Podcast: David Hawkins and Tom Bear: Character in College Admissions

In today’s episode, I sit down with Tom Bear and David Hawkins, and we delve into the significance of character in the college admissions process, the mission of NACAC, and the evolving landscape of higher education. Tune in to explore how character matters more than ever in shaping the future of higher education!


Tom Bear: Okay, what are four or five really critical character traits inherent in our student body that align with the mission, that create that vibrancy, and those are the things that the institutions want to point out when a student applies for admission and then seek that and evaluate.

Sheila Akbar: Hello and welcome back to the podcast, everybody. It’s June. My goodness, the school year is either about to be over or is already over for your child, and here we are looking at summer. Hope it’s going to be a good one. If you’ve been following me on LinkedIn or listening to this podcast regularly, you know I’m kind of obsessed with the idea of character in college admissions as a really key factor to success, but also your kids development. So today, I am super excited to welcome David Hawkins and Tom Bear to the podcast to talk about character. David is from an organization called NACAC, which represents the college admissions industry in general, and Tom has a long history in admissions and is now involved with the character initiative, trying to bring character to the forefront of our discussions in college admissions. Let’s jump right into the interview Tom and David. Thank you so much for joining me today.

David Hawkins: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Tom Bear: Yes, thank you for the offer. We appreciate having the time with you.

Sheila Akbar: Of course, and I am so excited to dive into character initiative and what NACAC does, and what can we take away from all this? But let’s start with hearing a little bit more about who each of you are and what you do.

Tom Bear: Okay, so I’m Tom Bear. I’m the Vice President for Enrollment Management at Rose Holman Institute of Technology. I’m going on my fifth year here at Rose. Prior to this, worked at University of Notre Dame, University of Evansville, but have been working in college enrollment since 1989

David Hawkins: And I’m David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer with the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, as we call ourselves. I have been with NACAC for 24 years, and have been maybe the luckiest parent in America being able to work with school counselors, college advisors and college admissions officers as my own children grew up and navigated the path to college. So glad to be here. Thank you for the opportunity.

Sheila Akbar: Yeah, let’s stay with you for a little bit. David, tell us a little bit more about what NACAC mission is, and then we can move into the character initiative that has started over there the last couple years.

David Hawkins: Sure. Well, you know, NACAC mission is to empower our members who are, as I said, school counselors, college advisors and college admissions officers, through education community and advocacy. So in that way, we are a very typical association that tries to advance the interests and the careers of our of our members. But what makes NAACP a little different from a lot of other organizations is that we represent a process as much as we represent people, we represent the transition to college and we were founded way back in 1937 to help form a set of standards around which admission offices and counseling offices would do their work so that students remained in sort of the center of our interests. Because, as we all know, institutional school other interests can pull us in many different directions, but we want to make sure that we’re centered on the student. So we’re very much an organization dedicated to helping students and their families make the transition to college through the expertise and experience of our members.

Sheila Akbar: And I know one of the first ways that I interacted with NACAC was through the statement of principles of good practice, which doesn’t exist in the form that I was introduced to it. But tell us a little bit about about the standards.

David Hawkins: Sure, what are now best practices used to be an enforceable document of ethical and and other sort of standards that we use to kind of give the admissions process a more uniform format and presentation so that students and families wouldn’t have to try to memorize 1000s of different dates and deadlines and policies and procedures our code of ethics as it used to be referred to, really emerged out of a desire on the part of colleges and universities to standardize things a little bit and to make sure that everybody was playing on the level, so that students, again, weren’t lost in the shuffle. So one of our better known standards now best practices, is the May 1 national response. Month date students generally are given until May 1 to compare their offers, to look at their financial aid notifications, to maybe visit the campuses or talk to the to the admissions officers at universities where they’ve been accepted. And that really, fundamentally, is sort of a consumer protection standard that we want students and their families to have sufficient time after they’re notified that they’ve been admitted, or, I should say that the student has been admitted, the families are not necessarily admitted, though we love our families too. Want to make that clear, but that they have sufficient time to make informed enrollment decisions. And we also, in our best practices, have standardized terms like, what does early decision mean? What does early action mean? What are some standards around communicating with students about the wait list? So there are things like that that we’ve really tried to develop to help students go through maybe a more uniform process than maybe it would have been without this set of standards. Again, in which case you’d have to research and know policies and terms that are in use by 1000s of different colleges across the country.

