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 A New Study Shows Strong Relationships Between Personality Traits and Medical School Performance 

by Clif Boutelle, SIOP Public Relations

 
With medical schools flooded with applications, three industrial-organizational psychologists have conducted a study to determine if giving personality tests to prospective students would enable admissions officers to better predict which applicants will be successful. 
 
“Our findings show that personality factors do have a predictive value as to the success rate of admitted medical students. Considering personality of applicants can be quite helpful to medical school admissions programs,” said Deniz Ones, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, who conducted the study with colleagues Filip Lievens of the Department of Personnel Management and Work and Organizational Psychology at Ghent University in Belgiumand Stephan Dilchert of the Department of Management at City University of New York’s Baruch College.

Their study followed more than 600 Belgian students through 7 years of medical studies to determine what, if any, impact personality might have on their performance.

The students, in their first year, completed a personality inventory, and their progress was monitored during the remaining 6 years of medical school. (American students’ medical school curriculum covers 4 years, the difference being that American students typically complete premedical undergraduate work before entering medical school but Belgian students’ 7 years of study combines undergraduate- and graduate-level medical education in the same curriculum.)

Dilchert noted that though the study was conducted in Belgium, both personality factors and modern medical practices are similar around the world; thus, personality should consistently relate to valued outcomes in medical education, including in the United States.

Results of their study are reported in the current issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The researchers employed a commonly used test to measure several personality traits, including Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Extraversion, Openness, and Emotional Stability. Psychologists refer to these as the “Big Five” personality variables.

All medical schools in the United States require prospective students to take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), which is a cognitive test measuring a person’s knowledge, skills, and abilities.

“The MCAT is a very good test and can predict whether students have the ability to be successful in medical school, but it is a test that only measures cognitive skills, not personality,” said Ones.

“Our research suggests that by adding a personality assessment to medical school entrance requirements, predicting which students will be successful can be greatly improved,” she added.

In the first 2 years of medical school there is a strong emphasis on science courses, including gross anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, and microbiology. However, the medical curriculum shifts from knowledge acquisition to include interpersonal interaction during the students’ clinical years.

Personality traits can reveal a lot about how students will perform during the differing demands and emphases of a student’s medical studies, said Dilchert.

For example, traits such as Conscientiousness, self-discipline, and competence were good predictors of learning success throughout the medical studies of the Belgian students. Success was determined by grade point averages each year of medical studies.

Conscientiousness was not only evident during successful students’ initial years of medical study but took on greater significance in their clinical years, where interpersonal traits like honesty, dependability, attention to detail, and vigilance were important, the study findings indicated.
 
Students being trained in a medical program need the emotional resources to cope with the general pressures of academic performance as well as the specific pressures associated with diagnosing and treating patients under the supervision of medical faculty.
 
“Students who scored well in persistence and Conscientiousness experienced success in their studies,” Dilchert said.
 
The researchers found greater variance in the traits of Extraversion and Agreeableness: people who generally are more social, assertive, gregarious, talkative, and prone to help others.
 
“Students high in the Extraversion trait had lower grade point averages in the early years but were high in interpersonal performance in the later years,” said Dilchert.
 
The researchers speculated that extraverted students are more likely to spend less time on studying than on their social relationships during the first years of medical school, which could hinder their academic performance and result in lower grades.
 
According to figures from the American Association of Medical Colleges, there were 42,000 applicants in 2009 and 18,390 were enrolled, an admission rate of 40%-45%. Of that number only a little more than 80% will graduate in 4 years, Ones said.
 
“With an 80% graduation rate, one can assume that those students learned and performed at a satisfactory level during their 4 years of study. It is likely that on-time graduation rates could be improved by using these tests in admissions decisions,” said Dilchert.
 
“In fact, given the validity of personality tests, an 80% success rate could be increased to 91% by adding a standardized personality test to current admission standards,” he added.
 
“Personality traits are a reliable and valid method for predicting both the acquisition of knowledge and interpersonal performance,” said Ones. “Our research shows that personality should be considered in medical school admissions and that much is to be gained by supplementing the MCAT, which measures cognitive or skills assessments, with personality tests. Both tests can add independent, useful information to the admissions process,” she added.

Ones said that industrial-organizational psychologists have been researching personality tests for many years and are positioned to bring their knowledge and experience to medical admissions processes. “They know how personality tests work and which measures are supported by scientific evidence. But more importantly, they also know how personality measurements can best be incorporated with other test data to create optimally useful admissions systems.”