Why Openness is Important in Admissions

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Openness, also referred to as openness/intellect or open to experience, is one of the Big Five factors of personality. 

D.W. Fiske developed The Big Five personality traits theory in 1949. The theory, which other researchers have expanded on throughout the years, includes extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.

In simple terms, openness refers to the degree to which an individual is open to new experiences or ways of doing things. Experts correlate this trait with higher curiosity levels, increased comfort in new or unfamiliar situations, and creativity and well-being. 

Each of the Big Five personality traits is made up of six facets or sub-traits. Admissions officers can assess the following sub-traits independently of openness in any personality test. 

A person who displays 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. 

“Remember that college, for many, is an important time for students to be exposed to different kinds of people and perspectives,” Emily Campion, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Management & Entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa, told Student Select in a recent interview. “This is a chance for students to explore alternative ways of thinking about complex issues, allowing them to practice and develop critical thinking skills that will serve them throughout their lives.”

“You can see, then, why students who are more open—who are intellectually curious, more imaginative, and may be less inclined toward convention--may particularly benefit from the breadth of opportunities typically offered on college campuses.” Campion continued. 

Why Openness is a Desirable Trait in Students

Admissions officers search high and low for unique students who will positively contribute to campus life. Colleges generally want a mix of students to create a rich campus community. Therefore, they look for curiosity, a positive attitude, initiative, and consciousness.  

But openness to experience has consistently been found to positively predict academic achievement in meta-analytic research. Openness, such as being original, widely interested, and resourceful, is regarded as having a direct effect on the relationship with achievement.

A 2007 O’Connor & Paunonen study found that openness to experience was positively associated with academic achievement, whereas extraversion was sometimes negatively related to the same criterion. 

Additionally, certain personality traits are more beneficial for academic achievement in some fields than others. For example, science majors often emphasize independent problem-solving, which requires conscientiousness such as precision and persistence. On the other hand, aspects of openness, such as creativity, aesthetic appreciation, philosophical depth, or inquisitiveness about the human world, are emphasized in arts/humanities studies.

“This study showed that personality traits are related to students' enrollment in an academic field. That is, students with lower levels of conscientiousness and higher levels of openness to experience are more likely to enroll in the arts/humanities field compared to the academic fields of science, social science, and law/economics/governance,” researchers stated in the study. 

“These findings corroborate previous research that showed that arts/humanities students are less conscientious and more open to experience than other academic fields,” they continued. 

How Students Can Demonstrate Openness

Students can demonstrate openness by being more willing to embrace new things, fresh ideas, and novel experiences, especially in the classroom. Students should be eager to pursue new adventures, experiences, and creative endeavors.

Experts associate people who possess openness as being creative, intelligent, knowledgeable, giving great attention to detail, interested in new things, enjoying hearing new ideas, thinking about abstract concepts, and adventurous. 

Notably, a 2020 blog touched on how students’ physical cues, such as uncrossed arms, eye contact, and nonverbal affirmations (nodding your head), also show engagement and help to facilitate openness. 

Open body language keeps students checked in, remain present, and actively listen to what the other person is saying. 

“Demonstrating one's openness in a classroom can occur in several ways. You might see this through students' inquisitiveness as they may ask more questions or seek additional information independently,” Campion stated. “It isn't just about asking more questions in general, though; it's about asking thoughtful questions that illustrate an interest to more deeply understand something.” 

“You may also find openness manifests in their responses to other students' perspectives. Maybe they are receptive to alternative thinking in a class discussion or debate. They may not adopt the perspective, but they are willing to consider its merits, at the very least,” she concluded.

Openness, one of the Big Five personality traits, refers to the degree to which an individual is open to new experiences or ways of doing things and is an exceedingly desirable trait in potential college applicants.


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