The Psychology of Self-Teaching: Why Testing Out Makes You A Dream Hire

This is a guest post written by Jay Cross, Founder of The DIY Degree.

Today, I’m going to assume you already know the practical, bottom-line benefits of earning your degree via examination. Graduating quicker, savings tens of thousands of dollars, skipping tedious classes: all worthy motivators, but as someone who earned his own degree this way, I can promise you there’s an even stronger perk that virtually everyone ignores.

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A self-directed approach to college says something about you as a person. It makes you a creative, entrepreneurial problem solver that any employer would be lucky to hire.

I realize this is a rather unusual claim, so I hope you’ll let me explain what it means for your own scholastic journey.

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The most fascinating part of my job is reading the opinions of people who have never heard of testing out before.

Two polarized criticisms show up in the comments of every blog post I write.

The first group of critics say: “testing out is a shortcut!” To them, studying independently until you can pass a rigorous, nationally standardized exam is equivalent to “taking the easy way out” in your studies.

Here’s an example of such a remark from a recent post I wrote for The Art of Manliness.

Amazingly, though, just as many people chime in with criticisms of a totally opposite nature!

The second group says: “most students are too stupid for testing out!” These folks have placed self-teaching on a pedestal, convincing themselves that only geniuses can do it and deeming all others incapable.

What should be obvious to you -- although it rarely dawns on the critics themselves -- is how these criticisms totally contradict each other!

If testing out really were “just a shortcut,” then all the kids who could “barely spell their names right” would be doing it in droves.

So why aren’t they?

What is testing out really like?

Students who have earned credit by exam know that it’s neither a shortcut nor impossible. It’s something in between: a uniquely challenging experience that separates you from traditional students.

Self-reliance, curiosity, resourcefulness: the traits employers desperately crave

Imagine you are a hiring manager at Google. Your job description? Recruiting the brightest minds in the world to improve the top search engine in the world. What distinguishes the few amazing candidates from the thousands who apply?

If you answered “a degree from a top school,” you would have been right until recently. For over a decade, Forbes explains, Google made academic pedigree its chief hiring criteria:

“Pretty much all of Google’s senior talent has a knock-your-socks-off resume.  If you had had a meeting with any of them as a Google hiring manager before they joined the Googleplex, you would have blown away:  Ivy League and other prestigious colleges and graduate schools, Rhodes Scholars, McKinsey stints, times working for Larry Summers as Chief-of-Staff in DC.”

Think of it as scholastic segregation: GPAs below four need not apply. This, we all assumed, was the secret sauce behind Google’s meteoric rise. 

Except it wasn’t.

In a penetrating New York Times interview, Laszlo Bock (Google’s Senior VP of People Operations, aka top hiring boss) admitted that GPAs were “worthless” and “predicted nothing” about job performance. Some of Google’s academic geniuses became top performers for the company, but plenty of lackluster students did as well. It was a stark confession from Bock and a swift blow to our assumptions about college.

College and the workplace, after all, are fundamentally different. It’s like comparing the NCAA to the NFL. Every year, fans are astonished when top amateur athletes — All-Americans, Heisman Trophy winners, conference MVPs — struggle mightily in the pros.

Fans who understand the gulf between amateur and professional football know better. NFL players are bigger, stronger and faster. The fans are bloodthirsty and impatient. The coaches have a week to prepare for you, not two days.

It’s a steep learning curve even for elite collegians.

Being an academic superstar is great, but the unemployment line is full of straight A students who couldn’t hack it on the job. The skills that served them well in school -- following directions, writing papers, sitting still -- were not enough for the new game being played around them.

After years of paying attention to things that don’t predict extraordinary performance, Google has finally identified what does. Not coincidentally, they are the same entrepreneurial traits students develop by taking a self-taught, exam-based path to graduation.

#1: Self-Reliance

What companies like Google are really looking for is the kind of person who takes ownership of a project and knocks it out of the park. Too often, meetings go nowhere because employees tiptoe around problems, hiding behind deflective statements like “let’s ask the boss” or “someone needs to figure this out.” (“Someone”, of course, meaning “anyone but me.”) These employees would rather be stagnant than risk embarrassment. The best employees think of solutions and move forward even if they might be wrong later on.

“I just went ahead and did it” is the mating call a self-reliant person uses to impress dream companies like Google.

