Do you have the personality to be successful in medical school?
A recent study, co-authored by a University of Minnesota psychology professor, has found that certain personality traits may be excellent predictors of success in medical school — particularly during the latter years, when students are out interacting with real patients.
As medical students become “more involved with patients and applied work, personality becomes more and more relevant and predictive” of how well they do in their coursework, said Deniz Ones, professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota and one of the co-authors of the study. I talked with her about the study on Thursday.
Ones and her colleagues followed 627 Belgium students (403 women, 224 men) who enrolled in medical school in 1997. At the beginning of their seven-year sojourn, the students were given a standardized personality test. Their scores on these tests didn’t differ much from those of other Belgium college students.
The researchers measured the students’ success in medical school by their end-of-year grades. Only 306 students actually finished their training. Most students dropped out because of poor grades.
Conscientiousness: most important
The study, which was published in the November issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, looked at five personality traits (neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness), each with six different sub-traits.
The one trait that remained consistently important throughout the seven years of medical training was conscientiousness (competence, order, dutifulness, achievement striving, self-discipline, deliberation), said Ones.
“This is the dimension that is particularly found in education achievement because it’s related to effort and hard work,” she said. “It’s been shown to be related to college performance in other graduate settings as well.”
In medical school, however, conscientiousness became doubly important, said Ones, because attention and diligence is not only essential for good study habits, but also for diagnosing and treating patients.
Extroversion: biggest surprise
No surprise there. But another personality trait that showed up among successful medical students did surprise Ones and her colleagues: extroversion (warmth, gregariousness, assertiveness, activity, excitement-seeking, positive emotions).
“At the beginning of medical school, this trait was actually negatively related to performance,” said Ones. After all, extroverted students are more likely to spend their time socializing rather than hitting the medical texts.
“But over time, if they managed to hang on, this liability became an asset,” said Ones. “This is the dimension that allows them to talk to patients, to have an interest in them and care about them.”
Neuroticism: not really a factor
Two of the other traits — openness and agreeableness — also became more predictive of student success in medical school as the training progressed and switched to being more patient- than book-oriented. But the impact of those traits on later grades was not nearly as dramatic as that of conscientiousness and extroversion.
The fifth personality trait, neuroticism (anxiety, hostility, depression, impulsiveness, self-consciousness, vulnerability) wasn’t really a factor in predicting student success. Most likely, said Ones, students with high neuroticism scores don’t enter medical school in the first place, or, if they do, they probably find the pressures too great and quickly drop out.
Ones (who was recently under contract with NASA to help with the selection of new astronauts) doesn’t believe standardized personality tests should replace the MCATs, but she does see their value in the application process.
“Most of education is geared toward the acquisition of knowledge and skills. That’s what MCAT assesses,” she said. That’s OK, she says, but, as this study and other research shows, how smart someone is often fails to predict how successful they’ll be at a specific profession — particularly one like medicine, which requires such strong people skills.