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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brooks, Ph.D.


What is a Personal Index Score (PIS), why does it matter for college applications, and what are three contributing elements? - Post #11 of 21

Standardized Test Answer Sheet

Chess teaches us that every problem should be worked backwards. All the students in my afterschool chess classes understand that they should visualize the checkmate, then build the components that make that happen. My long-time students in summer chess camps and Varsity advanced chess classes get that we all must be proactive in everything we do. This is the mantra of chess, and luckily for those interested in admission to an elite university, it is also the mantra for college admission. In other words, get inside the head of the college admissions counselor who is the handler for your section of the alphabet. What are they looking for? The stark reality is that whatever it is that they are looking for, you have to be that thing. This is pure logic. Fortunately, they are looking for a breathtaking variety of sparkling contributors to their campus, and one of these types is you!

The problem is that what they are looking for are actually the characteristics, traits, and talents of hundreds of thousands of kids. So, perhaps reluctantly or perhaps with no compunction at all, all college admissions departments when making their selections have to apply the great sifter of the AIS: the Academic Index Score discussed in the previous few posts. That means during the first round of eliminations the weighing of nosebleed-high grades and even higher ACT scores is necessary to cull down their 50,000 applicants to about 10,000. Those are far better odds. Your high GPA and ACT have put you into the second round. Now what?

So, let’s say you followed all 32 steps which were enumerated and detailed in the previous blog post to make very high grades in high school. Let’s say you have a 4.6 GPA. Are nosebleed-high grades completely sufficient? Definitely not.

Your high ACT and GPA, we can hope, have allowed you to gain entrance into the rare inner chamber where your 10,000 fellow-overachiever finalists vie for the coveted 5000 admissions spots. It’s a cool room, admit it, but it is simply the antechamber before the promised land. How exactly do admissions officers cull down the final swollen group to their entering class of 5000 (or whatever their target size is) for the upcoming academic year?

The answer is that these committees ultimately apply one metric: is this applicant an indispensable contribution and addition to our student body? Do we crave that this candidate be among the freshmen who are strolling the campus this fall? Your job on your college application is to present them with a candidate who is indisputably indispensable. Colleges crave variety, since that is where the sparks in a real classroom come from, so you must stand out. But you need not just stand out, you need to throb like a lighthouse, a beacon that promises the committee that you will make a stroll across campus a better experience for everyone. If that stroll on a cool morning on the way to your first class is the checkmate, then it is time to work backwards from that. How exactly does an applicant build themselves into a radiant force that cannot be rejected?

Or, more precisely, how will you persuade a perfect stranger across the country behind a mind-numbingly high stack of applications that you are different from the rest and that you are an indispensably valuable acquisition? Three ways:

1) Your recommendations.

Your recommendations. Every elite college asks you to provide either two or three recommendations from teachers who have taught you. Most of these colleges are very specific, and they require you to choose an English teacher, or honors teacher, or some equally specific teacher, and then they want one other general teacher who has taught you. Most allow an applicant to submit a third, optional recommendation, who can be teacher or not. You should definitely avail yourself of every opportunity, especially this third recommender, to present yourself in an amazingly flattering light. The post that follows this post will give a full tour of this topic, getting into all the weeds. For now, suffice it to say that without a teacher wholly convinced that you are incredible, admission to a top-30 college will not be happening. So right from the get-go, make sure that you have at least three teachers 100% on your team, and intimately familiar with what you bring to a classroom.

High School Teacher lecturing a Classroom

2) Your essays.

Your college essays will also offer the committee a glimpse, and hopefully more like a panorama, of your indispensability. These essays, like the recommendations that your teachers will upload to the elite college’s software program, need to be scintillating. They need a clever, unique idea, organized in a very premeditated and exquisite structure, written with nuance, a powerful use of vocabulary, and genuine emotion.

college application essay

3) Your question responses.

The application questions. The application packets of elite colleges are multi-page probes into who you are and what you have contributed to the world so far. These questions ask about your race and ethnicity and gender—all powerfully important elements—since they need to fill out the upcoming fall semester student body with a robust and diverse pool of excellence. These application questions ask you to list your hobbies, your volunteer experiences, your honors, your extra-curricular high school academic pursuits. They ask you to enumerate your clubs, the leadership positions you held in each, the sports you played, the theatre productions you participated in, everything. From these questions admissions officers begin to discern who you are as a person. Be a standout.


So ultimately, there are two sides to preparing for your Personal Index Score. One is to sculpt yourself into a person they will admire and want to associate with. The other is to just be yourself, and be absolutely artistic when it comes to portraying yourself on the application. True art is hard to deny, or reject, and you must ensure that the absolute most favorable side of you is displayed on the recommendations, essays, and application questions.

This does not mean that you should contort yourself to conform to the arbitrary needs of a faceless college bureaucrat. Just the opposite. It means you need to play the cards you are dealt, and play them brilliantly. The committee wants all 52 cards in the deck. It wants 8s and aces and 2s and queens and all the cards, and you are definitely one of the cards. The committee simply will not take a card that is smudged, blurry, torn, or faded. Before high school ever begins, you need to identify what is that will make you as a person stand out in high school and pursue that.

To be very specific, as the three posts to follow will treat in excruciating detail, you definitely need at least three different “passions,” and you need to do a superb job in each of them. These passions need to be done so well that they catch the eye of the teachers who are writing your recommendations. Your passions should spawn your summer activities, which in turn will help you fill your clever application essays with the stories that will cock the head of you admissions officer and make them want to share it with an officemate.

Mostly, your three passions need to interface smartly with what the committee sees as still being a deficiency in their pool of already-accepted applicants. In other words, the more unique your passion, the better the chance the admissions department will have a need for you. These admissions officers don’t simply view all 52 cards sympathetically, they actually need one of each card, so be yourself, be it brilliantly and spectacularly, and then display who you are radiantly on your application. That is what will get you out of the purgatory antechamber of the 10,000 first-cut-makers and onto the greenest grass in all the world: the campus of your dream school.


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