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Posted on Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

College-bound Ann Arbor students aim for 'dream schools' as they prepare for next chapter

By Kellie Woodhouse

Editor's note: the location has been corrected in the first photo caption and graduation statistics have been added for Skyline High School.


University of Michigan junior Jillian Jackson leads a tour of prospective students and their parents outside the Michigan Union in June.

Melanie Maxwell |

Ann Arbor is a town whose high-schoolers, living in the shadow of a highly regarded university, value higher education.

The percentage of seniors who are college bound ranges from 80 percent at Pioneer High School to 86 percent at Skyline High School, 91 percent at Huron High School and 96 percent at Community High School.

Yet admission into college, especially elite schools, becomes more competitive each year.

The University of Michigan, for example, whittled down 46,730 applications to 15,430 acceptances— with 6,400 applicants paying an enrollment deposit. The school's acceptance rate is steadily declining. Roughly 42 percent of applicants were accepted in 2008, and 37 percent were accepted in 2012. This year that rate dropped to 33 percent.

So as outgoing high-schoolers, newly accepted into college, take the summer to celebrate and transition into a new era, Ann Arbor's incoming senior class is gearing up for campus tours, last-minute SAT prep and college applications. They'll weave their academic credentials, outside interests and life experiences into the tapestry that is the college application — and in doing so, they're hard pressed not to find the process stressful and overwhelming.

Of the roughly 10,000 high schoolers surveyed recently by the Princeton Review, 70 percent said they were "highly stressed" by college applications.

"It's ridiculous because they're looking for the perfect student and there is no way you can have a 36 on your ACT, get a 4.2 GPA and do all these extracurricular activities that they are looking for," said Alyssa Gruich, a high school junior from Washtenaw County. "It makes you realize, 'Maybe I'm not good enough for my dream school. Maybe instead of watching that television show I should have studied for that exam I had.' It makes you really think."

Gruich is far from alone in her feelings. Earlier this year, rejection letters from her dream schools prompted Pennsylvanian high schooler Suzy Lee Weiss to write an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal satirically lamenting what she considers the unrealistic expectations of college admissions offices.

Ted Spencer, U-M admissions director, agrees that the admissions practices of elite schools have become more competitive. At U-M, applications have increased from 29,814 in 2008 to 46,730 this year. The average GPA of an incoming student has risen.


University of Michigan junior Jillian Jackson leads a tour of prospective students.

Melanie Maxwell |

"Many people want to get into the schools that are considered to be some of the best schools in the country," Spencer said, adding that mid-tier schools remain accessible.

John Boshoven, a counselor at Community High School who also does independent college counseling, said there's more pressure on students to impress colleges than there was a decade ago. Students are going to great lengths to get into their dream colleges. At U-M, wait-listed applicants have sent counselors music videos, life-size cardboard cutouts of themselves and even a miniature chair with the message "save a seat for me."

"Ten, 15 years ago you'd walk into Barnes & Noble, and would there be a whole section on college admissions? No," Boshoven said. The books range in topic on how to choose the college that best fits a student's needs to tutorials on writing the perfect essay and navigating the interview process. There's book after book of college rankings that quantify the quality of colleges high schoolers are considering.

5 tips for choosing a college

Trying to figure out what college is right for you or your high schooler? Here are five tips — offered up by University of Michigan admissions director Ted Spencer — for picking which schools to apply to and which one to ultimately attend.

  • 1) Consider a college's academic offerings and reputation.

    "That means a lot of different things to a lot of different people," Spencer said. "Some of the things that are important for students to look at when considering the academic reputation are 'Can I get the classes that I will need to graduate? Will I be able to get the classes with the professors I want to be involved with? Will I have the personal attention at that particular school?' " Other important factors to consider are a school's graduation rates, how many of its freshman return to campus for their sophomore year and what a school's job placement rates are.

    2) Know all the application details, what the college expects from students and your chances of acceptance.

    Students should ask themselves what colleges expect academically; for example, what are the mid-range GPAs and test scores? They should know application deadlines and give themselves plenty of time to refine their applications and essays. Applicants should also be realistic about their chances of acceptance. John Boshoven, a Community High School counselor, suggests that for every "dream school" a student applies to, that student should also apply to two safety schools. He suggests that students apply to 10 or fewer schools.

