Admissions officers have historically looked to admit students based on academic performance. About 93% of Americans say high school grades should be at least a minor factor in admission decisions. Moreover, experts still recommend submitting SAT and ACT scores if they fall within the 75th percentile for the specific college or university.
However, colleges should also look for a handful of traits, including a positive attitude, leadership, curiosity, persistence, open-mindedness, risk-taking, compassion, creativity, collaboration, cultural intelligence, and empathy.
Curiosity is having a strong 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, told Talent Select AI in a recent 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).
Therefore, on average, being curious about a topic or task increases a student's engagement with that topic or task, which relates to higher student development. Another study (Hartung et al., 2022) found that curiosity related positively to knowledge and that reasoning ability partially explained this relationship. In conclusion, a student's curiosity promotes reasoning and knowledge generation.
Why is Curiosity a Desirable Trait in Applicants
Colleges find that students who naturally strive to understand and do not allow cognitive dissonance to exist are academically more successful. They are looking for students who like to think.
Ben Johnson’s book “Teaching Students to Dig Deeper” identifies the skills and qualities students need to be ready for college and careers based on fundamental research, the College Board, the ACT, and rigorous state standards.
Students must become analytical thinkers, critical thinkers, problem solvers, curious, opportunistic, flexible, open-minded, teachable, risk-takers, and expressive to thrive beyond high school.
"I personally have never seen a student that was not curious about something. I have seen many students who have suppressed their curiosity when they enter school to such an extent as to be nearly undetectable, but it is still there. Human beings are hardwired to be curious, and being curious is a major activity of childhood and young adulthood,” Johnson said in a College MatchPoint blog post.
Overall, colleges care about where a student’s mind can roam. Does the student take things at face value, or do they dig deeper and ask questions beyond the surface level?
Universities want academically curious people – some colleges even ask specifically about it. For example, on their Common Application, Stanford University invites applicants to answer the following prompt: "Stanford students are widely known to possess a sense of intellectual vitality. Tell us about an idea or an experience you have had that you find intellectually engaging."
Students can demonstrate Intellectual curiosity in academic records, the application essay, the resume, and other items in the admissions application.
“We want to see your commitment, dedication, and genuine interest in expanding your intellectual horizons, both in what you write about yourself and in what others write on your behalf. We want to see the kind of curiosity and enthusiasm that will allow you to spark a lively discussion in a first-year seminar and continue the conversation at the dinner table,” according to Stanford University’s website.
How Students Can Demonstrate Curiosity
Students must demonstrate how much they love and want to learn and what excites them intellectually. There are multiple ways to show curiosity, both in an application and the classroom, but the interest must be genuine.
Suppose the admissions office notes a genuine curiosity about learning in a candidate. In that case, the appeal of that applicant rises above the crowd of equally qualified candidates, and the possibility of gaining admission rises just as high.
Having a “growth mindset” is crucial. Students who challenge themselves intellectually, figure out what makes them tick, and engage in their fields of interest gain a more profound sense of their priorities and values, which is vital for helping them choose a college and their eventual career.
A few examples of active learning to exhibit curiosity include:
- A student who excels at physics who nurtured an interest in mechanical engineering by taking a summer job in an auto repair shop and learning how to revamp an internal combustion engine
- A book lover with a passion for education who started a club that teaches literacy skills to underserved children
- A student who is curious about diseases doing independent research projects with a mentor from their school or participating in research at a local university
Additionally, reading, listening to podcasts, subscribing to magazines, watching documentaries, signing up for academic programs, writing an opinion piece for the local newspaper, securing an internship in an area of interest, getting to know teachers, and keeping track of efforts in a spreadsheet, are all ways to display intellectual curiosity.