I.Q. and Wisdom for Pre-Med: worry less about your MCAT

Today’s Big Upshot concerns IQ. I’m not going to do this as well as Malcolm Gladwell who has a great section in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. But, nonetheless, I think it’s worth talking about in the context of a discussion of medical careers. It might be presumed that I.Q. measures intelligence and that intelligence is an important quality in a physician. If intelligence is the brightness of your mental spotlight, then in diagnosing disease it would probably be good to have lots of it.

However, it is at least as important to be concerned with where that spotlight is pointing as it is to have it be very bright. I hope everyone has head the med-school-admissions-anomaly stories (i.e. “this happened to a friend of a friend”). There was this guy who got a 4.0 GPA in college and got a perfect MCAT score and then went to his med school interviews and didn’t get admitted to any of the schools to which he applied. He ended up working at Kaplan, teaching kids how to do well on their MCAT. Weird, huh? If you have not met this guy, you probably will. There’s one in any big school’s pre-med program at any given time. You won’t see much of him, though, because he has a 16 hour a day study schedule

The guy is smart. He has a high I.Q. But the admissions committee knew better than to let him in their institution’s door. They knew that a certain degree if wisdom is prerequisite to be a decent doctor.

Gladwell tells a great tale about a large-scale study of I.Q. in California kids. The researchers followed the fates of these super-smart kids through their lives. Their fates turned out to be remarkable only in their ordinary-ness. These super genius kids did not turn out to be the captains of industry and leaders of tomorrow. In fact, most telling, there were two Nobel prize winners in the original, large sample. They were dropped from the study because their I.Q.s were not high enough.

The New Scientist has an article up this morning that explores come clever ways of testing another aspect of cognitive ability – the analytical, careful reasoning side. What the article really stresses (correctly, in my estimation) is that high I.Q. is only useful if it is fully engaged on the problem at hand. What’s scary is that for lots of questions in life and on tests, people (even really smart people) don’t fully engage their careful reasoning abilities.

So, here’s my point – the Big Upshot, if you will. Tests do help open doors – they validate other achievements, in a way. If grades are grossly disproportionate to SAT or MCAT scores, it might be a red flag. But a standardized test score is only one data point in the minds of any admissions committee, and they’re the only people who care at all. Frankly, a personal connection of any kind trumps any score hands-down. So if you’re pre-med (or on an admissions committee, for that matter) keep that in mind. Being wise enough to really engage with the right questions is at least as important as having the strongest possible abilities which could (potentially) be engaged.