Walt Mossberg

Unigo.com Gives Everyone a Say About College Picks

Research on choosing colleges takes many forms, including visiting campuses and studying the schools’ Web sites. But for a lot of high-school students and their parents, finding a centralized resource containing information about numerous schools still means buying one of the thick, costly printed guides to college that have been around for years. The Web versions of these books are surprisingly dry.

But there’s a new, free Web site that, while overseen by paid editors, is built on lively content submitted by current students at the colleges. The information isn’t just words and numbers, but includes numerous photos and videos for most schools. You also can create a small social network of people interested in the same schools or who share other common traits.

In other words, this is a college-information resource built for the age of YouTube and Facebook.

The site, Unigo.com, costs nothing to use and supports itself with ads. Although it’s only a few months old, it already covers about 250 colleges and universities, and claims to average dozens of student-created reviews, photos and videos for each college. Its sophisticated search engine lets applicants comb all this material to find just what applies to them. For example, Unigo would let you see all content relevant to an Asian-American female applicant with conservative political views.

I’ve been testing Unigo, and I like it. In the sampling of college profiles I read, the site seems to have struck a good balance between the immediacy and candor of student submissions, and the professionalism needed to weed out wildly biased or inaccurate claims.

The site, founded by a 26-year-old who formerly created printed college guides, says it employs 19 full-time editors. This team uses information from a nationwide network of 300 representatives on campuses to create each college’s profile. Each representative rounds up contributions from others on campus, so that the site claims that over 15,000 students contributed to the profiles of the first 250 colleges.

Reviews, photos and videos can also be submitted out of the blue, and these are also eventually reviewed by the editors.

Each profile starts with a fairly long editor-written overview, liberally sprinkled with comments from students and accompanied by basic information, statistics and rankings.

But the heart of Unigo’s look at each college is student-created, in multiple forms. For instance, the site’s section on the University of Michigan includes 92 written student reviews, some running to thousands of words; 35 photos; 36 videos; and 10 student-written “documents.” The latter are often by campus journalists and cover things like athletics or critiques of nearby restaurants.

The videos are the most interesting part of Unigo, because they provide a look at current students and at the campus that isn’t often captured in standard guides. Most of the videos are fairly short, some only containing the answer to a single question like “What’s the best or worst thing about this school?” But others include opinions on issues like what kinds of students fit in best or worst on campus, or minitours of the campus or of typical dorms.

One student video I watched was a walk down the main street of the college town. Others are reflections on the school’s reputation, or on why the student chose one school over another. Another was about a student’s biggest freshman-year mistake (he took Classical Mythology, found it boring, didn’t do the work and flunked the course.)

I stumbled on a rap video submitted by a student from Clarkson University, which doesn’t yet have a review on Unigo, in which the rapper comments on the alumni, the architecture and the weather at the Potsdam, New York, school.

Unigo also contains articles on general topics, such as how to decide what size of college is best for you, and how to get the most out of a college tour.

While the editors ban personal attacks and nudity, they don’t bar negative comments. Unigo deliberately seeks out pro and con opinions. Many of the student submissions are enthusiastically positive, but plenty are negative comments on campus social life, the costs, the food, the faculty, the dorms and other topics.

The site feels surprisingly full for such a young venture, but it has some quirks and issues. Coverage is uneven. For instance, Vassar College in New York boasts 117 reviews and 42 videos, while the much larger University of Kansas has only 45 reviews and three videos. Finding the detailed search feature can be clumsy, because it’s not obvious on the home page. You can’t generate a quick comparison among colleges, and the site lacks any parent-oriented sections, although parents are free to use it.

Finally, there are just loads of colleges that aren’t yet included. The first 250 schools were “seeded,” with months of research and solicitation of student content. Unigo is confident it can get more schools, but only time will tell.

Still, Unigo is a good example of how user-generated content can do a lot to enhance an important topic, and still keep editorial standards.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.

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