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The college that rejects you

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 percent increases in applicants from the year before. The University of Chicago jumped 42 percent. 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 is the implied standards they are setting for you kids. 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.

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."

I'm not sure such uber-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?

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.

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