The Essay Exchange Aims to Democratize Pricey College Admissions Advice

12/2/10Follow @xconomy

Application fees and standardized test prep courses aren’t the only big expenses when it comes to getting into college. For the tens of thousands of students who hire admissions counselors and coaches every year, the process of crafting the perfect essay to get into a top name school can also carry a hefty price tag, says Rory O’Connor. His Cambridge-based startup, The Essay Exchange, is out to give those without big budgets access to winning essay advice.

O’Connor, a 2009 graduate of Amherst College, first saw the lengths people were willing to go to get the perfect college admissions essay in one of his first gigs out of school, he says. He worked for an online admissions essay-editing site, translating MBA essays for non-English speaking students. “That was kind of an introduction to the amount of competition and the amount people are willing to spend on these sort of things to get into schools,” he says.

This past April he connected with fellow Amherst alum Paris Wallace (also a co-founder of Boston biotech Good Start Genetics) and Boston University alum Aaron Michel, and the group started working with developers on a Web-based database of essays that successfully got students accepted to top-ranked schools. The site first went up in August, and now houses about 350 essays from current college students.

O’Connor says enlisting students to supply their essays isn’t a tough sell. “They’ve gotten the message very quickly,” he says. “It’s a fairly simple proposition to them, now it’s just a matter of making it work.”

The startup is recruiting students at 10 schools (the eight Ivy League schools plus Stanford and MIT) to submit the essays that landed them a spot at their university. The Essay Exchange houses them in an online database that students currently applying to college can access. The first essay costs them $2, and additional essays cost them between $7.50 and $10, depending on the volume they buy. Applicants can also choose to purchase all of a particular contributor’s essay materials—including supplemental and optional essay questions— for $10.

The Essay Exchange passes a percentage of these fees back to the original contributors; students earn an average of $2 to $3 each time an applicant buys their essay. “It’s basically a passive source of income for them,” O’Connor says.

Reading successful essays can give applicants a sense of the themes, structures, topics, and tones that made for winning applications, O’Connor says. This is especially helpful for students coming from families where no one has previously attended college, he says. “It gives you a measuring stick, something to judge your work by,” he says.

So what’s to stop an applicant from directly ripping off an essay from the database? O’Connor says The Essay Exchange is putting measures in place to prevent plagiarism, by giving admissions offices access to all of the essays in its database, to cross-reference against new applicant essays that come in. The company is also working to get all of the essays in its database submitted to Turnitin.com, an online plagiarism detector.

The Essay Exchange has been working with about $25,000 in initial funding, from Wallace and other individual investors, and is gearing up to raise a bigger seed round in the coming months, O’Connor says. Its big push right now and through the college admissions season of the next few months is making sure applicants are aware of its service, O’Connor says. The company is focusing especially on those 10 prestigious schools because of the large slice of admissions activity they account for—-about 5 percent of the 4 million applications that go out each year.

Ultimately, the team is looking to make the essay-writing process a bit more egalitarian. Private college admission coaches, most of whom have insider information from previous jobs within admissions offices, can charge anywhere from $2,000 to $40,000, O’Connor says. Roughly 58,000 students pay for them annually, adding up to a $150-million-per-year industry.

“These counselors know what works in getting into these top schools,” he says. “Our idea is to take the actual essays at these top schools that are working, and provide that in a way that’s cheap and easy to access.”

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  • James

    How is reading an old college application essay the same as receiving personalized counseling from a former college admissions officer?

    There’s a real disconnect here.

  • George

    You’re right, it is different. But it looks like personalized coaching costs thousands of dollars, and if for a few bucks you can see the results of that coaching, there’s certainly value there.