While many high school students spend months studying for the SATs, Rena Pacheco-Theard prepped for hers in a single evening. “A friend gave me her SAT book the night before because she was done with it. I assumed it was like every other test in school,” she recalls.
Luckily, she tests well, and her scores were high enough to get into her top choice school. But as anyone who’s applied to college knows, SAT scores are just one piece of an increasingly complex application process that often involves the whole family. Parents splash out thousands of dollars for test prep and admissions consultants, and even siblings can get roped into reading admissions essays.
Pacheco-Theard, 30, didn’t have those advantages. Growing up in the middle of five children in Coeur d’Alene, ID, she’s a first generation college student. While her parents were loving and supportive, “they couldn’t tell me what the SAT was or where to apply. Even the cost of applying to schools was prohibitively expensive,” she recalls.
She didn’t do a road trip of prospective colleges her senior year or attend admitted students weekends. In fact, she applied to her first choice school, Georgetown University, only after striking up a conversation with a stranger in a mall. The woman recommended the school’s international relations program.
Now, Pacheco-Theard is on her second master’s degree, an MBA (’16) at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. But she acknowledges that her path could have turned out very differently. “The way things worked out for me, they don’t work out for most students,” she says. Which is exactly why she’s set out to level the admissions playing field with her startup, Prepify.
FREE TEST PREP FOR EVERYONE
Prepify offers free adaptive SAT prep to students anywhere in the world. The startup has partnered with Bell Curves test prep for the content and is in the process of designing a personalized curriculum that responds to each student’s progress through the lessons.
But in the age of Big Data-meets-education, Prepify’s unique value proposition likely isn’t adaptive learning, rather it’s the startup’s commitment to the warm handoff. Pacheco-Theard plans to connect students to college recruiters, who can help arrange financial aid and assist with admissions questions. This personalized link could prove critical for those who otherwise can’t afford customized advice.
In August 2015, Prepify launched a pilot version in five community groups: American Youthworks, Breakthrough Austin, HYPE Los Angeles, the Hispanic Scholarship Consortium, and Noble Impact. Students within each group create accounts and receive free SAT prep, while providing valuable feedback to Pacheco-Theard and her team. If all goes as planned, Prepify will launch nationally and internationally by early spring. The startup, which was among the winners of 2015 MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, also plans to add ACT prep by the end of the year and build mobile apps for iPhone and Android to increase engagement.
Longterm, Pacheco-Theard plans to broaden Prepify into a one-stop shop for college prep: “A site where any student, regardless of family income or high school resources, can access information on scholarships, financial aid, test prep, the admissions process, and research schools.”
AN AFTER-SCHOOL SOCCER PROGRAM PLANTS THE STARTUP SEED
The idea for Prepify started well before Pacheco-Theard ever set foot on Sloan’s campus. While working as a research assistant with ONE, an international advocacy organization, she co-founded City Football Club, a non-profit that pairs a free soccer program with academic mentorship. As the academic director, Pacheco-Theard tutored students after school, contacted admissions offices on their behalf, and helped them through the FASFA process. Many of the students in the program “thought college was something that other people did,” she recalls. The organization’s efforts paid off. One student scored a full ride to Ohio Wesleyan. Others were accepted to Carleton College, Columbia University, the University of Michigan, and Whittier College. “It really changed their trajectories,” Pacheco-Theard says.
She soon found her work with the soccer students more rewarding than her 9-to-5 job. “I just didn’t feel like I was making a huge impact from an air-conditioned office in D.C.,” Pacheco-Theard recalls. “That lack of direct access to the client was missing.”
She opted to pursue a master’s degree in public affairs in social and economic policy at the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School. Post graduation, she joined Deloitte as a senior consultant and helped state agencies implement new programs in child support and health and human services. Still, she sensed something was missing from her work and academic history. “I had never beefed up the business side of my resume,” she says. “I didn’t have that element that said I understand the business sector and what drives the economy so I could understand where stakeholders were coming from.”