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March 07, 2010

Steve Green on the GRE'S PPI

Below, Steve Green discusses the PPI.  If you are taking GRE, this is a post worth reading. 

Did you sign up for the GRE?  If so, then you have the option to register for the Personal Potential Index (PPI)

Disclaimer:  For four of the past five years ETS has hired me to be a reader for College Board Advanced Placement exams in the subject of Comparative Government and Politics.  My work with ETS has been limited to this exam only and is unrelated in any way to all other ETS exams, including the GRE.  The opinions expressed in this blog post are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of ETS.

Last summer the Educational Testing Service (ETS) released the Personal Potential Index, which its website advertises as the “First Large-Scale System for Evaluating Personal Attributes.”  The aim of the PPI is to provide schools and applicants with an additional method for assessing the likelihood of graduate success. This new index originated in Project 1000, a decade-long study at Arizona State University that researched evaluations with an aim to increasing the number of underrepresented groups in graduate programs.  Anyone who registers for the GRE may also sign up for the PPI at no additional cost.   Others, including anyone who took the GRE before May 1, 2009, must pay a fee of $20.  In this post I'm going to summarize what the PPI is and why ETS produced it and then I'll offer my opinion on who, if anyone, should register for it.

The PPI produces a score based on assessments of six attributes:  knowledge & creativity, ethics & integrity, communication skills, teamwork, resilience and planning and organization.  Up to 5 people – chosen by the applicant- use a numerical scale to evaluate the applicant on each of these attributes as well as add additional comments.  The PPI asks the evaluator to score the applicant in relation to other university students the evaluator has known.  The mean scores of each attribute plus an overall score represents the PPI, which, along with comments from evaluators, is sent to graduate schools.  

The PPI is not an aptitude test and does not require any action on the part of an applicant beyond providing contact information for up to 5 evaluators and list of up to four schools to receive the results.

Applicants select up to 5 evaluators who can rate the applicant on the 6 attributes listed above by assigning a value of 1 to 5 on four variables for each attribute. Variables include “Is intensely curious about the field” (knowledge & creativity), “speaks in a way that is interesting” (communication skills) and “behaves in an open and friendly manner” (teamwork), along with 21 other variables.  Click here to watch a short ETS video about how the PPI works.   Go to the ETS PPI Main Page to find links to a sample PPI report, such as would be sent to a graduate school, as well as to a copy of the evaluation report and the 24 variables listed on it.

When you register for the GRE you can set up an online account for the PPI at ETS (go the PPI Main Page).  In your account you list graduate schools you would like to receive your PPI score as well as provide the contact information for up to 5 evaluators. (ETS will send reports to 4 schools for no extra charge and to additional schools for $20 each.)  Although you have the right to view each evaluator’s assessment of you, you have the option to waive that right.

You may produce different PPI reports that are completed by different evaluators: You are not limited to the same evaluators for every report.  ETS allows you to choose up to 25 different people to evaluate you within the PPI system.   Therefore, if you decide to register for the PPI, then I suggest you strategize about whom and which combination of potential evaluators would be best for you for each program.  Obviously, you will need to think carefully about who can say what about you- and for which programs those assessments might matter most. In theory, your positive attributes should be universally valued. In fact, your evaluation will reflect your best skills as they were seen in a particular time and place.  If you have a lot of professional experience but are applying
Apparently, the PPI is required by some graduate programs but is optional at most.  You will have to check with your target programs to find out. ETS did not seem interested in sharing with me which schools actually require the PPI.  Last September, I contacted Mark I. McNutt, Manager, Media & External Relations for ETS, and asked him if he could provide a list of schools that accept or require the PPI.  He said he did not have that data available and, although he kindly sent me a link to press releases later, he did not send me the list of programs that accept or require the PPI.    That was in September, 2009.   Now, in March, 2010, I cannot find that information on the website. (I also notice that the press releases have not been updated since July, 2009.) 
I provide a list below of reasons why you may or may not wish to request a PPI score.

Before asking 5 people to devote time to trying to evaluate you on 24 different variables you should FIND OUT IF YOUR TARGET PROGRAM EVEN CARES.   If the departments to which you are applying don't require the PPI then you may gain NO STRATEGIC ADVANTAGE BY SUBMITTING A SCORE.  After all, the adcom cannot fairly judge others compared to your PPI if no one else submits one (because no one else has to submit one) but IF a school accepts your PPI, and you want to submit one, then great- please proceed to the next section

  • One or more of your target schools accepts a PPI report AND/OR
  • You believe your personal traits distinguish you:  You feel like your GPA and GRE scores alone, or in combination with each other, do not accurately represent your potential for success and you believe some combination of the 6 attributes measured on the PPI contributed to your academic and/or professional success as much if not more than your intellectual ability alone AND/OR
  • The PPI can shine the spotlight on those personal attributes you describe in your statement of purpose (SOP).  Since a good SOP contains detailed examples of personal traits that, in addition to brainpower, drive your accomplishments, the PPI can offer not only collaborating evidence to your claims, but additional evidence of other exceptional traits.  (After all, you cannot write about all 6 personal attributes much less the 24 ways they are measured on the PPI evaluation.)

