College-Search Quandary? There's an App for That

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College-Search Quandary? There's an App for That

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Illustration:

hanna barczyk

The college search can be an ordeal fraught with anxiety and confusion, and dozens of free websites and mobile apps are vying to help students find the college of their dreams.

The digital tools can help students consider more choices, including little-known colleges that may have a lot to offer, says

David Hawkins,

a senior executive at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, Arlington, Va. But they also risk confusing students who lack adult guidance or distracting them from important priorities, college counselors say.

Many websites and apps ask students a lot of questions to generate college lists, but only a few invite them to have a little fun with the process. The iOS app Admittedly quizzes users on their preferences for such factors as walkability or weather. An article on the app headed, “The mountains are calling and I must go,” suggests 10 campuses in hilly terrain. (Admittedly recently launched on the web as myOptions.)

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The College Fair, a mobile app launched in 2016 under the name Schoold, asks users for academic and personal data, then claims to use Netflix-like algorithms to fine-tune college lists. The app also posts whimsical rankings such as “Beyonce’s Short List” of schools the pop star might like, and “Places Where the Professors Know Your Name.” The app has been downloaded 1.2 million times, says

Allison Winston,

president of Kickwheel, its owner. More than one-third of teens do most of their college research on smartphones, research shows.

College Fair employs six coaches who chat online with students. Few teens receive much counseling: the average public high-school counselor’s caseload is 490 students. And many are skeptical at first, asking, “Is this a bot? I don’t want to talk to a bot,” says Kickwheel CEO

Joe Ross.

Fifteen-year-old Alara Kilic of

Glen Ridge,

N.J., chatted on the app with coach Jadelin Felipe, who has a master’s degree and 11 years’ experience in university admissions and other student services.

Ms. Kilic,

a high-school sophomore, says

Ms. Felipe

helped her plot a path toward medical school, as well as decide to take three honors classes this semester rather than four. “I’m very happy with that decision,” Ms. Kilic says.

Ms. Felipe says she encourages students who are stressed by the college search to focus on academic paths they’re drawn to naturally, asking, “What do you love doing?”

Two-thirds of high-school juniors have used a college-planning website, up from about 50% a decade ago, says

Kim Reid,

an analyst at Eduventures, a Boston research firm. “They’re using them as a sorting mechanism, to narrow down a confusing array of possibilities,” she says.

Educational consultant

Jill Madenberg

of Lake Success, N.Y., says college-planning apps and websites can be a good place to start a search, but students should base final decisions on campus visits, self-exploration and discussions with parents, adult mentors or counselors about their interests and potential majors. An extensive website called BigFuture, by the nonprofit college-planning concern The College Board, has helpful tools linking students’ interests with potential majors, careers and colleges, says Ms. Madenberg, co-author with her 19-year-old daughter Amanda of “Love the Journey to College.”

Jill Madenberg and her daughter Amanda.

Jill Madenberg and her daughter Amanda.


Photo:

Sherry Horowitz

Amanda used a site called Naviance to plan where to apply. The Naviance program, owned by the Cincinnati-based education software company Hobsons, offers a wealth of college- and career-planning tools, but it’s available only to students whose schools subscribe, including about 40% of U.S. public high-school students. It’s well-known for its ‘scatterplots—dot diagrams charting the grades and test scores of students from the same high school who applied to a particular college in the past and showing whether they were admitted. Seeing where your grades and test scores appear in relation to others’ helps students estimate their chances of admission.

Amanda Madenberg

says the site helped her figure out which colleges to consider “reach” vs. safety schools.

It isn’t wise to spend too much time comparing yourself to peers, however, says Amanda, who is now a sophomore at Cornell University. “It’s easy to feel worse about yourself after doing that.”

Some digital tools offer access to current students at target colleges. A unique website called AdmitSee, founded in 2013 by two law-school students, allows users who buy a monthly subscription to see advice and essays from students currently enrolled at schools of interest. This can be helpful for students applying to elite schools, says

Timothy Jaconette,

a Santa Cruz, Calif., college counselor. “If you read a lot of them, you can get a pretty good idea of what Harvard is looking for,” he says.

A free Pittsburgh-based site called Niche posts

Yelp

-like college reviews and rankings. Users can find students’ answers to questions they might not ask on a campus tour, such as, “How hard is this school, really?’” Mr. Jaconette says.

Rankings risk distracting teens from attributes that might make an unranked college a perfect fit, counselors say. And users of some sites risk being swamped by mass-marketing spam. It’s important to examine websites’ privacy policies and consider opting out if asked to authorize contact by third-party vendors.

Some 4 in 5 teens and parents say they trust the information on college-planning websites, according to a 2017 survey of 4,274 students and 2,138 parents led by Eduventures and

Ruffalo Noel

Levitz, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, provider of enrollment-management services, but wise use requires a critical eye. Websites and apps that offer students’ odds of admission or projected income after graduation are sometimes based on incomplete data or on small samples. Their projections should be taken as ballpark guesses rather than gospel.

Parchment, a site that stores users’ transcripts, test scores and other credentials, creates scatterplots showing admission odds, using data from past Parchment users. But it’s transparent about the reliability of its projections, including a confidence rating based on the past accuracy of its projections for that school, says

Matthew Pittinsky,

CEO of the Scottsdale, Ariz., company and co-founder of the education software company Blackboard Inc.

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at sue.shellenbarger@wsj.com

By | 2017-09-19T15:45:52+00:00 September 19th, 2017|Comments Off on College-Search Quandary? There's an App for That