Nov 13, 2013 · 4 minutes

Next year, around 80,000 New York City eighth graders will thumb through a giant book of 400 schools to choose which high school they will attend in the Fall. Students select up to 12 desired locations and are accepted based on a number of possible factors, from the school's proximity to the student's home to test scores and interviews.

Despite how important this choice is in determining the course of a student's academic career, the current process is cumbersome and confusing. One of the only technological advancements to the high school choice enrollment process since its 2004 inception is that it now comes in (ta da!) PDF form, which saves on paper but not really on convenience. Meanwhile students have no interface to filter schools based on chosen parameters or to keep track of all their potential selections, their open house visits, or the requirements of each application.

Steven Hodas, the Executive Director of the Department of Education's Innovate NYC program, says 70 percent of students get into one of their top three choices. However, some don't get into any of the schools they apply to, which can result in embarrassment and low self-esteem. "I felt like I never worked hard enough,” then-14-year-old Radcliffe Saddler told the New York Times in 2011. “To see other people get in, I feel like I did something wrong.”

To improve the process, the NYC Department of Education partnered with six app development teams for an eight-month design studio, and last night at New York's General Assembly, the teams demoed their apps before four high-school student judges. The event also marked the launch of the department's first public API.

"The process of high school admission has improved incrementally over the years since i've been in the DOE," David Weiner, the department's Deputy Chancellor for Talent, Labor and Innovation, says, "and this leaps us a generation forward."

What big leaps forward did the teams cook up?

The winning entry came from FindTheBest, a Summerland, CA-based consumer recommendation startup with $17 million in venture funding. The team built its high school recommendation service on top of the existing FindTheBest platform, giving users an extensive array of parameters and tools to compare one school to the next. One of the most attractive features is the ability to plot two different data sets against one another, like "school rating" and "admissions rate." That way students can find those diamonds in the rough: schools with high ratings that aren't terribly difficult to get into.

Three other entries, built by teams at Unigo, InsideSchools, and Noodle, took a similar approach as FindTheBest, porting high school data into an easy-to-use, searchable, and customizable interface, though they perhaps had fewer bells and whistles than the winning app. InsideSchools also pulled its own school reviews into the platform, collected through in-person visits.

The two remaining teams took somewhat more radical approaches. One entry, built by a Manhattan-based big data app platform called, sought to mimic the wildly popular mobile messaging app WhatsApp. It built a chat-bot that asks the student a series of questions targeted at finding the best school for them. Think SmarterChild meets the Princeton Review.

The final app, built by the team at, was created with dating app mechanics in mind. First, the student creates an avatar with customizable clothes and hair and then answers a series of personality and academic questions. Each question even has a "How important is this answer to you?" option, just like OK Cupid.

In the end, the student judges opted for functionality and usability over hip texting apps and stylish avatars. Does that mean FindTheBest is now the official high school choice app of New York City?

No, not yet at least, Hodas says. He thinks the DOE will have an official app eventually, but in the meantime he welcomes a more varied app ecosystem. "For travel, there's Hipmunk and Kayak, but there's also American Airlines' website," he says, comparing the DOE to an airline which supplies and maintains its data while leaner organizations build consumer-friendly applications around it.

That's helpful to New York City students and the Department of Education, but are there enough incentives, outside of doing something good for the city, for startups to get involved? Can a viable business be built around providing a service like this?

Yes, according to Allen Kim, FindTheBest's Senior Product Associate in charge of education, who claims there are benefits to his business that go beyond revenue streams. "Our CEO said this is the best product we've built over the past four years," he says, adding that his team learned a great deal when tasked with exposing data to users that's never before been publicly available.

That's a true education app. Not only does it help students, its creators learned along the way, too.

[Image via Mariel's Diary]