ETS offers personality test for graduate admissions

| Staff Reporter

Educational Testing Service, the company that administers the Graduate Record Exam, is offering a new personality index tool for graduate applications this fall for a fee of $20 per report, but most schools are waiting to see if it is worthwhile.

It is not a test for applicants to take, but rather a tool for recommenders meant to complement traditional letters of recommendation. Up to five recommenders rank the student in a series of 24 statements about soft, or non-cognitive, skills on a scale from 1 (below average) to 5 (truly exceptional). Statements include “produces novel ideas,” “meets deadlines,” “works well under stress,” and “is worthy of trust from others.”

The results are distilled into a report on six traits, including knowledge and creativity, communication skills, teamwork, resilience, planning and organization, and ethics and integrity. The report also displays recommenders’ comments on each category.

Very few graduate programs have adopted the tool this year. The tool, called the “Personality Potential Index (PPI),” was introduced only this summer, and most schools did not hear of it until September, although Virginia Tech is one school that is using it during this application cycle.

Dean Richard Smith of Washington University Graduate School of Arts & Sciences said that the University is not adopting it until it is clear that the index is a good indicator of success in graduate school. He agreed with the intended goals of the test but is waiting for empirical results before adding to the difficulty and expense of graduate admissions.

“They are attempting to deal with a real problem, and that problem is that success…as an undergraduate is a rather poor predictor of success in Ph.D. programs that, like ours, which are deeply research focused, [are] designed to train people to do independent, creative scholarship,” he said.

Another goal of the test is to systematize the recommendation process, he said, since recommendation letters have suffered from inflation recently.

“So if you say in the letter, this is a very good student, you’re damning by faint praise,” Smith said. “The percentage that are in the top 1 to 5 percent greatly exceed 1 to 5 percent.”

But the PPI would mean more work for students, recommenders and admissions committees, so Smith noted it is important to do a cost-benefit analysis if evidence that the tool works does emerge.

The test has met with more skepticism from some. Erik Herzog, associate professor of biology, who has served on graduate admissions committees, questioned the utility of the PPI. He said individual schools’ recommendation forms often ask for similar rankings, but he strongly prioritizes GRE scores and letters of recommendation over them.

Washington University personality psychologist Robert Krueger said the test had the potential to be useful based on his experience, though he has not encountered it yet as a recommender. But like Smith, he is reserving judgment until its predictive power is better known.

Krueger studies the links between individual personality and risk for mental health problems. For instance, people with a more stress-reactive personality, or those who react poorly to stress, are at greater risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders.

In his work, he develops his own measures of personality in addition to using standard tests in the discipline. These include self-report inventories and reports from others, not unlike the basic idea underlying the PPI. Questions are often written in anticipation of the expected responses—he may write statements that he expects anxious people to endorse, for example—in an attempt to figure out if he’s measuring what he thinks he’s measuring, and getting it reliably.

The validity of a given personality test is its success at predicting an outcome, Krueger said. And the more systematic it is, the more predictive it will be.

“It seems like they’re trying to accomplish some kind of organized way of extracting the kind of information you would get from a recommendation…It forces people to consider all of the domains systematically…and my guess is that that’s going to be helpful,” Krueger said.

Students had mixed opinions. David Rheinstrom, a senior planning to apply for M.F.A. programs in a year, said he thought it sounded comparable to other types of application materials and had the potential to be useful or useless.

“I would be inclined to think that somebody’s personality would influence how well you do in grad school,” he said. “It’s probably just another thing to do, but who knows.”

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