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THICK ENVELOPES EASE PAIN OF REJECTIONS

My life ended around 4:30 p.m. on April 6, 1989, when I was 17 and rejected by UCLA.

I didn't cry or curse. I simply placed the terse, curt college rejection letter in the cage of my pet chinchilla, Mayday. The darling furball with the small bladder could best express how I felt about UCLA and my future.The next two weeks brought more rejection letters from universities in California, where I lived. I wrote the evil admissions committees letters blasting their judgment. So what if I had low SAT scores? So what if, in the 10th grade, I failed Algebra II by dropping out at mid-semester - an automatic F - because I refused to take it with mean Ms. Yamada (or Ms. Yo Mama, as my friends and I called her)?

So what, I told myself, if no colleges wanted me? I could learn to be happy as a loser.

Loser. Failure. Finished at 17. Thousands of students have muttered those words in recent weeks. This includes the student body president with the 3.9 grade point average and 1,390 SAT score. And the student editor who volunteers every weekend while still earning a 4.0 and a 1,220 on the SAT.

For the 1996-97 school year, universities nationwide have turned down top students in record numbers, guidance counselors and admission officials say.

It's too early for figures because some of this year's 2.5 million college applicants are still being accepted and rejected. But educators agree that schools have become more selective.

And next year is expected to be just as tough.

"It's hard to be a high school student today," says Jane Schoenfeld, a consultant in suburban St. Louis who helps teens pick and apply to college. "Because it doesn't matter how good you are. Schools are making it more difficult to get in."

Schools can be picky because the teen population is growing. At the same time, many colleges have declined to increase the size of their freshman classes. Also, more students have applied for early admission, getting a jump on those who wait until spring.

All this explains those thin rejection envelopes.

Alexandra Radtke, 18, recently got a skinny slip from Washington University in St. Louis. "I was devastated because it's the school I really wanted to go to," says Radtke. She will attend the University of Missouri at St. Louis this fall, planning to major in English.

She got over her disappointment by sipping shakes at Wendy's.

At Horton Watkins High School in Ladue, an upscale St. Louis suburb, some rejected students wore black.

In Wellesley, Mass., an honors English teacher holds a rejection party this time of year. All her students bring their letters - the ones that begin, "Thank you for your interest, but . . ." She and her students then mock the letters, hunting for grammatical errors and silly-sounding bureaucratese.

Andre May, 18, stared at his bedroom ceiling and prayed when Washington University rejected him. Classmate Cassetta Johnson, 18, couldn't eat after Southern Illinois University at Carbondale refused her.

Both danced when they got thick envelopes from their second-choice schools - for Andre, Kemper Military School and College in Boonville, Mo.; for Cassetta, Blackburn College in Carlinville, Ill.

I danced with my dog, Smoki, when I got a thick envelope from my second-choice school, Syracuse University in upstate New York. I serenaded Smoki in my off-key, high-pitched voice, singing "New York, New York."

I skipped. I tripped on my big toe. I fell down and laughed. I wasn't doomed to loserdom.

During the two weeks between rejections and Syracuse, I told myself that college didn't always mean success. Maya Angelou, one of my heroes, never went to college, and she could outwrite anyone. I reminded myself of the tons of college graduates who are losers. I forget who my example was then, but today, the Unabomber comes to mind.

But none of that mattered once I got my acceptance letter from Syracuse.

Goodbye, Los Angeles. I lived with you all my life, and I never did like your smog or your earthquakes. Besides, if you don't want me in your school, then you are the big loser.

I'm going to Syracuse to see snow and become a brain.

And I did.