#2: Curiosity

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Google doesn’t pay employees to perform tasks at prescribed times – to be an algorithm themselves. They want creative and curious thinkers who can reinvent their entire job description if that’s what it takes to achieve a breakthrough. Raising your hand won’t help at work. There are neither “right answers” nor professors to read them to you. Instead, the top performers are powered by their curiosity and an innate desire to solve problems for fun, like a child piecing a puzzle together.

“I’ll figure it out” is the mating call of a curious person.

#3: Resourcefulness

Google also wants people who can make things happen under seemingly impossible circumstances. Henry Ford couldn’t afford the materials to build his automobiles. So how did Ford Motor become one of America’s most iconic companies? Resourcefulness. Employing a strategy known as “cash floats,” Ford persuaded dealers to pay for his cars ahead of time while convincing suppliers to extend him credit. Now, Ford could obtain his parts, build the cars and sell them before expenses came due. Before long, the company was self-sufficient.   

Top performers know how to adapt, improvise and overcome. That’s why the mating call of a resourceful person is “I’ll make this work.”

At the end of his Times interview, Bock lamented that many universities “don’t deliver on what they promise. You generate a ton of debt; you don’t learn the most useful things for your life. It’s [just] an extended adolescence.”

To be clear, though, Bock wasn’t saying you shouldn’t go to college at all. After pointing out that “good grades don’t hurt,” he quickly added a qualifier: “if your good grades truly reflect skills...that you can apply, it would be an advantage.”

This is why self-directing your degree by testing out is so powerful. It offers you the opportunity to learn in ways that develop these highly valuable traits!

The ownership mentality: how credit by exam prepares you for taking charge instead of following orders

Students who earn official credit for what they teach themselves develop an ownership mentality. They have to. It’s impossible to graduate without one. When you trade professors and classrooms for the will to work hard and a library card, it’s all on you.

I learned my lesson the hard way when I took my first DSST exam. The subject was “Business Law 2”, and I assumed -- naively -- that I could study for it in two weeks. So I called the test center and scheduled my exam date accordingly.

“No problem”, I thought. “I live for the big moment. Let’s do this!”

Now, keep in mind what DSST tests are. They cover a full semester of coursework (four months) in a single exam.

I had to learn that material in two weeks. Imagine taking an end-of-semester final based solely on what you taught yourself in that short window of time. Most students would find this highly unusual. If testing out didn’t save lots of time and money, who would bother?

Yet because of these self-imposed constraints, I wound up learning far more than business law. I got a warp-speed clinic in the traits employers crave:

Self-Reliance: My two week deadline forced me to aggressively prioritize studying, curtail my social life, and devote six hours to focused, thoughtful note-taking every single day.

Curiosity: The massive amount of material required engaging my brain on a deeper level, asking questions most students never think about and conceptualizing ideas for supreme comprehension.

Resourcefulness: With no professor to hold my hand, and nothing but a broad topic outline of what would appear on my test, I had to carefully evaluate different study resources in order to track down the exact information I needed.

I would love to tell you that test was easy, that I knew I would ace it all along. But that would be a lie. My first DSST wore me out. It was intellectually humbling, which is a subset of curiosity and another characteristic sought by top companies. As Bock elaborated, “successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure.”

Absent these humbling experiences, students fall prey to the “fundamental attribution error,” which is a fancy way of saying they pat themselves on the back during good times and scapegoat others when things go wrong.

Intellectual humility – like the kind I developed teaching myself under crushing deadlines – forces a person to own their successes and failures equally.

Now imagine going through such a rigorous process not just once, but five, ten, or fifteen times. It requires a degree of discipline most students have never exercised before.

I didn’t just save time and money by testing out. I became a demonstrably stronger performer.

It was as if college stopped being college and morphed into a startup that would go bankrupt unless I creatively kept it alive.

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If you remember one thing from this post, let it be this: the value of testing out transcends the subjects you learn. Constraining yourself, tackling ambiguity, and performing successfully is also a highly accurate simulation of life in a demanding creative workplace.

Showing up to class twice a week and completing a worksheet is not.

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Jay Cross is the Founder of DIY Degree, a program that helps students earn real, accredited bachelor’s degrees by taking exams at their own pace—instead of taking classes at a college’s pace. The program includes a private “members only” forum, study resources for passing your exams, a personalized “progress tracker” to show how close you are to graduating, and post-graduation advice. Learn more here.

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