"I would like to congratulate you on raising an exceptional student,” read the letter from a Midwestern college I’d never heard of before. “Because I’m impressed by your son, I offer to send a guide to help with the college selection process.”
A booklet, as glossy as a fashion magazine, slipped out of the envelope and fell on the floor. Its title: “The Best and the Brightest. How America’s Top Students Choose Their Ideal College.”
What? Were they talking about my 15-year-old, with his bright eyes, pimples and tousled hair, just a 10th-grader at a New Jersey public high school? My son is still a kid who plays hide-and-seek in the fresh snow and hunches over family board games on Sunday nights. His arms are too long, dangling in the way when he tries to give me a kiss. The other night he asked me how old I was when I first fell in love.
Yet this college already found him exceptional. The letter continued: “As one of America’s top national universities, according to U.S. News & World Report, we have the resources to provide your son with a world-class education under the instruction of professors who are top experts in their fields.”
Cheerful letters from other schools soon followed, more than 40 of them so far. After I opened a few, I noticed they were very much alike. “Congratulations!” “You must be very proud!” “I invite your family to visit our campus.”
I began to understand that maybe we weren’t so exceptional after all — that thousands of kids across the country were being bombarded by the same direct-mail campaigns. And that the most elite schools don’t need to market themselves that way. I wrapped a rubber band around the pile of letters and put them in a drawer. It was my introduction to the bewildering world of American college admissions, and I didn’t know what to make of it.
My husband and I moved our family from Amsterdam to the States in the summer of 2012. We took the kids out of their Dutch gymnasium — an Old World school where students focus on Latin and Greek. A trip to Rome is the reward at the end of the six years, when they can read all those ancient inscriptions.
The Dutch education system has its flaws, but it is relatively straightforward. When children are about 12, at the end of their primary education, they sit for a national exam. Based in part on their results, about 20 percent of them go on to a secondary education that prepares them for a research university. The rest follow a curriculum geared toward trade schools. There is an obvious downside to this system: It closes off opportunities early. If you’re a late bloomer, it’s possible, but not easy, to switch from the trade school to the university track.
But if you’re on the university track, you can go to almost any university you want. Of course, there are some requirements. To study medicine, you need to have taken biology and physics, which you don’t need for law. (In Holland, as in most of Europe, there is no liberal arts curriculum at the university level, and most students declare a major right from the start.) Sometimes, if there are too many kids applying to medicine or a popular field such as psychology, there is a weighted lottery that favors students with the best grades. In the end, however, almost all students end up in the place of their choosing. There is little stress, and thanks to government support, it is affordable for just about everyone.
Yet my husband and I led our kids off this paved path and instead found ourselves wading through a thicket of baffling vocabulary. Early Decision? Early Action? We weren’t prepared for what seemed to be a grim, winner-take-all test of character. We were taken off guard by all the pressure put on kids, and all the anxiety and guilt among parents.
Going to college seems to be the most talked-about subject among people with kids around the same age as ours. And by now we’ve heard plenty of stories feeding fears that your child will be left behind, will miss out on the best education and, therefore, will see his life ruined before it even begins. “All is lost,” a friend wrote to me after her daughter missed the deadlines for many of her college applications, had a meltdown and dropped out of her private school. My friend’s sentence made me wonder: What exactly did she mean by “all”?
It doesn’t help that we’re in Princeton, N.J., where it’s especially clear how competitive American college admissions can be. Last year, Princeton University received 26,498 applications, and only 1,291 students entered the Class of 2017. That’s less than 5 percent of applicants — or about 0.03 percent of kids in the United States turning 18 that year.
I’ve tried to maintain some skepticism, to resist getting too caught up in it all. I managed to keep my jealousy more or less in check when a friend e-mailed that her youngest was just admitted early at Yale, like her brother and sister before her. What a lucky mom to have such super-smart wonder kids — and to understand how to navigate the system.
At the same time, I don’t want my kids to lose out on a good education because of their parents’ ignorance or because our sense of adventure involved moving three teenagers across the Atlantic at a critical age.
“You definitely should see a private college counselor,” a friend of mine told me. “You need help. It will cost you thousands of dollars, but it is well worth it. You can start with a free consultation.”
So my son and I found ourselves sitting in the well-appointed office of a man asking what my son wanted to do with his life. “I have no idea,” my son sighed, in the same tone I used when I was that age to answer annoying aunts. How could anyone know? Albert Einstein had no idea he would one day become Albert Einstein.
“Well, what are your interests?” the counselor asked.
His interests range from learning more about the stars to studying card tricks, from a fascination with the idea of infinity to playing Xbox. Afterward, the consultant said: “Your son has to learn to focus more. He is just drifting through life.”
But what’s wrong with a bit of drifting?
So much of the American college admissions process seems to be about checking the right boxes — and knowing the right boxes to check. On Sundays, my son plays sports with special-needs kids. When I asked if we could do something special for a boy he was assigned to work with, he looked at me, puzzled. “It would be nice,” he said, “but I would look totally stupid. Nobody does things like that. You have to have this done before 11th grade starts.”
I have no doubt that my son enjoys those Sundays. But I worry that this system, which seems to value gamesmanship over anything else, is sapping his idealism and diminishing the enchantment of his adolescence.
And what do we take from the knowledge that two of the most successful entrepreneurs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, dropped out of Harvard? The world is waiting for people who are fully alive, who are proud of their individuality, who are not afraid to be creative. We shouldn’t deny kids the chance to mess around, to make mistakes, to inhale life in big gulps.
Recently I went to hear a concert played by the orchestra at our local high school. It was beautifully done, Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, at a near-professional level. But it was strangely joyless.
It wasn’t until I attended my daughter’s middle school band concert, with all its toots and missed notes — amid raucous laughter from the musicians — that I knew what was missing.
The American education system in general, and the college admissions process in particular, seem intent on creating cautious, careerist adults-in-training. I’m reminded of the children in stylized 17th-century Dutch paintings. They’re typically depicted standing ramrod-straight in clutter-free rooms and dressed like mini grown-ups. The girls are in long dresses, embellished with lace, impossible to run around in. The boys wear suits with starched collars that would make it hard to even turn their heads. Their faces show none of the pink blush of kids who have been playing outside.
A good education is about timing, willingness, openness. Looking at the stress we’re putting on kids to get into college, I wonder: Are we, as their parents, so pleased with our lives that we want to rush our kids to have the same?
Pia de Jong is a Dutch novelist whose works include Lange Dagen (“Long Days”), Verso Nord (“Toward North”) and Dieptevrees (“Fear of Depths”). She wrote this for The Washington Post.