jenny Rough
Photo by Kris Tripplaar for Express

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Katie Knorovsky · January 12, 2010