The standard analysis pipeline for single-cell RNA-seq data consists of sequential steps initiated by clustering the cells. An innate limitation of this pipeline is that an imperfect clustering result can irreversibly affect the succeeding steps. For example, there can be cell types not well distinguished by clustering because they largely share the global structure, such as the anterior primitive streak and mid primitive streak cells. If one searches differentially expressed genes (DEGs) solely based on clustering, marker genes for distinguishing these types will be missed. Moreover, clustering depends on many parameters and can often be subjective to manual decisions. To overcome these limitations, we propose MarcoPolo, a method that identifies informative DEGs independently of prior clustering. MarcoPolo sorts out genes by evaluating if the distributions are bimodal, if similar expression patterns are observed in other genes, and if the expressing cells are proximal in a low-dimensional space. Using real datasets with FACS-purified cell labels, we demonstrate that MarcoPolo recovers marker genes better than competing methods. Notably, MarcoPolo finds key genes that can distinguish cell types that are not distinguishable by the standard clustering. MarcoPolo is built in a convenient software package that provides analysis results in an HTML file.