Entrepreneurship on Campus: The Open Circles

Last fall, a simple conversation with his roommate about social media led sophomore Girri Muthhukumar Palaniyapan to create a website that could ...

May 2, 2015

Last fall, a simple conversation with his roommate about social media led sophomore Girri Muthhukumar Palaniyapan to create a website that could connect prospective and current students at NYU Abu Dhabi in an intimate but anonymous way.
The Open Circles is an online platform for college applicants to anonymously ask questions about the universities they'd like to apply to. From student life to academics, applicants can probe into the details of their prospective college choices and receive answers from currently enrolled students. Though the website originally included only NYUAD students, it has since expanded to other universities in Singapore, where Palaniyapan is from.
Even after initial inspiration struck, Palaniyapan did not start working on the concept for Open Circles immediately. It was only once he took a January Term class in New York, Professor Joshua Tucker's Social Media and Public Participation, that Palaniyapan's views about social media started to coalesce.
“I realized that social media platforms allow you to strengthen and leverage your pre-existing connections made in the real world, but it doesn’t map out what you are interested in,” wrote Palaniyapan to The Gazelle. “That’s frustrating.”
As an example, Palaniyapan brought up Quora, a popular Q&A website where high-schoolers sometimes ask questions about universities, and most conversations take place in the public arena. Although people can opt for anonymity when answering questions, real identities are used more often than not.
For Palaniyapan, private space online is important because it facilitates the fleshing out of half-baked ideas without fear of judgement.
“I think people connect more genuinely in the private domain as opposed to when they are being watched by others,” Palaniyapan added.
As a prospective university student, Palaniyapan had felt out of the loop because he hadn't known any high school friends who went to the colleges he'd been interested in. The frustration that Palaniyapan felt as a college applicant, and his conviction that every applicant deserves to be in the know of what a university is really like, compelled him to get working on the idea. Open Circles became a reality early this February.
“Colleges are getting more and more insular,” said Palaniyapan. “Applicants who have friends in colleges have a leg up in terms of knowing what the college is like and ins-and-outs of it. My vision is for communities to be more open and welcoming towards others.”
NYUAD is unique in that all admitted students have to go through a Candidate Weekend in which, even as they are being evaluated, applicants can determine whether the school is a good fit for them. However, some important questions that are thought of as taboo may remain unanswered.
Open Circles solves these problems by offering applicants the chance to talk with a verified student anonymously. Since its creation, it has received just under a hundred questions. Roughly a quarter of the submissions, however, had multiple questions embedded in them, and many pertained to highly specific academic and social matters.
“People involved in deliberating between top colleges typically ask numerous questions, because they want to figure what’s the best choice for them. Applicants also ask about different majors and perspectives about career prospects through the lens of seniors,” said Palaniyapan.
Another problem with websites like College Confidential and Quora, Palaniyapan said, is that askers cannot be sure they are getting a response from an actual student.
Open Circles previously had a small group of volunteers who sorted through questions and then forwarded certain ones to someone they knew would be able to answer it. If someone posed a question about double-majoring, a student currently double-majoring would receive the relevant query. From now onwards, students can sign up as Open Circles fellows and list their issues of interest; questions pertaining to their interests will then be forwarded to them.
When they first approached students during the Early Decision II Candidate Weekend, the Open Circles team ran into trouble advertising the idea to candidates. Some Open Circles members left flyers on the tables at one of the Candidate Weekend breakfasts. That afternoon, they received an email and a call from a senior administrator. Palaniyapan could not comment on details about the incident.
“It isn’t exactly clear what the administration thinks about it,” Palaniyapan said. “I have mainly heard things through second sources and I sense some concern about how this platform might evolve.”
If there are concerns, Palaniyapan does not think they are warranted. There is no hidden agenda in what students share with applicants both online and offline; the platform merely facilitates interactions.
“Ultimately, applicants piece together the information they have gotten from the school, the brochures, CW, etc. and come to their own independent judgement,” wrote Palaniyapan.
The Open Circles has expanded to cover three major universities in Singapore. One of Palaniyapan’s high school friends is working to reach out to universities and spread the word among high school students. The hope is to create a mobile app for Open Circles that will be scalable and easy to use. Palaniyapan intends to complete the mobile app before the next admission season and eventually expand to colleges in the US.
Melinda Szekeres is news editor. Email her at
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