If PPI is an option and not a requirement, then I think you should register for it IF and ONLY IF one of the two points above applies to you.   In that case, be sure you can identify between 3 and 5 people in a position to carefully evaluate the 6 attributes of the index.   I think one or two evaluators are insufficient to provide enough additional information about you. Three or more can illustrate a pattern to your personal qualities, especially in combination with the contents of your recommendation letters.   However, quality, not quantity, is the most important factor to consider when seeking evaluators so only choose those best positioned to judge your personal attributes in relation to others.  Such people include a university professor, a supervisor, a coach or director, or a mentor, among possible others.  As with recommendation letter writers, do not ask family members or friends to complete a PPI evaluation for you. Obviously, if you can identify a larger pool of potential evaluators then you will be able to consider who and what combination of people will help you most for each particular program.  

  • It is not accepted by your target schools AND/OR
  • You do not believe you can obtain helpful evaluations from at least 3-5 people for any reason AND/OR
  • You do not believe it would be an accurate measurement of your potential AND/OR
  • You have a high GRE score, excellent GPA and reasonably expect supportive letters of recommendation then you may reasonably conclude that you not need to provide additional evidence of your potential for success.  

ATTENTION APPLICANTS FROM CULTURES WHERE IT IS DIFFICULT TO OBTAIN THE "STANDARD" 2-3 LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATIONS:   If you come from a society in which professional supervisors and academic advisers are reluctant to write letters or recommendation and/or will simply not support an employee's or a student's plans to leave their current institution for oversees study, then THE PPI PROBABLY IS NOT FOR YOU.   I think this issue is a potential BLIND SPOT FOR ETS's plans to make the PPI a commonly used tool by graduate programs.   It is already difficult to the point of impossible for applicants in some cultures to obtain 2-3 conventional letters or recommendations from the person best positioned to comment authoritatively and in detail about them.   Finding a substitute for a supervisor that is acceptable to their target programs is already a challenge.   To expect these same applicants to feel comfortable asking an additional 3-5 people to evaluate them would put them in a highly uncomfortable position within their own culture.  In other words,  if the PPI becomes a requirement, then it will put many international applicants at a serious disadvantage.  (I cannot imagine too many US graduate programs want to risk a decline in international applicants so my guess is they are resisting any requests to make the PPI a requirement.)

I work with many international clients who face enormous difficulties obtaining recommendation letters from their supervisors because the supervisor opposes their plans and might fire them if they do not get into a program or because the supervisor is simply too busy to bother take the time to help someone who is planning to leave "the team." Furthermore, asking someone to write a recommendation letter and/or complete an evaluation for a grad program is considered an imposition: Many try to avoid fulfilling such requests and many try to avoid asking more than the absolute minimal number necessary. 

In conclusion, as my comments above suggest, I am not convinced the PPI is useful for most people, especially for many international applicants.

The ETS website contains this endorsement of the PPI from Michael J. Sullivan, Director of the Hispanic Research Center, and Program Director of Project 1000, Arizona State University:  "I expect the ETS Personal Potential Index to help level the playing field for students who… have not done particularly well on standardized tests…. Having the PPI evaluation as an option helps to show a broader picture of the applicant — that they're more than a GRE score."

Carol Lynch, who is Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder and who has served on the Board of Directors of the Council of Graduate Schools, as well as the GRE Board. According to Inside Higher Ed, she expressed that one motivation [for creating the PPI] was dissatisfaction with letters of recommendation. ‘Some of the things we're trying to get at here appear in some letters, but most do not; some letters are helpful [in making decisions] and some are not…There are some busy faculty members who write the same letters for every student.  And it's amazing how many students are in the top 10 percent" of those taught by those writing letters. By asking very specific questions in the index, the new measure should yield better information.
In contrast, according to US News & World Report, the University of Southern California’s dean of admissions and financial aid, L. Katherine Harrington, believes the best recommendations are individualized letters and is not sure a standardize form would have any value.
A more generalized criticism comes from Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.  He told Inside Higher Ed, “it is difficult to differentiate between genuine attempts to improve the admissions process and calculated efforts to sell more products.”  

 For questions regarding this post, please contact me at h.steven.green@gmail.com. To learn more about my graduate admissions consulting services, please click here.
- H. Steven ("Steve") Green, グリーン・ハロルド・スティーブン

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