This college thing is looming in my house. Every day, a new brochure from some school arrives in the mailbox with my 10th-grader’s name on it. And while we’ve had general “what do you want to be when you grow up, young man?” conversations and even “any idea what school you’d like to go to?” we haven’t really dipped our toes into the confusing pool of what seems to be endless possibilities. It feels very overwhelming.
This spring break seems like a good time to start. Actually open up the brochures, son. Look online at some of the schools you think you might want to attend. Consider meeting with them when they come to a school fair. Actually talk to the college counselor at your school. Make a list of schools we should visit in person. That all feels so 1990, the year I was a sophomore in high school.
Surely there’s a better way to do it.
Austin-based SchooLinks, schoolinks.com, thinks it is creating that better way. Its online platform is kind of like Tinder, but the student is picking a college, not a date. Students swipe right if they are on a touch screen and agree with a statement, swipe left when they don’t or up if they aren’t sure. Or they can use SchooLinks on a regular computer and make choices clicking on an X or a check instead of swiping.
At its heart, SchooLinks is a personality test to figure out which school is right for that student. It asks students if they agree with statements, such as, “You like keeping track of your life with an organized calendar or agenda.” (For my son, that would be a clear swipe left.) Or, “When your friend is upset, you start to feel upset, too” (a clear swipe right). Or, “You look at facts rather than opinions when making a big decision” (oh, such a swipe right). Then it asks students to choose words that describe their personality (he’d be logical, analytic, detached) and for celebrities like them (he’s so Steve Jobs, so not Ellen Page). And then it gives students four big career groups to choose from and the majors that would be a choice for them based on all those previous answers.
Once students create a free online account, SchooLinks starts introducing them to schools that might be a good fit and gives them information about what those schools are looking for, what students need to do to apply and a schedule to plan out the application process.
“We break down the entire process,” says SchooLinks creator Katie Fang. “It gives you a to-do list to follow and helps you narrow down to two to three schools.”
Fang, 25, had an unusual school career herself. She grew up in China, but at age 12 she left home to go to space camp in Houston. Then she decided to go to Australia and England to learn English. For high school, she went to boarding school in Canada, and for college she went to the University of British Columbia.
“I was experiencing different education systems,” she says. “I sought out programs on my own.”
After college, she thought she’d go into finance and work on Wall Street, but she realized “it wasn’t my cup of tea.”
Friends started asking her for guidance on how to find the right schools, and she was helping them. She’d been doing coding since she was in high school and thought there had to be a different way for people to find educational programs or colleges from the way that they were doing it.
Originally she was going to launch an app for international students to find opportunities here, but she found the bigger market in U.S. students looking for schools here.
She also realized that colleges were spending a lot of money on recruiting students and also retaining them. “It’s so hard to get kids to understand what college is,” she says.
College admissions should be about finding the right student for that school, not just about test scores or grades. SchooLinks asks colleges questions like what type of students will succeed at their school, as well as what you can find elsewhere, such as student-teacher ratio, number of students, cost of attending and test scores required.
Colleges and universities can create profiles — about 650 have done so — or SchooLinks creates and manages one for them, with information it pulls from the schools’ websites and other data sources. Schools that manage their profiles, which they have paid to do, can then actively recruit interested students on SchooLinks. Schools that are maintaining their profiles are noted by a green check on their profiles.
Colleges also can see who is interested in them and connect through SchooLinks. Students can get input and feedback from the schools.
SchooLinks isn’t trying to bypass the college counselor, Fang says. In fact, it is really focusing on getting high schools on board so they can help students get more information and manage the search process and application timeline for their students. “The goal is to provide access to information,” she says. For counselors, “it’s a management platform. Counselors will have the ability to manage all their students.”
SchooLinks saves all of their progress, so students (and their parents) and their counselors don’t have to start from scratch with each conversation.
Fang was working in California when she received funding to move to Austin and start the online platform, which launched in September. It now has pilot schools in Austin and Houston and is starting to work with schools in California, but your school doesn’t have to be working with SchooLinks to use it. Anyone can sign up for free.
Travis Helm, a college counselor at KIPP Austin, has 30 juniors piloting SchooLinks. For the college search and application process, he also uses tools like the school’s own KIPP Match, as well as Naviance, which many schools like those in Austin Independent School District use, and the College Board.
His goal is that by the time his students get to the end of their junior year, they have firmed up their college wish list.
SchooLinks, he says, “is more personal and more intuitive. Instead of students having to look for something, it walks them through different things they should be looking for,” Helm says.
It would be especially good for students who have no idea what they are looking for, he says.