By Chloe Wang
Many international students can likely still recall how expensive it was to pay the service fee for coming to the United States through an agency, which basically prepares you for the Visa officers, persuades you to apply to a few low-ranking universities and just rips you off. At least this writer can still remember paying an agency $3,000 just to get into a community college from China.
When international students apply to universities, many of them try to acquire outside help. At Santa Monica College, a community college attended by a lot Chinese students, there are fliers stapled outside of classrooms everywhere selling services to write your personal statements for you during the transfer season. The number of students who buy the service is nowhere to be found.
But they’re not all rip-offs.
David Reynaldo, a recent USC alumnus, spoke to Bamboo Offshoot about his brainchild: College Zoom – Increase Your Admissions Success, a service that helps international students transfer into competitive universities.
College Zoom first started as a school project, Reynaldo explained. Reynaldo and co-founders Sean Bandawat and Ryan Christensen found their first customers at Santa Monica College: four Chinese girls who were trying to transfer that year.
Reynaldo said his team had no idea they would end up serving a predominantly Asian market. But as it turns out, international students were the ones who needed the service the most. International students are most disadvantaged because of the language and culture barriers they face, according to Reynaldo.
On average, it takes students 2 years to learns conversational in English and 5 years to master written English. Therefore, many international students who have studied in America for two years aren’t confident with the language when it comes to writing personal statements.
“It’s easy to see why having someone else write their essays for them is a safer option,” said Reynaldo. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The student gets an impersonal essay that will get automatically rejected when the writing doesn’t match the student’s TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) score.”
According to Reynaldo, how students express themselves is more important than what they say.
“It is about selling yourself, and many international students are embarrassed to talk about themselves,” he said.
College Zoom charges $650 for assistance in applying to at least two universities. Covered by that amount is 33 hours of service at $20 per hour. Reynaldo said students can use the two applications to apply to USC and all the UCs.
“That’s our largest service offering and it actually provides everything that a student needs to develop two incredibly strong applications,” he said. “We also invest a lot of time helping students develop writing skills they’ll keep forever, which is something a lot of other services don’t do. They just make recommendations, but we hand-hold students through the entire process. Our service is extremely personal for the price we charge.”
Students who apply to at least two top 100 universities and don’t get in are guaranteed their money back.
Several other admission consulting groups – The Ivy Coach, Ivy Select College Consulting and College Consulting Services – refused to name a price without a completed application. Of the groups that listed prices on their websites, College Karma listed as high as $150 per hour and some packages as high as $4,000 for 6 months to a year of consulting.
Edward McDonnel, a private college counselor from Cincinnati, has among the most affordable rates in the industry. He also charges $650 but offers no guarantee.
“Just like China, America has counselors who are out to make easy money from worried parents,” Reynaldo said about why College Zoom’s prices are so low. “But we genuinely want to help and offer a service that most college students can afford with some help from their parents. We are not out to rip anyone off or artificially inflate our prices”
It is still unknown how large the demand in the market is going to be since it’s only College Zoom’s second year of business. The four girls who used their services last year all got into top 100 universities in the U.S. Three were accepted by schools that are now ranked in the top 40 for 2011.
“Absolutely yes,” said Shiqiao Guo, now a student at UC Riverside, about whether or not College Zoom’s service was useful. “College Zoom was more helpful than my campus counselors and I learned a lot of writing tips I now use in college.”
Will College Zoom and many other services like it be put out of business if universities’ transfer centers begin providing more help to international students? Considering that many local community colleges like Santa Monica College are overpopulated and faculty are not capable of giving every student one-on-one help like College Zoom can, it seems unlikely that will happen anytime soon.