'I'd 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 this 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.