Running a non-profit organization is a challenge — even when the service offers free college counseling.

ReadySetLaunch, founded a year ago by Tiffany Ho ’12 and Jim Liu ’12, began its Yale pilot program this semester with 40 mentors and 20 mentees from seven public high schools in five states. But with the group still looking for new mentors and mentees, board members said budget constraints and a lack of enthusiasm from high school administrators are slowing the group’s ambitions to expand nationwide.

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“There are so many kids out there who don’t fully understand the college application process,” Ho said. “Our goal is to offer them advice and guidance based on our own experiences.”

ReadySetLaunch, which has a second chapter at Brown University also founded by Ho and Liu, invites prospective public high school juniors to apply through its Web site, Ho explained. After completing essay applications and undergoing interviews, selected applicants are matched with a Yale mentor who maintains weekly contact via phone or e-mail, she added.

The group’s goal, Liu said, is to offer advice on SAT preparation and high school course selection. Mentors also direct students to online college application and financial aid resources and keep them abreast of application deadlines, he added.

Ho said ReadySetLaunch aims to differentiate itself from the numerous other organizations that provide similar advising by providing extensive personal interaction: Mentors at the group’s Brown chapter have spoken to Brown’s admissions officers on behalf of their mentees, and board members try to contact mentees every two weeks to receive feedback.

Group members said they hope the Brown chapter will be a stepping stone toward creating chapters at other universities and attracting more high school participation. Ho said the group’s plans also include establishing partnerships with better-known college admissions guidance organizations such as Questbridge — a college match program for low-income students.

In contrast, the Yale College Council’s Eli Days Program, for example — which offers free college counseling to New Haven high school students — connects with local schools with the help of the Office of New Haven and State Affairs and College Acceptance, another volunteer counseling program run by students at Yale Law School. In addition, while ReadySetLaunch’s goal is to reach students beyond Yale’s campus, Eli Days connects with local schools.

Still, reaching out to schools and students across the country and convincing them to participate in the program has not been easy, group members said.

Ian Panchevre ’12, the organization’s outreach director, explained that ReadySetLaunch has largely relied on word of mouth to spread information. Attempts to contact low-income schools directly has come with mixed results, he noted.

“Not all schools are receptive to our communication,” Panchevre said. “But we try to work our way around these barriers by getting hold of whoever may be interested in us, whether that be the English teacher or guidance counselor.”

Liu added that the group purposely incorporated itself as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization with the hope of boosting its credibility among potential mentees and partner high schools.

Fundraising is also proving an obstacle for ReadySetLaunch. The group’s founders have spent over $2,000 out of pocket on promotional activities and administrative costs and must continue to rely on their personal contributions to sustain the program unless outside funding increases, Liu said. The group has been able to collect donations from friends and relatives as well as through the organization’s Web site, but Liu said such sources of funding are piecemeal and irregular.

And while the Office of Undergraduate Admissions is able to offer financial support to Eli Days as part of the office’s general outreach efforts in New Haven, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel said no partnership currently exists between his office and ReadySetLaunch.

Maintaining regular contact over long distances is a further challenge for the group: Ho said one mentee has not contacted the group for over a month.

But despite obstacles, both Ho and Liu said they are optimistic about the program’s future expansion. They are currently compiling a college admissions advice handbook to be distributed to future mentors, and are collecting used admissions and test preparation books for a resource library they are developing. Eventually, they also hope to post these resources online.

Johnny Lee, a mentee and high school junior from Texas, said he learned of ReadySetLaunch from Panchevre, who graduated from his high school. Since the start of this semester, Lee has been working with a mentor from the Brown chapter of ReadySetLaunch. Lee said his mentor has helped him to edit his college application essay and to decide which academic courses to take.

“I was really unsure whether I wanted to take [Advanced Placement] Spanish,” he explained. “But my mentor was able to speak to the admissions officers at Brown, and their response made my decision-making much easier.”

Brenzel, who only recently met the founders of the ReadySetLaunch, said he was impressed by the founders’ desire to provide free admissions mentoring to students who could not otherwise access or afford college counseling services. He added similar efforts have been successful other colleges such as Amherst.

ReadySetLaunch currently has 75 active mentors and 26 mentees at its existing Yale and Brown chapters.