Stand Out Without Standardized Tests: Cultivate your Interesting-ness

NewsStaci Hill and Jin Chow

As UC’s and small liberal arts colleges phase out standardized testing, project-based learning is on the rise.

It was an announcement that was embraced by many: the University of California said it will phase out the dreaded SAT and ACT as a requirement to apply to its system of 10 schools. The UC colleges are not the only ones, though. They’re following in the footsteps of many small liberal arts colleges in the US.


The NYT reports that this decision will likely accelerate momentum amid US colleges to move away from standardized testing. After all, “Standardized test scores are just one component of a complex admissions formula, which includes more than a dozen metrics....” This complex admissions formula has perplexed students for decades. At least, it was believed that standardized test scores were a way for students to gauge which schools were safely within reach. Perhaps, no longer.

With standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT out the window, many students are wondering what they can do to distinguish themselves from other applicants. We have some good news: what will make your application stand out amongst the crowd is something far beyond the test scores of yester-year. We’ve stolen this advice from one of our favorite authors on high school student success: Cal Newport.

Newport is a Georgetown University Professor and the author of multiple books specifically written for the ambitious and eager teen who has an eye towards collegiate and career success. In his book, How to be a High School Superstar he proposes and explains a fool-proof method for gaming the college admissions process while coasting through your high school years (i.e., sleeping 8 hours a day, getting good grades, enjoying it all, and still getting into your dream school). His recipe is: take easier classes and channel your energy towards one focused, deliberate out-of-school project.

Notice how he doesn’t call it an extracurricular activity. Colleges are already flooded with the same student extracurricular resumes: team captain, musical lead, student government, model UN, and a summer community service trip with Habitat for Humanity. What you need to stand out, Newport says (and we totally agree), is a hobby, a pursuit, a project that showcases who you are, what you care about, and what you choose to do in your spare-time. Newport says such projects cultivate “interesting-ness.” Interestingness is the special sauce that helps students with decent scores and GPAs get into their dream schools.

Interestingness is what makes you stand out. And the great news is: the way to cultivate interestingness is to pursue your genuine interests. Interestingness is wrapped up in the complex 12+ category formula that admissions officers are using today. Interestingness is the quality that lets you write a common application essay that seems new, fresh, and different. Interestingness is what lets you crush your interview because you have genuine interests that you’ve pursued that you can teach someone else about. Interestingness is what makes you stand out among other commonplace applications.

Unfortunately, the school system and extracurricular options are rigged against interesting-ness. You’ve been told to over-commit yourself so that you don’t have time to explore your unique passions and interests. You’ve been told to take the most difficult course load possible to demonstrate you can handle the rigor of a college schedule. You’ve been told to fight for leadership roles that countless other students have taken and passed on before you.

With Polygence, you get to explore your own interests in the most rigorous way. You develop and execute a project on a topic of your choosing. Whether you’re interested in more traditional academic subjects like math, biology, literature, or more unconventional disciplines like fashion design, robotics, and sports analytics, you will be matched with an expert in that field. You’ll work through the relevant literature, techniques, software, and computational methods. And, you’ll finish Polygence with a tangible final product that you can showcase and even continue improving after your program is over. That is, you finish Polygence with a key to interestingness that will unlock many more doors.

With standardized tests off the table, this advice is imperative. To stand out without standardized tests, and still display your academic potential, an intellectual project that you enjoy, take ownership over, and cultivate from the ground up is your ticket to a strong admissions profile and greater life success. We call this ticket Polygence.

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