    3) Determine the cost versus value ratio.

    "Families have to make that decision. So much money is no longer available through many of the state programs as well as the federal government," Spencer said, explaining that families should ask: "Whatever I pay, whatever that amount is, do I think I will get a great education from the school and will it offer other opportunities?"

    4) Do you like the campus?

    "The next thing they should look at is the social life. Is it a good fit? Do I feel comfortable going to school there? What's there to do when I am not in the classroom," Spencer says. "Those are the kinds of things people remember about their college experience, not to say they don't remember their professors, but they certainly remember their friends and they certainly remember many events that happen."

    5) Determine, to the best you can, your career goals.

    Students who know what they want to study should seek schools with strong programs in that area. The idea, Spencer says, is for "the degree you work so hard for (to) work hard for you when you graduate."

"Kids start to think 'I should be going to the best one that I can go to,'" Boshoven said, "but No. 14 isn't really much better than 39."

Added Spencer: "We've developed this thing about ratings and rankings and we've expanded it to colleges, and so the colleges that people feel are ranked higher in many cases, those are the ones that are receiving more attention and more applications."

Incoming Community High School senior Fernando Rojo plays varsity soccer, edits the school newspaper and has a relatively high GPA. Rojo is one of many students striving to get into a "stretch" school. During his junior year he toured Columbia University, New York University, Northwestern University and U-M. He's applying to Northwestern and the University of Pennsylvania, along with about six other schools.

"It's easier for me to point out my dream school and not the ones I could get in more easily because you want to shoot for your highest," he said. Rojo says he has spent hours looking at colleges, skimming applications, talking with counselors and studying for standardized tests. He's looking for a school in new place that is both academically strong and has a vibrant campus life.

He says that at Community High, where classmates go to schools like Yale University, the University of Chicago and U-M, "there's a high standard" for choosing an elite college.

The question, Rojo says, is whether his extracurricular activities and high GPA, paired with an average ACT score, will be enough to get into one of his dream schools.

"Even though you think you might have all these things that you think you need to get into college, maybe you don't have the certain things a college is looking for," he said.

Spencer said the majority of applicants —around 80 percent— are qualified to attend U-M, so the school takes the cream of the crop from among a qualified applicant pool. Admissions counselors look at an applicant's competitiveness with fellow applicants and also within the context of the high school they attended. There's no guarantee that if you got into U-M a decade ago, you'd have what it the school is looking for today.

"The real competitive colleges are getting more competitive," Boshoven said. "Those tend to be the ones in some circles that everyone thinks they need to go to. But they're not necessarily the best colleges for (all) kids. ... You have to find the right fit."

Added Spencer: "Broadly speaking it's true that a lot of schools like Michigan are doing very well and a lot of it is based on our reputation, and that's good. But then a lot of other schools are suffering because they aren't perceived to be as strong and students are not applying— very good students who could do very well on those campuses."

Kellie Woodhouse covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-4602 and follow her on twitter.



Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 11:17 p.m.

No desire to go to any dream school. This is the what the parents are brain washing their children to do and do what they want. Sorry ours is looking at EMU a nice school without all the hype. Follow your own dreams teenagers not your parents.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 4:53 p.m.

And let's not forget the great option of completing years one and two at a community college! Much more affordable, small class sizes, dedicated faculty and established transfer programs to prestigious schools, including U of M.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 11:18 p.m.

You can actually get your minor done at WCC and a major started as well. This what I did. Killed off 2 years and done. Thanks for this option idea.

Amy Biolchini

Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 4:44 p.m.

All, I've added the percentage of students graduating from Skyline High School that go on to pursue higher education to the second paragraph of this story. Skyline has a 94 percent graduation rate, with 86 percent going to college and an average ACT score of 22.8.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 10:37 p.m.

UloveM, what high school in A2 does no test prep? Every junior I know does test prep within the school hours.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 7:28 p.m.

The Infinite Jester: You are right, it is 30. I checked his old papers. TryingToBeObjective: I made my son to retake the test because he had never studied for it before taking the exam in the school. He had refused to take any test preparing class; he had refused to take a look these books for the test.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 6:41 p.m.

