The Relationship Between Conscientiousness & Higher Education

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More admissions leaders are turning to personality traits to better predict student success as part of a larger push for holistic admissions and as both applicants and leaders have grown frustrated with the limitations of standardized testing.

Personality traits are one of the main non-intellectual variables predicting academic achievements in higher education. In general, personality traits predict particular behavioral tendencies beyond high school grades and SAT scores.

For example, conscientiousness is a fundamental personality trait- one of the Big Five- that reflects awareness, responsibility, hard work, goal-directedness, and adherence to norms and rules. 

Those who score high in conscientiousness are generally self-disciplined, detail-oriented, thoughtful, careful, and organized. In 2015, the National Education Association (NEA) stated that personality traits including self-control, curiosity, grit, and conscientiousness are “critical to academic success.” 

Conscientiousness is related to academic achievement in terms of motivation. Being motivated means more time spent on the task at hand and increased class attendance, which have been shown to mediate the relation between conscientiousness and academic achievement.

But the importance of the behavioral tendencies resulting from being conscientious may differ by academic field of study. Different academic majors prepare students for different professions, and may therefore require personality traits aside from consciousness. 

For example, programs in the arts/humanities field focus more on interpersonal contact or creativity, whereas other programs in science focus on analytical and focused thinking. 

Consequently, different personality traits may be more advantageous in different academic fields and majors. Conscientiousness, involving self-discipline and persistence, may be more useful in science. But openness to experience, which is consistently and positively correlated to creativity, may be helpful in the arts/ humanities and social sciences. 

Throughout the years, most studies have found that science and engineering students report higher levels of conscientiousness than students in other academic fields. But experts believe that conscientiousness is the personality dimension that most strongly and consistently predicts academic achievement in higher education.

For example, a December 2021 study included 4,719 students who enrolled in non-selective bachelor programs in 2015. About 26.7% of students were enrolled in the arts/humanities, 27.8% were enrolled in science, 21.7% were enrolled in social science, and 23.9% were enrolled in law/economics/governance. 

Researchers collected data over 2-3 months prior to enrollment. They assessed students’ self-perceived consciousness with nine items and their openness and experience with five items.

For all four groups of students, conscientiousness had significant and positive associations with school performance and academic achievement. On the other hand, openness to experience only had significant but small negative correlations with performance and academic achievement for social science students, and a small positive correlation with performance for law/economics/governance students.

But beyond academic success, studies have found that conscientiousness is related to proficient job performance and avoiding counterproductive, antisocial, or deviant behaviors. 

The value of conscientiousness for job performance peaks when employees aim to accomplish conventional goals through persistence and operate in predictable environments, regardless of job or setting. Overall, conscientiousness is the key to understanding motivational engagement and behavioral restraint at work.

Conscientiousness is a fundamental personality trait- one of the Big Five- and most strongly and consistently predicts academic achievement in higher education.


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