You enjoy teaching in a nearby orthodontic specialty program. One morning, your department chair calls you up to her office and asks whether you would consider heading the department’s admissions committee. She tells you that the job is large: over 280 applications for just 7 positions. You feel humbled to be considered for the responsibility. There is little you wouldn’t do for your school: it is the program that accepted you, educated you, and has helped sustain your passion for your profession for many years.
After a long pause, you enthusiastically accept the invitation. Your perusal of the applications shows that although a few candidates are obviously unsuitable, the majority are scholastically well qualified. Most are in the top fifth of their dental classes. Many are coauthors of scientific articles published in refereed journals, others are involved in community service, and several are class officers. Some have 1 or 2 years of experience in general practice. This year’s applicant pool contains 2 concert pianists and a contributor to a dental materials textbook.
You know that there is a lot more to treating patients than acquired knowledge. You are haunted by 1 burning question: how do you know which candidates will exhibit the pristine sense of honesty, devotion to service before profit, and responsibility to society—professionalism—that are required of a consummate clinician?
This issue has beguiled educators for decades—and possibly centuries. The qualities of a professional remain consistent among health care providers. But predicting an applicant’s professional potential has been a baffling chore. Many candidates are expert at responding to interview questions with uncanny savvy. Letters of recommendation are uniformly glowing. Essays of intent that accompany the application might not have been written by the applicant but were crafted by an external source. Are there methods to discern the applicants who genuinely value professionalism from those who are entering the specialty merely for status or financial gain?
The authors of 1 study that attempted to identify predictors of professionalism in medical students found that a student’s parents’ occupations, athletic achievements, age of admission to professional school, and involvement in extracurricular activities had few correlations with his or her future behavior. This study found that predictors of professional character were correlated with humility as well as habits that support a conscientious attitude. Dental students who critically assessed their own performance in patient interactions demonstrated higher levels of professionalism, again relating professionalism to humility.
There is no question that scholastic achievement is necessary for success in orthodontics, but our admissions committees must place an equal or even greater value on applicants who indicate a strong potential for upholding the qualities that define a professional. Such determination is unquestionably a tall order and might involve some creativity—perhaps even by engaging trusted allies. Many programs have included their staff or residents in the task by arranging informal interactions with the applicants, often out of the academic arena.
As stated by Masella, “Unfortunately, American society, including higher education, glorifies a market mentality centered on expansion and profit. Through formal and hidden curricula, dental schools send mixed messages to students about the importance of professionalism.” Excluding applicants who see our profession as predominantly a profit-generating opportunity is a difficult but imperative task.
Top class rank as the premier admission criterion might not correlate with the future’s most caring, thorough, and empathetic specialists. Orthodontic education should hold professionalism as its primary objective. Now is the time for our admissions committees to rank professionalism with equal importance as scholastic achievement in the selection process. After all, professionalism might be the only attribute a fledgling orthodontist can never acquire.