So true, infinite jester. A 30 on the ACT s a very respectable score. My son wants to retake the ACT to improve his score of 30, but I won't force him to do it. I am proud of my kid. He does well, tries hard, and won't be jumping off a building anytime soon due to not being "good enough" for his parents. FYI, lots of schools take kids with ACTs in the low 20s. Not every kid is a good test taker or brilliant. ACT scores are only one component of college admissions. GPA, as well as extracurricular activities round out a student. I've encouraged my kid to choose a college where he fits, not just because of the name. He will apply to UM, but also to some smaller schools.

The Infinite Jester

Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 6:07 p.m.

UloveM, It's impossible to get 30.5 on the act


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 5:04 p.m.

What kind of colleges do they take kids with act score of 22.8? I made my son remake the test after he brought me his ACT score of 30.5. Yes, He got 35.0 two months later.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 3:20 p.m.

10-15 years ago there absolutely were sections in bookstores devoted to college admissions. It may have gotten more competitive and those sections may be bigger now, but this has been going on for some time now.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 8:21 p.m.

There were sections in bookstores 25 years ago devoted to college admissions.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 1:45 p.m.

I was just looking up some pictures online because this looks like the Student Union to me.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 1:37 p.m.

The caption on the photo is incorrect. That is in front of the Union, which is across the street from the Law Quad.

Bob Needham

Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 2:41 p.m.

thanks, that's been corrected

Beth Wilensky

Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 1:54 p.m.

I noticed the same thing. The top photo is outside the Union. The bottom photo is in the Law Quad.

A Voice of Reason

Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 1:32 p.m.

I would like to know what % of the Pioneer, Huron, Skyline, GRH, GH, and Community HS kids get into U of M. AAPS has some of the brightest kids in the state, but U of M only takes a small %. I agree you do not want all AAPS kids at U of M, but if you have a parent working at Michigan and make the mark (above a 3.6 & 28 ACT), or are a donor, you seem to get in. It would be interesting to have someone do an analysis of this pattern and profile and AAPS kids that get in.


Mon, Aug 12, 2013 : 6:56 a.m.

I am a Pioneer grad class of '07. I had a 3.65 GPA and a 29 ACT. I was rejected from UM. Had fantastic extracurriculars (wrote for paper, leadership position in music, leadership position in sports, 5 AP classes). I would say that there's even discrimination towards AAPS students because they want to diversify the student body and bring in the whole state. An applicant from Escanaba is more appealing than another honor student from A2.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 4:57 p.m.

I'm not sure about UM, but at MSU it seems as if grades and scores aren't everything. My daughter was initially put on the wait list for MSU, but was later accepted. When she got there, she found that a lot of kids from other districts had lower GPA and ACT scores. Not talking about minorities. I think a state school has to accept kids from every district. In our district, a lot of kids with higher GPA/Scores had selected MSU as their college of choice, and a LOT of kids from our district go to MSU (UM also). I have this theory that it's harder for good students to get into MSU if they are from exceptional districts. I only have our own experience to base this on, but this is how it seemed to me.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 1:03 p.m.

And what about the percentage of kids going to college from Skyline?

Amy Biolchini

Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 4:40 p.m.

Thanks for the note. I've added that statistic to the story -- it's 86 percent.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 12:04 p.m.

It's probably a good thing that kids learn that life isn't fair earlier, rather than later. The fact is that you can go to your "dream school" and still live a life that's far from "a dream." Sure, we all want to help the world while working a fulfilling job and earning great pay. The reality is far different for many Americans, including those who graduated from their "dream schools." Regardless, it is possible to do well (and even thrive) at a school that wasn't part of one's dreams growing up. The United States has thousands of excellent institutions of higher learning - more than enough to handle the entire stock of hopeful high school graduates.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 5:02 p.m.

It is not that life is unfair it is competitive. there is always someone biger, stronger, faster, smarters. This is the first taste for many about the competitive nature of the "real world". Often parents do their a kids a disservice by sugar coating and coddling them. It makes the transition that much tougher. In life things are earned not granted nor conveyed.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 4:35 p.m.

I would bet that some people going to a dream school and not having a dream life may be related to getting a degree in a field with little or no demand in the job world. Like it or not, we still live in a country mostly driven by supply and demand. The first thing a high school graduate entering college should do is assess what the prospects are for a good paying job if that is their goal. If they only have a passion for a field in low demand then someone should guide them to understand the bucks won't be there and then the student should be prepared to accept those consequences.

