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Graduate Schools Quantify Your Potential

Some graduate school admissions offices rely on the Personal Potential Index to assess applicants.

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In July 2009, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the nonprofit educational testing and research organization that administers the GRE, began offering the Personal Potential Index. This new evaluation tool is designed to quantify a student's abilities in six areas: knowledge and creativity, communication skills, teamwork, resilience, planning and organization, and ethics and integrity. At no extra charge, Graduate school candidates who take the GRE can ask recommenders to rate them on a web-based form, and may send up to four reports to schools. The form asks recommenders to rate the student from "below average" to "truly exceptional" regarding 24 statements, which include "is among the most honest people I know" and "works well under stress." For those who aren't taking the GRE, but who wish to submit a PPI, the cost is $20 per report. 

[Learn more about the PPI.] 

In its brief existence, the PPI has gained momentum in the graduate school admissions world. More than 13,000 students have established PPI accounts, according to Kate Kazin, executive director of strategic initiatives and strategic relations for ETS. Though ETS has no official statistics on the number of schools integrating PPI results into their admissions process, Kazin claims that students are sending PPI results to a large number of graduate programs, and she predicts more schools will utilize the PPI in coming years. "I'm expecting quite a few more schools are going to go in that direction in the near future," she says. "There's a tremendous amount of interest in it." 

One of the most prominent programs to integrate PPI results into their admissions process is the University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business. The school began accepting PPI evaluations in the 2010-11 admissions cycle and even went as far as to ask for two PPI evaluations in lieu of letters of recommendation.

[Learn more about securing the best letters of recommendation.] 

Brian Lohr, Mendoza's director of M.B.A. admissions, claims that the recommender's ability to quantitatively evaluate an applicant is far more useful than the typically generic, glowing assessments found in letters of recommendation. The only time he claims he's found traditional letters of recommendation useful comes in the rare instance when the recommender offers a negative assessment. "Nine-point-nine times out of 10 [the letter] would say they're perfect students who go out of their way to walk little old ladies across the street," Lohr says. "[But, the PPI] gives valuable insight into the applicants." 

[Get application advice from M.B.A. admissions officials.] 

At the University of Central Florida, Ph.D students in the engineering program are offered full tuition and health insurance in exchange for their research efforts. Given the large investment the school makes in each student, administrators in the engineering program wanted as much information as possible on each applicant and began requiring the PPI as a result. The Ph.D students are required to do much more than simply get good grades and study diligently, and UCF officials believe the work ethic, teamwork, and resilience metrics measured by the PPI can provide a solid forecast of an applicant's ability to thrive in a high-pressure research environment. 

Thus far, 12 graduate level programs at UCF have adopted the PPI into their admissions process, and school officials expect more to follow suit. "Most students that have gone to graduate school or gotten good grades as undergraduates are clearly good at taking courses," says Patricia Bishop, dean of UCF's College of Graduate Studies. "But what's not clear is whether students will be successful at doing research. The things the PPI measures are the very skills that will help people understand whether a student may be successful doing research."

PPI scores are also being used to evaluate nontraditional students, particularly adult learners who are years removed from the classroom setting. At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the PPI is required for admission for graduate students attending the school's Hartford, Conn. campus, the bulk of whom are part-time adult learners. Stanley Dunn, dean of graduate education at Rensselaer, claims that the skills adult learners hone while in the workforce aren't necessarily reflected by traditional tests like the GRE and GMAT, citing Rensselaer applicants who have served in the military and are returning to school later in life.