Monday, January 18, 2010

The Big Five personality test and medical school success

Medical school admission candidates are evaluated for both their cognitive abilities and their personalities. The evaluation of cognitive ability is quantitative (grades, MCATs). Personality evaluation, however, is subjective, based on interviews and letters of recommendation. Is evaluation of the candidate's personality predictive of long term success? Can it be more systematic?

A large group of students in Belgium underwent psychological testing using quantitative methodology at beginning of their medical training and were then followed long term. Results were published here:

In this longitudinal investigation, an entire European country’s 1997 cohort of medical students was studied throughout their medical school career (Year 1, N = 627; Year 7, N = 306). Over time, extraversion, openness, and conscientiousness factor and facet scale scores showed increases in operational validity for predicting grade point averages. Although there may not be any advantages to being open and extraverted for early academic performance, these traits gain importance for later academic performance when applied practice increasingly plays a part in the curriculum. Conscientiousness, perhaps more than any other personality trait, appears to be an increasing asset for medical students: Operational validities of conscientiousness increased from .18 to .45. In assessing the utility of personality measures, relying on early criteria might underestimate the predictive value of personality variables.

Pauline Chen, MD, commented on the study in the New York Times:

The investigators found that the results of the personality test had a striking correlation with the students’ performance. Neuroticism, or an individual’s likelihood of becoming emotionally upset, was a constant predictor of a student’s poor academic performance and even attrition. Being conscientious, on the other hand, was a particularly important predictor of success throughout medical school. And the importance of openness and agreeableness increased over time, though neither did as significantly as extraversion. Extraverts invariably struggled early on but ended up excelling as their training entailed less time in the classroom and more time with patients.

DB's Medical Rants offered commentary here and here.

How would you have measured up? Take the test here! Think back to when you were applying to medical school and answer the questions as you would have answered them then. I took the test twice, entering “then and now” responses. My “then” responses accurately predicted that I would do much better in the basic science years than the clinical years. When I hit the wards third year I was terrified. I just wasn't ready, and didn't handle the disconnect too well. Fortunately, by the time of the last rotation of my senior year, thanks in part to some patient and understanding residents, I was beginning to hit my stride.

The stresses of training and practice, as the test also predicted, were particularly difficult for me. Fortunately I looked on life's difficulties as character building events and sought to turn stress into strength. Professional life, like my test score, is good now.


StorytellERdoc said...

I am on our core faculty for our EM residency program, my first year, and I thoroughly enjoyed the wide variation of interviewees and how they approached their time to be spent with me. Some very prepared for academic questions, some just so personable, and some trying just a little to hard to sell themselves. My personal preference? Personality over Academics any day (as long as they are disciplined, do their reading, and appreciate their strengths).

Thanks for a great post. enjoy your night.

Christina said...

It seems like you would want a mixture of different personality types as doctors as each one would be able to identify and empathize with similar traits in their patients and be able to better serve them.