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'Common app' hits star student with uncommon adversity

Danny Schrage is cruising into the home stretch of his high school career with an impressive resumé in hand. He scored a 30 on his ACT and earned a 3.91 grade-point average through his junior year, with 17 honors-level or Advanced Placement classes. He’s president of Grosse Pointe North High School’s National Honor Society, and has been elected class president all four years.

Principal Tim Bearden describes Schrage as a student “I would literally rank in the top 1 percent of all high school students I have known in my career.” In other words, the sort of student made for a top-tier university. But when he applied to the University of Michigan during the early-admission process last fall, he received the most unexpected of responses: a roadblock.

Schrage's application was deferred.

U-M's decision was not a refusal, more of a tabling of his request. Still, for a student like Danny, it was an unexpected turn of events as he makes a decision with long-lasting implications for his life.

The culprit in this little academic drama is as unexpected as Danny's difficulties: A document designed to make the college application process easier for students and their families -- the common application.

The common app, as it’s known, is just what it sounds like -- a single application widely accepted among American colleges and universities, sometimes with supplemental material. The common app makes it easier for students to apply to multiple schools without starting from scratch with each campus. The first year it was accepted at the University of Michigan, for the 2010-11 academic year, applications jumped 25 percent.

Such a surge has made already-selective U-M even more selective, with close to 40,000 applications for about 6,000 spots in the freshman class. In such a crowd, it's hard for a student armed even with Danny's bona fides to be noticed.

For its fall 2011 enrollment, U-M started with 39,584 applications, from which 16,073 admissions were offered. Out of those, 6,251 people actually enrolled as students; 59 percent of the 2011 freshmen are Michigan residents. The in-state share of U-M's freshman classes has ranged between 60 percent and 66 percent since 2007.

U-M publishes guidelines for prospective students, outlining what sort of academic, extracurricular and other standards they expect in serious candidates for admission. On paper, Danny has it all, which makes Bearden, who saw several other of his top seniors deferred, frustrated.

Bearden stresses that university staffers have been helpful to him and his counselors. Still, “we're worried when a student with a record like Danny’s can't get in, after taking the most challenging courses and doing exceptionally well in them.”

U-M spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said that while the school won’t speak to individual cases, the fact is U-M continues to grow in popularity for applicants; even without the boost from the common app, U-M has set records the last five years in applications. (And in fact, top schools all over the country are seeing applicants rise, particularly during the early-admission window in the fall, as this New York Times story about similar students from New York City's private schools also being deferred.)

As a Michigan resident, Danny still has an excellent chance of admission; about half of all residents who apply get in. But while he waits for the school to say yes, he’s using the common app to extend his own college search, to the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and Cornell. He thinks he has a good chance at Penn, knows that Harvard is a long shot and admits that Michigan is still his first choice, even if he wasn’t welcomed with open arms on his first try.

“(Getting deferred) was a humbling experience,” he said. “But it is what it is. I’ll hope for the best.”

But if he does leave Michigan for college, he’s more likely to stay there than if he enrolls at U-M. Half of all Michigan college graduates already leave the state within a year of receiving their diplomas, and the loss of one like Danny is something the state can ill afford as it tries to boost the share of college graduates in its population. But the common app, whether it helps or hurts him, is here to stay.

“I wouldn’t have applied to Harvard without (the common app),” he said. “I still think it’s a great idea.”

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