Getting students on the ‘write’ path to college
July 8, 2014
By Peter Clark
Startup turns tech award into access to higher education
Essay Mentors wants to help provide access to college and it is receiving the attention it needs to do just that.
Five years ago, founder Barak Rosenbloom began helping a few kids write a better college application essay. Before he knew it, word of mouth spiraled into him owning an Issaquah-based business.
“I started helping my nephew,” Rosenbloom said. “My sister said, ‘You used to be an English teacher, and he’s not going to listen to me.’”
Finding a few people to help and getting a logo started Essay Mentors on its quest to assist students with college application essays and maybe help them find themselves in the process.
Crafting a narrative
Rosenbloom has several specific reasons he feels like high school kids need help composing college essays.
“They need to show who they are — they’re 17, they have no clue who they are,” he said. “They have no idea what a college essay is and if they do, they don’t know how to craft a narrative.”
Beyond that, he said very little help was available for students to not only help identify who they are, but how to present that to colleges.
“Parents and teachers don’t exactly know how to help,” he said. “They proofread and edit from an adult perspective. College admission people can see that from a mile away.”
Rosenbloom taught in Massachusetts before going to work for the federal Department of Labor, where he developed tactics for organization functioning, leadership building and creating high-performing workplaces. That work brought him to the Puget Sound region.
Well, that and skiing, he said.
He moved to Issaquah four years ago and officially began Essay Mentors in spring 2012. Through satisfied clients and introductory workshops at the Issaquah and Sammamish libraries, Essay Mentors began to grow.
“It was word of mouth,” Rosenbloom said. “I got to know a bunch of kids. Sometimes they’d sign up right away and sometimes four months later I’d get an email that says, ‘Help.’”
His personal mentorship grew from two kids during his first experience with 23 students taking private lessons from him, including several from out of state. Essay Mentors now has two other mentors to help with demand.
“It averages 12 sessions per student,” he said, saying that his team has done the math to average out how best to help incoming students. “It really is what a student needs. We have a three-session package for last-minute emergencies.”
The results speak for themselves.
“It works really, really well,” he said, smiling. “The bottom line — it’s really, really good. Our kids all have had a choice of great schools to attend and they’ve done better than expected.”
He founded the business as a social purpose corporation under Washington law. That ensures that Essay Mentors can focus on its stated mission to bring greater access to at-risk, disadvantaged or underserved groups — even if it threatens the business’ bottom line.
In order to serve that goal, Essay Mentors wants to bring a comprehensive program to a much wider audience.
“We’re taking our process and translating it into something anyone can use,” he said, bringing up a comparison to tax preparation Web application Turbo Tax. “Is it the same as having a tax accountant? No. But you do a pretty good job.”
With that program, he expects to reach out to many high schools to offer what Essay Mentors can give.
In that vein, Rosenbloom applied to enter the TechCrunch Seattle Meetup, a startup-based pitch competition put on by the technology site held June 12. Others pushed Rosenbloom to apply and he admits to being surprised when TechCrunch officially accepted his application.
“I forgot what it was,” he said with a laugh about receiving the invitation. “I totally forgot. I said, ‘What is this?’”
He changed travel plans to the East Coast in order to join the competition, facing nine other local businesses, including a veteran employment service, which won second place, and a medical marijuana delivery application, which took home the Audience Choice Award.
Rosenbloom said he prepared heavily for his minutelong pitch to the five judges in front of a packed audience of about 1,000 people in Capitol Hill’s Neumo’s.
He remembers the struggle to enter Seattle with the 520 bridge closed for construction, and he can also recall the elation when the judges chose Essay Mentors as the Meetup winner.
“It was very validating,” he said.
Winning the competition allows Rosenbloom’s business a spot in Startup Alley at the annual TechCrunch event Disrupt this fall. That spot will allow focused exposure to investors and possible funding.
He is excited about having the program ready for the event and showing the possibilities Essay Mentors could bring to students seeking higher learning.
“Come hell or high water, we will have it done by Disrupt and have what version 2.0 will look like,” he said.
Bryce Magee, who will enter his senior year at Issaquah High School next year, settled in for his first session with Rosenbloom after attending an introductory workshop at the Sammamish Library.
“I went to the workshop and at first I was a little on edge about signing up,” Magee said. “At the end, I was completely sold.”
He plans to apply for Western Washington and Gonzaga universities. Faced with college essays, he determined he would need some help.
“I don’t know how college essays work,” he admitted. “I was under the impression you sell yourself, compared to showing what strengths you can offer.”
More than anything, what sold him on enlisting the help of Essay Mentors came from the results he saw at the workshop.
“It was just the progression from the first essay to the last,” he said.
Rosenbloom repeatedly emphasized that Essay Mentors meant more to him than just helping students enter college.
“It’s about getting people to understand themselves,” he said. “It’s all about building self-awareness, self-confidence and the ability to communicate effectively.”
He said Essay Mentors is seeking funding until the business can sustain itself, which he expects will happen in 2016.
With that funding, he wants to explore expanding into graduate programs, business schools, law schools and other countries.
“We want to be the Kaplan or Princeton Review of college essays,” he said. “By 2016, we want to have every college counselor in the country tell their kids, ‘Hey, there’s a resource.’”