Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

‘As a natural leader, he always takes the lead and knows how to motivate others … Curious and creative, he takes the initiative to go off the beaten path. He loves intellectual challenges, which cannot be complex enough for him. His analytical qualities and scientific interests are beyond his years. In addition, he has a strong empathic capacity.”

That’s a fragment from a letter of recommendation written for the son a friend of ours for admission to a very selective private school. Mind you, this is for kindergarten. The boy was five. His intellectual achievements so far consist of stacking blocks. And what toddler does not go off the beaten path, especially at the table with a plate of pasta in front of him or her? Six letters were needed when applying to this school, which the parents had set their sights on. Once he was admitted, they hoped, he would surely be on the fast track to a top-notch high school, then on an Ivy League university.

In America you spend a lot of time crafting recommendation letters. Teachers write for all their students, but parents, friends, alumni, and colleagues are also summoned to duty. It is part of the culture. Everyone is looking for the same qualities: a completely unique person — bursting with leadership ability, analytical insight, creativity, intelligence and passion. If you read the collected letters, everyone is an Einstein or an Oprah. Because, oh woe, if you turn out to be average.

Most people are, of course, average. That’s why averages exist. They’re a bit of this, a bit of that. Not all-stars. But here you have to be all of the above. So the recommenders perjure themselves and gild the lily. Never mind that the empathetic five-year-old probably snatched a puzzle from another child, pulled it apart, and then threw it across the room. Then, at the urging of his panicked mother, was required to say sorry to the screaming girl that the got pieces plastered against her cheek. Creative, excellent, solution-oriented, empathetic thinking — it was all there waiting to be discovered.

America is a little like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” For example, every high school sports team has a closing evening after the season where medals are distributed to kids, friends, parents and grandparents. For everything, not just for winning. For the highest score, the most chances, leadership qualities, empathy, teamwork, insight, etc. In the end everyone gets a medal. All are No. 1.

At one of those evenings, I realized that the parents near me became angry because their son did not descend from the stage with a shiny leadership trophy in his hand. “What a decline,” said the father, a successful plastic surgeon, after his fourteen-year-old son proudly showed him the prize for the most helpful team member. “You have certainly filled the water bottles.” How much would this help his case when applying to the best colleges? Whole generations before him had won the leadership trophy.

At this moment the letter-writing circus is in full swing. Everyone who has applied for something has created a dire shortage of superlatives. Excellent, exemplary, eminent, exceptional, exquisite — the thesaurus has been drained. It is wonderful to see that everyone is special and unique.

Actually, I agree with that.

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Charlotte,” was published in 2017 in the U.S. She can be contacted at piadejong.com.

This article was originally published in the March 2019 Princeton Echo.