Sheila Akbar: Right, and in my side of this process, it also really helps separate, I would think, the ethical actors from, let’s say, less ethical actors advising Parents and students. We’ve always found it really helpful in terms of evaluating people for hire, in encouraging certain types of behaviors. You know, training people on, how do you build a good college list? How do you talk about financial aid? And, you know, what are the things that you can do, should do in this process, and what really shouldn’t you be doing? So I’ve always found that extremely valuable. So I invited you both to talk today about character in the admissions process, and the reason this has been on my radar. I mean, it’s been on my radar for a long time, because I have long been of the belief that character, and you might call it values, is central to not only the process of college admissions and selecting where you’re going to go and thinking about the stories that you’re going to tell in your application, but also really essential to the process of a young person growing up and being ready to take the first steps into their adulthood, which usually coincides with them leaving home and going off to college. So, you know, defining your own set of personal values, thinking about what kind of person you want to be, making sure that you show up as that person in your daily life is, I think, really, really important. So I was really excited to see that in Knack acts, annual report on the factors that matter in college admissions, positive character traits started showing up, I think a year or two ago at the top of this list. So maybe you give us a little bit of background on the factors report, and then talk to us about where character is fitting in.

David Hawkins: Sure, for many years, NACAC has collected survey data from our college members about what they consider to be most important in the admissions process. And this data is collected by other entities as well. The US News World Report rankings collects the data like this. Even the US Department of Education collects it. But I think NACAC is probably the most granular of all of them, and so for many years, our factors table, as we call it, in the office at NACAC looked pretty consistent. You know, you had grades, high school grades, clearly, the what you do in four years of school is the most important thing that most colleges are going to consider. And there’s some things about your grades, you know, your strength of curriculum, some nuances that that colleges may end up looking at or included in that then you go down used traditionally or for a long time, standardized tests was sort of right after the so the SAT and ACT came in after grades, and then you went down a list of of what I would probably call the tip factor. So those were the top factors, the tip factors. Then you got into things like counselor recommendations and essays and writing samples and things like that, extracurricular activities. And then as you move down the list, you saw things like AP tests, which were, you know, only considered at a very few colleges, and some of the other factors that the maybe work experience might come in relatively low, although sometimes that’s same as extracurricular. But about five years ago, the character collaborative approached us and said, you know, it would be interesting, or wouldn’t it be interesting to see where character lands on that list? And in my experience, as we added factors over the years, they tended to come in around the bottom of the table, right? That, in other words, we didn’t feel like we discovered anything new under the sun. Well, when the first year that we asked about character. How important is character and admission? It came right in under the academic factors. I think something like 26% of colleges said it was of considerable importance, and that was the highest level of four. But it came in, I think either fourth or fifth, if memory serves, right around like. The essay and the council recommendations. So clearly something that almost all colleges are factoring in at some level, some more than more so than others. But again, in my 24 years of working with this data, that was probably the one factor that shot to the top in a more immediate fashion than any I’d ever seen. So so clearly something that’s on College’s minds.

Sheila Akbar: Yeah, and I’m so glad you decided to ask about it, so maybe we switched to Tom now tell us about the character collaborative and how you got involved, and sort of what’s become of it, and what’s the aim of it.

Tom Bear: Sure. I think you know, really, when you get back to the basics of this, one of the things that David Holmes and Bob Massa talked about, and they were the originators who started the character collaborative often mentioned character matters. And I think that’s, you know, kind of been the mantra as we’ve moved forward for many years. And I think nowadays, more than any, any of us would probably repeat that slogan, that character does matter. I was able to get involved with it when I was working at the University of Notre Dame. And Notre Dame is very much a mission driven institution, being a Catholic school, and so much of our emphasis at that time was to take the individual talents and gifts and put those in contribution to serve other individuals. So thinking about when Notre Dame would build its first year class. We would receive multiple applications of students who were well prepared academically to be successful. But the whole concept behind the institution being so mission focused is to have a student body that really contributes and serves that mission. So trying to find those students who would fit into and serve and forward the mission of the institution. Taking those gifts and talents and motivations to put into service to others, to improve the life around them, was critically important to us. So we knew that those character traits that aligned with that desperately needed. But how do you define those and again, you can do things like reading the essays, you can look at the recommendations, you can see the experiences. And you have to think, okay, what are the important character traits that match that mission? And then, how do you use all those points of reference to triangulate, to describe a student, to say, Okay, this is the individual that fits the student body, the community, that creates the vibrancy that forwards on the institution. So during my time at Notre Dame, I was getting very much involved with the assessment work, which then gave me that introduction to being part of the character collaborative. And again, having served at such a strong, focused mission institution, it was just a natural alignment, as well as, I think, professionally invigorating, but it also opened up a whole new door in my mind, too, in that sense of I started working in college admissions way back in 1989 and Sheila, I’m so glad you started off with the best practices, because the first thing I was taught when I started in college admissions is I was an admissions counselor. I was there to help a student find their best fit, but when I was watching the process unfold, I also noticed there was a lot of inefficiencies in college recruitment. Students receive a lot of emails, a lot of text, a lot of publications, and how do they read through all that information to find what would be that best fit institution? And I really believe that this path down character assessment, where a student goes through that sense of who am I as an individual, what’s important to me? What do I want to develop? How do I want to personally grow, and matching that to those institutions that are very mission driven, that do the same thing? How do we foster those character traits that we believe are important and helping students find that alignment between the two, serve in that counseling as well as in, you know, take away that inefficiency and help a student find that place where they can grow as a human being, pursue their educational pursuits, their career pursuits, but most important, grow and thrive. And I think that’s the key, and that’s what I’ve really become so I guess, engrossed in in this process is seeing where this could lead us in the future. And I think it’s, it’s a positive, positive path for everybody.

