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Tao WuWei

How To Non-Game The New College Admissions System: A Taoist Reflection On True Excellence

COVID-19 has brought many challenges and changes to education, but perhaps none so welcome as the toll COVID has taken on standardized tests. With thousands of students unable to safely access the ACT or SAT, colleges have been forced to adapt their admissions requirements, a change that is both needed and overdue. Our hope is the new models are here to stay. And while some (read: those who test well) find standardized tests to be “no big deal,” the stress, pressure, and systemic inequity of standardized tests should have long ago made them a thing of the past. 

Without a standardized test score, many colleges and universities have been forced to put more emphasis on more personal aspects of their applications, including letters of recommendation, essays, course selection, creative problems and solutions, portfolios, and interviews. Ultimately, colleges are looking for someone who can set themselves apart and who offers something truly unique.

So what’s the best way to meet this new, more personalized standard of excellence?

In Taoism, wu wei refers to the practice of “doing by nondoing” — following a natural path rather than fighting nature. A wu wei approach to college admissions involves embracing your own nature, doing the things you’re genuinely passionate about, and capturing and documenting that passion for colleges to appreciate. Actual caring leads, inevitably and without painful, self-alienating effort, to an impressive and authentic resume and portfolio of achievements.

The hard part is to identify those passions. In a school that prescribes your path — dictating that you take this predetermined sequence of classes, complete such-and-such number of AP classes with fixed and uninspiring curricula, or write on the same essay prompt as every other student — you’re more or less on your own to work out the “true passion” piece. Many students in these programs simply default to conformity and people-pleasing in the guise of true passion, and colleges are savvy enough to see past the pretense. The real college admissions challenge is, in the truest sense, an existential one, and most high schools won’t help you solve it.

On the other hand, a school that views education as a set of opportunities for self-discovery, in the context of a vibrant, provocative, meaningful curriculum, will naturally produce applicants colleges recognize as genuine, passionate, and promising. Cutting edge schools offer opportunities for students to: create, rather than merely consume, knowledge; participate authentically in school leadership and transformation; shape the content and approach of the classroom, and publish and share their work with a broader audience.  While still rare, nimble, responsive, student-driven schools represent the future of American education, and they naturally create the types of thinkers and leaders colleges not only accept but fight over.

At Areté, we truly believe in supporting each student’s passions, and guide them to achieve their full potential. Our students find what makes their heart skip a beat and seek a college that matches their interests, strengths, and educational goals. 

We invite you to join us at our lively, student-led open houses with a series of discussion topics sharing our education model.

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