Augumenting MCAT with a Big 5 personality test
January 18, 2010, 06:19 PM
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The NYTimes describes a study of 600 Belgian college freshman who entered a seven year medical training program (i.e., combining what in the U.S. would be undergrad pre-med and medical school). The article focuses on the additional knowledge gained by giving a Big Five personality test on top of a cognitive test:
At the start of the study, the researchers administered a standardized personality test and assessed each student for five different dimensions of personality — extraversion, neuroticism, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. They then followed the students through their schooling, taking note of the students’ grades, performance and attrition rates.

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.

In the U.S. setting, conscientiousness is likely measured well by undergraduate GPA.
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.

�The noncognitive, personality domain is an untapped area for medical school admissions,� said Deniz S. Ones, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota and one of the authors of the study. �We typically address it in a more haphazard way than we do cognitive ability, relying on recommendations, essays and either structured or unstructured interviews. We need to close the loop on all of this.�

Some schools have tried to use a quantitative rating system to evaluate applicant essays and letters of recommendation, but the results remain inconsistent. �Even with these attempts to make the process more sophisticated, there is no standardization,� Dr. Ones said. �Some references might emphasize conscientiousness, and some interviewers might focus on extraversion. That nonstandardization has costs in terms of making wrong decisions based on personality characteristics.�

By using standardized assessments of personality, a medical school admissions committee can get a better sense of how a candidate stands relative to others. �If I know someone is not just stress-prone, but stress-prone at the 95th percentile rather than the 65th,� Dr. Ones said, �I would have to ask myself if that person could handle the stress of medicine.�

This all makes sense. The danger, however, always seems to be that somebody who had a high IQ and a low honesty level might be able to figure out what answers are wanted on the Big 5 personality test and just tell them what they want to hear. That's an advantage for IQ tests — if you can figure out the answers the IQ testers want to hear, they you have a high IQ.
While standardized tests like the MCAT and the SAT have been criticized for putting certain population groups at a disadvantage, the particular personality test used in this study has been shown to work consistently across different cultures and backgrounds. �This test shows virtually none or very tiny differences between different ethnic or minority groups,� Dr. Ones noted. Because of this reliability, the test is a potentially invaluable adjunct to more traditional knowledge-based testing. �It could work as an additional predictive tool in the system,� she said.
I find this implausible. Has, for example, Woody Allen been lying to us all these years about Jews scoring higher on Neuroticism?

Keep in mind that Belgians need more than just a cognitive test because they have a single admission point for a seven year course of study, so a personality test could augment a cognitive test and high school grades. Our 3-year medical schools, however, get to use college grades, which are a lot more recent and relevant than high school grades for assessing Conscientiousness and the like.

One perennial question that personality testing could help to answer is whether hard work can make up for differences in cognitive ability. �Some of our data says yes,� Dr. Ones said. �If someone is at the 15th percentile of the cognitive test but at the 95th percentile of conscientiousness, chances are that the student is going to make it.� That student may even eventually outperform peers who have higher cognitive test scores but who are less conscientious or more neurotic and stress-prone.
Yeah, but you don't want to give the 15th percentile on the MCAT guy Dr. House's job.

This is like saying that if you score at the 95th percentile on undergrad GPA, you can make it if you score at only the 15th percentile on the MCAT. Perhaps. I would be more worried in this situation relying on a single personality test result showing extreme conscientiousness than on four years of outstanding undergraduate grades, since a personality test result showing you're a hard worker is more likely to be faked than are four years of good grades in college.

If you work hard for four years in college, then you probably are a hard worker. Still, it would be nice to have a faster selection method than that, so if the personality test boys can prove their results are reliable, more power to them. But, I'd like to see the proof, first.