For Grad School Hopefuls, a Test of Personality

The PPI, or personal potential index, lets admissions officers assess applicants' personalities.

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Graduate school applicants have long stressed out over the strength of their test scores, college transcripts, and letters of recommendation. Now another less scholastic element might be added to that mix: their personalities.

Based on a decade of research, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) has started offering a Web-based test called the personal potential index, which lets students ask recommenders to rank them in six different areas—knowledge and creativity, communication skills, teamwork, resilience, planning and organization, and ethics and integrity—on a scale of "below average" to "truly exceptional." Students can then electronically send the evaluation reports to their choice of graduate schools, paying $20 per report after the first four.

The 24-question standardized assessment grades students on such qualities as "produces novel ideas" or "is worthy of trust from others" or "works well under stress." Think of it as a Myers-Briggs personality test, but teachers and mentors are the ones filling it out, not the student. And the answers might come back to haunt some disappointed applicants.

"Instead of just saying, 'We'll admit the students with the highest scores,' graduate schools might end up saying, 'We'll admit the students that actually match what our program is going to demand of them,' " says David Payne, vice president of ETS's higher education and school assessments division.

The nonprofit ETS says the evaluation tool was developed in response to requests from graduate deans and admissions professionals for more "noncognitive" measures, sometimes referred to as "soft skills," to evaluate applicants. The company is calling the PPI's launch the first large-scale use of these kinds of measures for admissions in higher education.

Michael Sullivan, program director at Arizona State University's Project 1000, an initiative to increase the number of underrepresented students in graduate school, expects the PPI "to help level the playing field for students who, for whatever reason, have not done particularly well on standardized tests."

"The graduate [school] community has for a very long time been asking for other information in addition to test scores, which obviously don't tell the whole story," says Liora Schmelkin, dean of graduate studies at Hofstra University, which will begin using PPI scores for some of its graduate programs in 2010.

What Do I Need to Know?

The PPI was introduced just this week, so the assessment won't be used by graduate admissions committees to make admittance decisions until at least the spring 2010 admissions cycle. Students applying to graduate school who have already taken the GRE, or who are not required to sit for it, may still use the PPI but must pay a $20 fee for each report they send to graduate schools. (Students can decide after their recommenders complete the online form whether to send it out, although many are likely to waive the right to see the actual results. Click here for more information.)

But the extent to which graduate and professional programs will actually consider or require the PPI assessment is difficult to predict. ETS officials hope that the PPI will become widely accepted over the next couple of years—and eventually be used at the undergraduate level, too. ETS hopes that schools will start to use the PPI as a tool to identify applicants who possess the somewhat-hard-to-measure ideals and ethics that a particular program might require. "If a business school program entails a large amount of teamwork projects," says Payne, "then they might want to highlight the teamwork score on the PPI."

Is it Really That Important?

Some higher education professionals are skeptical about what effect the PPI might have in graduate admissions, or they question the reasons behind its creation.

L. Katharine Harrington, dean of admissions and financial aid at USC, says she has not been briefed by the ETS about the PPI evaluations. The best recommendations, she says, are individualized faculty letters, and she is unsure if a standardized form would have value.

About 600,000 people a year take the GRE exam—which costs $150—and with the $20 send-out fees the ETS will collect from the PPI, ETS officials say they will make some extra revenue from the new tool. But money was not the motivation, they say. A driving factor was the effort to reduce the attrition rate among graduate students. Data from the Washington-based Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), a research and advocacy organization, show that only 57 percent of doctoral students receive their Ph.D. within 10 years. Medical students, on the other hand, have a 97 percent graduation rate within 10 years, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

"That means we're admitting students who clearly are smart enough and have the academic credentials to succeed, but other things are impacting their performance," says Payne. At the University of California-Davis, graduate studies dean Jeffery Gibeling says he is looking forward to adopting the PPI. He says that although letters of recommendation can capture similar information, there is so much variability in the way letters are written that he wonders whether they reflect the skills and commitment of the faculty writing them or that of the applicants.

ETS officials say the index is not meant to replace recommendation letters but rather provide a much-needed standardization—giving every school the same type of information.

Should I Use the PPI Evaluation?

Because the test is brand new, few schools have adopted it as a prominent decision-making tool. Following the recommendations of the schools to which you're applying and giving the form to your undergraduate mentors and professors most likely to give you good ratings will be the best way to go.

Over 200 M.B.A. business programs now accept the GRE exam as an alternative to the GMAT—including five of the top 10 global M.B.A. programs—so a range of graduate school applicants will have the opportunity to use the PPI.

Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, hopes that the PPI will encourage students to consider not just the "best" school but the best fit for them.

To examine the PPI's effectiveness, the ETS will perform research with graduate and professional programs once they start using the scores. Payne says the ETS plans to investigate which of the six PPI areas are associated with success for different schools' programs and the students they admit. Ultimately, this might change how graduate applicants approach the search process.

"It could cause students to say, 'If this school requires a strong dimension of teamwork, and that's not my forte, maybe this isn't the school I should apply to,' " says Payne. "'Maybe I should apply to another school that really emphasizes creativity.'"