Sheila Akbar: Yeah, absolutely. So this is a little embarrassing, but I’ll tell you anyway, Harvard, because of the the lawsuit, the Supreme Court case gave its students and alumni the opportunity to view their admissions files. And you know, I cringed when I read my essay, but what I found was really interesting was they had my teacher recommendations and my counselor recommendations in there. The thing that I was so drawn to was the fact that some of these character elements are really explicitly asked about in those forms, right? It’s for readers who haven’t seen this form. You know, they’re publicly available. You can search it on the common app. What does the counselor recommendation form or the teacher recommendation form look like? But before they get to the place where they can. Write in a letter or sort of an essay recommendation, there are a series of checkboxes that they have to rate the student on a number of qualities, and some of them are things like concern for others, reaction to setbacks, and other things that we might think of falling into this character bucket, right? And that was back in 1997 when it was still a paper form, and there were only 18 schools on the Common Application. Now we have, I think, over 800 schools on the Common Application. Of course, it’s all digital, but the current form doesn’t look all that different from that form, you know, over 20 years ago. So I tell you this story to ask, How are colleges assessing character, right? There are those few explicit places you mentioned the essay. I think extracurriculars probably reflect something about a student’s character, but tell us more about how colleges are assessing that, and then maybe what some of those character traits might be.

Tom Bear: You know, I think one of the first things that colleges are doing a good job up front before they even assess, they message to students what are important character traits that build their student community or student body? Swarthmore and other schools, you mentioned Harvard, but even a place like Rose Holman, where I work, you know, we are a stem institution, so we have some very specific traits that we look for in a student, a passion for science, math, engineering, and that passion aspect. Because if you don’t have that kind of passion, you’re gonna struggle to get through chemistry and physics and calculus, and you know, all these different aspects. So many institutions right up front are already beginning to say, this is the kind of student that comes into our student body and excels. There’s a Earlham College here in Indiana. I think if you look at their mission statement, it’s a Quaker institution. They do a wonderful job right up front talking about, this is the type of student that we want to attract into our community. So I think that’s the first thing that starts, and I think I see more and more schools spending time talking about that up front. The second part is, everything that you mentioned once a student does then apply, the schools are soliciting through questions for essays, kind of, again, what are those character traits that they’re trying to tease out in the writing or the recommendations and even the activities that the students are involved with. I think again, you have to look at all those points and pull them together to get an, you know, a picture of a student. There’s multiple character traits we all all want students who bring good, positive character traits to their institutions. And you can talk about things from leadership to empathy to service to intellectual curiosity, these are all things that institutions want. There’s just no doubt about them. But the important part that comes down to the process is an institution to look and say, Okay, what are four or five really critical character traits inherent in our student body that align with the mission, that create that vibrancy? And those are the things that the institutions want to point out when a student applies for admission and then seek that and evaluate there’s not one rubric that every institution uses, because it’s unique and nuanced to the institution itself. But what’s critical then is once an institution decides how to use a rubric, its staff is well trained and has commonality, not that it’s 100% congruence, but at least commonality in that assessment process. And they have to understand that with a diversity of staff and a diversity of students coming to your institution and a diversity of experiences, we have to be able to bend and shape, to acknowledge those traits and those characteristics based upon the experience of the students, and then I have our readers flexible enough to be able to kind of find that middle ground, to find and recognize those, those important character traits that we want. I always tell my staff too, I also want a little bit of disagreement too, as they read. I don’t want everyone to, you know, completely read in the exact same manner. They need to be bringing their own experiences to the process. But then let’s take these kids to committee and say, Okay, let’s make that final determination. But to me, I think again, start with the messaging. Tell the students those character traits that are important. Let them present in the application to the multiple different tools that we give to them, have your staff build that commonality of reading so that we know what we’re looking for and we can recognize it in a consistent manner, but then also treat every student fairly, recognizing the experiences that they have through the process. So that’s kind of a nutshell of how I see this process. To me the ultimate goal. Though, is to build a community scholars on your campus, where a student can say, that’s the place where I can thrive and grow these character traits that are so important to me. And this gives me the avenue to continue to do that too. And then they find that that placement in college goes all the way back to 1989 with a young kid starting out as an admissions counselor, and I see it all coming together now.