J. A. Pieper

Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 11:56 a.m.

I am looking at the differences presented in this article for the percentages of students going on to college, 80 % for Pioneer, and then it jumps to 91 % for Huron, 96 % for Community - is this accurate? If so, then one high school needs to be looked at very carefully, like what is not happening there?


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 6:45 p.m.

Phillycheese, I'm curious. What did your son do in his gap year? Work, or something else? Was it because he didn't know what to major in, or for other reasons? I don't think that would be what my kid will do, but its an option. Appreciate the info.

Amy Biolchini

Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 4:39 p.m.

The percentages came from the 2013 America's Best High School rankings compiled by Newsweek and The Daily Beast.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 1:31 p.m.

My son graduated from Pioneer H.S. and choose to do a "gap" year before college. Because he did not apply to colleges and have his admission deferred, he would be part of the percent of students who are reported as not going on to college, even though he is attending college after his gap year. He has 2 friends from Pioneer H.S. who did something similar. Of course this doesn't account for everyone, it's just an example of a few students who would fall into the category of not going on to college at Pioneer.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 12:17 p.m.

Makes me proud of my hometown that had a little under 40% (rural Montcalm County). And that 40% includes 4-year, 2-year, technical school, community college and military. 96% - nice job Ann Arbor.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 11:38 a.m.

What is "independent college counseling"? Is there a big market in that now (have never heard the term) as compared to using one's own high school counselor?

Chester Drawers

Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 7:21 p.m.

Pioneer (and I believe the other 2 comprehensive high schools) has a Career Center which has a wealth of information for students involved in the college application process. Mrs. Williams (hope she's still at Pioneer!) was a wonderful resource for my daughters and me. She was our 'go to' person for all things college related rather than the counselors.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 2:38 p.m.

Relying on your son or daughter's High School counselor without doing a great deal of research on your own is a big mistake - no matter where your child goes to school. While some counselors may be very good, many aren't. And most are very, very overworked and spend a great deal of time dealing with the "problem" kids. In a prior district, my son's counselor was also the Field Hockey coach (i.e. this was the only paying job she could get in the district to allow her to be a coach). In AAPS, the counselor was always swamped, always late in responding to requests, and didn't really know her stuff. In addition, at graduation, the other counselor knew the students' names from sight for most of them. My son's counselor read them all and mispronounced many of them. Take charge of your child's search. Make sure they apply to "reach schools" as well as "safety schools". Don't apply to more than 5 - simply a waste of money. Don't visit schools that are costly to get to and don't grant interviews, they don't care (and don't track) if you visit. Online tools including virtual tours show you much of what you'd see - and IF your child gets in there is plenty of time to spend the money to visit before deadlines.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 12:47 p.m.

Thanks for the info. Is counselor variation very noticeable in AAPS (I'm not there yet)? Kinda crummy if who you get is based on alphabetical order or something and there are big differences, IMO.

Susie Q

Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 11:52 a.m.

It means he takes paying clients.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 11:52 a.m.

Depends on your parental college research abilities, your students abilities (to weed through colleges), and WHO your kids college counselor is. Some parents are very dissatisfied with their counselor.

Linda Moore

Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 11:25 a.m.

Boshoven's quote corrected should read: "Now," Bosheven said...


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 12:15 p.m.

No, it actually shouldn't. He asked a question and answered "no."


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 11:17 a.m.

Additionally, a number of elite colleges (but thankfully, not U-M) are factoring the student's ability to pay into the admissions decisions. This is not widely publicized, Families of modest or moderate means should research need blind colleges.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 10:41 a.m.

A big reason for the large increase was UM switching to the Common Application, no? And don't you mean "Now", not "No" in Mr. Boshoven's quote which needs more quotes also. Another tip - apply to a safety school that accepts in early Fall. Both of our children had an acceptance letter to a perfectly good school in October. UM accepatnces followed soon after. Waiting until April to hear is nerve wracking and unnecessary - get one in hand early.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 10:31 a.m.

"The average GPA of an incoming student has risen" What is it?


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 4:48 p.m.

The admitted GPA, from memory, is roughly 3.85 at the median.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 12:06 p.m.

It's grade inflation.