Keep calm, because what’s important — the school’s name, or yours?

by | Mar 8, 2020 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 0 comments

Dear (Anxious) High School Seniors,

First of all, sorry, this is not the letter you were looking for, the one that tells you if you got into the college that, as you wrote on your application, “I’ve been waiting my whole life to attend.”

That letter may be a few more days or weeks. March is when colleges notify prospective students — thick letter, good; thin letter, not so good — which means a lot of nail-biting and panicked tweets (“When already, Michigan?!!”).

It also leaves some of you feeling like your lives hang in the balance.

They do not.

Nine years ago, I wrote a column urging everyone to calm down about which university would accept them. I received many notes of thanks from exhausted parents who had gotten so wrapped up in the process, they actually had dreams of being late for the SATs again.

Their kids got in somewhere, many graduated, and some by now have even moved out of the basement.

Well, it’s another decade and guess what? There are some new and exciting ways to realize your dream of attending college, like: Buy your way in!

No. I’m kidding. Not a good idea. Last year, a bunch of people got caught doing that. Some went to prison. And their kids had unspeakably horrible things happen to them, like losing Instagram followers.

So we don’t need to rehash that whole ugly chapter in college admissions. Suffice it to say, if you’re offered a sailing scholarship and you’ve never been on a boat?


The games they play

In the meantime, please, take a deep breath. Then another. In fact, take a deep breath for each of the three, five, 10 or 34 schools you applied to. Because you can go to only one, right?

And in that math lies your salvation.

If you are one of those kids who had to apply everywhere — just to, as your parents advised, “give you the best chance” — you will be turning down all but one of your acceptances, right?

So will the next kid. And the next.

Which means if you’ve been wait-listed, you have a pretty good chance of getting in somewhere, once all the pieces have been shuffled around the board.

And if you’ve been rejected, remember that because colleges don’t know who will accept their offers, they have to hedge their bets. This means sometimes you will not get into a particular school because they actually think you are TOO GOOD a candidate and will likely go elsewhere, so why waste a space?

This provides a wonderful explanation when Not So Great State University rejects your application. You can always reply, “Well, they knew I wasn’t gonna say yes … ”

Make you feel better?

Good. Here’s another salve. Although college admissions have gotten more competitive in the past nine years, you still do not actually have to cure cancer AND start a Shakespeare troupe in Tunisia in order to get into a decent school.

It can be one or the other.

No. Kidding again. Nobody can do what some of these applicants are claiming. Mother Teresa would have been wait-listed. The Ivy League admissions forms are so full of impressive lives, the kids applying would have to be 67 years old.

Schools know this. They figure it out. And for all of the dolphin-saving, app-creating, international-relief-fund-founding that Type A applicants put down, what still counts most is your schoolwork and your test scores.

Which brings us back to numbers.

Which makes you nervous again, doesn’t it?

Lesson in history

Well, it’s true, admission rates have shrunk at many big-name schools over the years. In 2007, Duke accepted 21 percent of its applicants. Last year, it accepted 7.4 percent. Harvard, in that same period, went from 9.8 percent to 4.5. Michigan went from about 50 percent to 23 percent.

Does all of this mean it’s THAT much more competitive? Not really. Sure, an increasing number of students want to attend the top schools. But those schools are also encouraging way more kids to apply than they did before. Why? So they can have a higher rejection rate, and therefore look more impressive when publications make their “Best Universities in America” lists.

It turns out colleges are just as petty and envious as that high school clique you are hoping to leave behind. They LIKE saying 95 percent of kids don’t get in, even if in truth half of them shouldn’t have applied.

But trust me, you can have an amazing, successful life even if your college degree doesn’t read Stanford or Yale. History has proven it.

Sure, Mark Zuckerberg went to Harvard, where he invented — or stole — Facebook, depending on whom you believe, and is now one of the more vilified people on the planet.

But Warren Buffett, the multibillionaire, went to the University of Nebraska, and Larry Ellison, the co-founder of Oracle, went to the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois — and dropped out.

Steve Jobs, Ted Turner, Michael Dell and Ellen DeGeneres never finished college. Anna Wintour and the Wright brothers never went at all.

There are plenty of Princeton and Michigan grads working low-level jobs at companies owned by graduates of Never-Heard-Of-It University. Remember, it’s not just getting in. It’s how hard you work once you get in — and once you get out.

And one last thing. A little rejection is actually healthy. You may not realize this yet, kids, but a great deal of you have had every obstacle removed by parents who went ballistic at the idea that you should ever suffer a bruise, shed a tear, or finish second to a neighbor’s kid.

But those things will all happen in life. And you will survive. And maybe do better as a result. Which means a college rejection may be the first push in your life that didn’t come sugarcoated by your parents. See what you can do with it.

There are great schools everywhere. Small and large. Some don’t even cost the GNP of a small nation.

So, everybody relax. Wait for the envelope. And even if it’s the thin one, know that other opportunities will come your way. Maybe, like Magellan, you’ll get to sail around the world.

Although, once again, I recommend a boat.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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