How Do Personality Traits Help Colleges Admit ‘Best Fit’ Students?

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People often believe that academic success is determined by students acquiring specific knowledge and skills through high school courses or standardized testing. 

But tests and course completion fail to measure the character and personal qualities that students bring to the table. In academia, understanding personality traits can help students better understand who they are, their strengths and weaknesses, and what kind of environment they thrive in.

College admissions staff also look for evidence that students possess personal qualities associated with success in college. In a recent National Association for College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) survey, 70% of admissions staff said character traits were “considerably” or “moderately” important in their admissions decisions.

Higher education continues to pay closer attention to character attributes. And the recent focus on personality traits is part of a push for ‘holistic college admissions,’ as both students and faculty discerned the downfalls and many limitations of standardized testing. 

Curiosity: A Strong Predictor of Engagement

Colleges increasingly seek personal qualities fostering cooperation, community, and compassion. For example, students with curiosity strongly desire to learn or know something. Curious individuals do not necessarily “need” the information they inquire about; instead, they seek answers to their questions to gain knowledge. 

Intellectually curious students spend their free time learning for fun, challenging their own views, and pondering new ideas. Institutions look to admit these students because they will go above and beyond in their coursework to gain a deeper understanding of the subjects and topics that interest them. 

“Many teachers across grade levels would agree that curiosity is a valuable characteristic for students to have. Fortunately, research supports this,” Emily Campion, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Management & Entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa, said in a recent Student Select AI interview.

Campion noted one study on college students where researchers found that curiosity related positively to student development, and engagement partially explained this relationship (Vracheva et al., 2020).

Grit: A Better Predictor of Success than IQ?

Some colleges want students who challenge themselves and persevere through those challenges, set goals, and achieve them. Many may describe this quality as “grit” or “commitment.” 

Active learning is deemed a vital factor in student-centered instructional contexts. Engaging students in realistic, everyday situations provides practical and motivating learning for students when given responsibilities during the learning process.

Grit is incredibly important when striving to achieve long-term goals and helps to improve academic performance. For example, students with grit tend to be characterized by learning involvement, the durability of commitment, and tenacity through stimulating teaching.

A University of Pennsylvania study indicated that “grit” might be a more effective predictor of success than IQ.

“Grit is important because it is a driver of achievement and success, independent of and beyond what talent and intelligence contribute,” Angela Duckworth, psychologist and author of the book Grit stated in her research findings.  

“Being naturally smart and talented is great, but to truly do well and thrive, we need the ability to persevere. Without grit, talent may be nothing more than unmet potential. Only with effort talent becomes a skill that leads to success,” Duckworth continued. 

She believes that gritty individuals approach achievement as a marathon — one of their key advantages is stamina.

Openness: A Positive Predictor of Academic Achievement

Openness is a trait included in the Big Five Personality Traits that characterizes a curious individual who is open to new experiences and knowledge. People who rate high in openness are inventive and curious, while those who rank low in openness tend to be more consistent and cautious.

Characteristics related to openness, such as being original, widely interested, and resourceful, are regarded as directly affecting the relationship with achievement, and openness to experience has consistently been found to positively predict academic achievement in meta-analytic research

A person with openness is more likely to speak up when necessary, clearly explain their thoughts and feelings, and act truthfully. In higher education, openness can help students communicate ideas sincerely, thoughtfully, and respectfully. 

“Students who are more open — who are intellectually curious, imaginative, and may be less inclined toward convention — may particularly benefit from the breadth of opportunities typically offered on college campuses,” Campion told Student Select AI. 

A holistic approach to university admissions entails looking at predictive traits like curiosity, grit, openness, and more broadly evaluating the whole applicant, far beyond GPA and test scores, to identify best-fit applicants who are likely to succeed long term. 

Student Select AI provides a complete personality, competency, and motivation assessment from the application essay, interviews, and other materials already available — no time-consuming tests or manual scoring required. 

Is your admissions program ready to move away from traditional success metrics to measure what really matters? 

Schedule a free consultation today to see first-hand how Student Select AI reduces time-to-decision while providing a holistic, unbiased view of each candidate and ultimately driving better admissions decisions, enrollment rates, and student outcomes.

Higher education pays close attention to character attributes in prospective students, such as curiosity, grit, and openness, to make college admissions more holistic.


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