How Assessing Personality Traits Can Predict Success in Medical Students

Researchers from Oakland University, Western University, and the University of Guelph have found that evaluating personality traits helps predict both academic and clerkship performance of medical students.

Researchers from Oakland University, Western University, and the University of Guelph have found that evaluating personality traits helps predict both academic and clerkship performance of medical students.

The MCAT (and its earlier equivalents) have been measuring medical school readiness since the late 1920s. However, researchers and faculty members are finding that while the MCAT is great for predicting academic success, it’s less indicative of how students will perform in their internships or clerkship rotations.

When the researchers combined personality trait assessments with MCAT scores, grade point averages, and feedback from interviews, they found an eight percent increase in the likelihood for success among students who possessed relevant key traits.

“This was a statistically significant improvement, and I would argue that, as in the case of many jobs, helping improve candidate selection even by modest amounts has strong practical significance,” said Dr. Matthew J.W. McLarnon, the lead researcher on the project, in a release from Oakland University.

We spoke with Dr. Deborah M. Powell from the University of Guelph, who worked on this research with McLarnon and colleagues, to find out how medical programs can apply the learnings from this research in their admissions process.

Dr. Deborah M. PowellPowell stressed that the MCAT is still an excellent predictor of academic performance, but that admissions teams could augment their admissions process by assessing applicants for personality traits as predictors of patient interaction and clinic performance.

“Any career where you have a strong academic component as well as a strong intrapersonal component could benefit from assessing personality traits,” she said. “You wouldn’t want to ignore the academic component, but you need to ensure students have the skills to deal with people as well.”

As far as traits to look for, the team selected both broad and narrow personality traits that a number of experts believed were most important over a mix of different questionnaires.

Measuring how students scored in ‘conscientiousness’ and ‘achievement orientation’ was a major factor in their performance in both academics and clerkship, said Powell. Whereas traits like ‘social confidence’ and ‘tolerance’ were quite important for clerkship performance, but were less relevant to academic performance.

She explained that a structured personality test could be a good addition or augmentation to an existing interview, as long as interviewers were effectively trained to look for these traits.

“Personality is difficult to assess in a high stakes situation. Personality questionnaires are efficient, but it’s hard to prevent people from faking them,” she explained.

“If you’re going to use it for high stakes like at the admissions stage — you’d need to design the assessment in a way where [students] could not fake it. Find a questionnaire that could be easily administered for people to complete honestly, or enhance the interview by training your interviewer to understand what these traits look like.”

An example of a questionnaire that could help prevent fabrication would be a forced-choice method survey where students would have to choose between two equally appealing options. 

What’s the ideal method?

Powell suggests that a combination of self-assessment and structured interview would be ideal, as reviewers could check for consistency in self-reporting and interviewer evaluation. Having multiple formats for the applicants to excel in and present their personalities can reduce the influence of reviewer bias and help give a more authentic and overall picture of the individual.

To learn more about the study, read the paper in Science Direct.

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