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DETROIT FREE PRESS

The College That Rejects You May Do You A Favor

By Mitch Albom

Dear High School Seniors,

I know you weren't expecting a commencement address. It's still March, and you haven't even gotten to throw up at the prom yet.

But you are at a crossroads. In a matter of days, you will get letters from colleges you applied to. Some will be thick. You will like those. Some will be thin. You won't like those so much.

I am here to say: Don't fret if that letter is thin. You will survive. You may even prosper.

It seems incredibly hard to get into colleges these days. You wouldn't think so, given what they charge. You can run an airport on their room and board bills.

Yet last year, places like Princeton and Brown had nearly 20% increases in applicants from the year before. The University of Chicago jumped 42%. You'd think they were giving away diplomas, instead of asking for your house, your keys and your firstborn.

But even worse than the financial burden on your parents is the implied standards they are setting for you kids. Today, excellence isn't enough. Gandhi would be put on a waiting list.

When we were applying to college, you needed good grades, a decent test score and one teacher willing to forget the time you pulled the fire alarm and write you a recommendation.

Today, you need to cure cancer.

Preferably before your junior year.

The mythical cream of the crop?

As an uncle to 15 nieces and nephews, I have been seeing my share of these applications. I have to say, I don't know how you do it.

First of all, when do you have the time? Your nightly homework is as much as we got the entire ninth grade.

And the application itself? Some universities use the "common app," which permits millions of kids to stuff their credentials into the same essay question.

But let's talk about those questions. They ask you to write about an experience that changed or influenced you. And instead of writing what really comes to mind (a first kiss after soccer practice), you feel compelled to write about saving manatees from extinction off the gulf coast. Even if you never did save manatees. Because you heard about some kid who actually did save manatees, and he also carried 100 pairs of pajamas to victims of Hurricane Katrina, and he also plays jazz bass (upright) and in his spare time finished a sequel to "Catcher in the Rye."

Oh, and he scored 36 on his ACT.

I'm not sure such über-students really exist. But people talk about them. You hear about them getting in to Harvard, Princeton, Stanford. So much so, that good, intelligent, ambitious kids don't even want to apply to those places, because they don't feel "special" enough. It's as if schools today put out a vibe: "What, you don't know how to reconstruct a hydraulics system? You should have studied harder - in grade school."

Never too young for the fast track?

So it was no surprise this past week to read of a New York City woman who is suing a private preschool academy for putting her 4-year-old daughter with younger kids and therefore affecting her chances at an Ivy League education. Never mind that all 4-year-olds should be covered in orange paint. This mom is already thinking about the day you seniors are about to face. And she's terrified.

Well, relax. Because here's the thing: When you get older, you realize college doesn't make you, you make college. Many an Ivy Leaguer is now lying on a couch, and many a community college grad is running a profitable company.

Ironically, just as elite universities have become so precious in their selection, they are being debunked as the only way to success. The Internet has changed everything about information flow.

Remember Matt Damon's character in "Good Will Hunting" who taunts a Harvard student by saying in 50 years he'll realize he "dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a (bleeping) education you coulda got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library"?

Of course, you don't remember. You were 4 years old. But there was truth in those words, more today than ever.

So believe in yourself. You can springboard from any decent school. Open those mailboxes. And if choice No.1 doesn't come through, just remember, even Michael Jordan watched two players picked ahead of him in the NBA draft.

What's that? ... Who's Michael Jordan?

Thank you, and good day.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch "The Mitch Albom Show" 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch "Monday Sports Albom" 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.