Sheila Akbar: I love that. I really love that, and I love that, you know, there are colleges that are stating their values much more clearly. That’s something that I encourage all my students, when we’re building a colleges, to look at what’s in the mission statement. Do they have a statement of values? And a lot of them are sort of like, well, they all kind of sound the same. Yeah. Same, but as you look at more and more of them, you do start to pick up those nuances. David, I want to see what you want to add to what Tom just shared. But I also know, I think you mentioned in a previous call that we had that you’re working with a lot of colleges to get clearer on their values, right?

David Hawkins: Yes, in fact, are a couple of points there. Tom, I want to lift up, certainly for students and families who may hear this, that it is very important for admissions offices, just for their own sakes, but also because this is becoming a an increasingly litigious area of our profession, that there is consistency of a sort, but as Tom said, that there’s flexibility. So students and parents, I think, would be well served to understand that each college is looking for something unique to itself, right? Maybe when you look over the whole landscape, a lot of values that institutions emphasize tend to start to sound alike, but they really are thinking in their own heads, even if they end up sounding a lot like other institutions. So I want to pick up on that point. And then Sheila, to your question, given the environment that we’re in right now, post Supreme Court decision, and I would add that a framework that we’ve been aware of and sort of increasingly concerned about even before the Supreme Court was that admissions in the United States is functioning with a system. And I’ll use, I’m using air quotes, even if you can’t see it, a system that was designed in the late 1800s early 1900s and fundamentally, the practices that were put in place were more about excluding large numbers of people than including and you know, there are a lot of universities, a lot of systems out there doing some great innovation, some great work. So not to say that we haven’t changed in 100 years, but this, a lot of the elements of that system are still in place, and we’re asking it to do things that it was never built to do. So NACAC is is really focused on, how do we, if we as a collection of colleges, or even if an individual college really wants to rededicate itself to its own mission, we have been advocating that you be very intentional, really take a step back and say, This is our mission. This is the student body we want to assemble. And then here are the things that we think we need to know about the students through the admissions process, right? Because right now, a lot of admissions processes look the same across institutions, even though those institutions may be trying for very different things in the recruitment process. So again, I don’t want to oversimplify anything, because, like I said, there’s a ton of diversity, there’s a ton of of success stories out there, but we’d like to be able to help colleges even distinguish themselves further from some of their competitors, from some of their peers, for their own survival, for students and family’s sake, so that students, when they look at a college, they say, Oh, wow, Yeah, that’s the experience I’m looking for. So we’re really excited about our work. We are going to try to be very future focused in helping foster innovation in the admissions space. And it is all in service to two main goals. One is access and equity. Because we know the population is growing, we know there’s more people that want access to post secondary education. We want to be fair about it, and we know that institutions are facing their own crises, some of which are existential in nature. And we want to make sure that the higher education landscape in America is vibrant and that it’s well supported and well served.

Sheila Akbar: I’m so glad you brought that up. The fact that the origin of the system that we use was very exclusionary, and I think a lot of the movements towards greater access is just trying to just widen that gap from landowning white men to, you know, all of the rest of us out here. And it brings me to a question I have about character, because even when we talk about extracurriculars, right? It was a long time before work or family responsibilities were considered sort of on the same level as captain of this team or whatever club that a student might be doing as an extracurricular. And that lens on extracurriculars widened, really, because of this question of access and neck. City that there are some families where a teenager needs to work to provide or needs to take care of a sibling or a loved one, or their cultural values around what they can do outside of the home, or what have you, especially as we’re, you know, thinking more increasingly about applicants from outside of the United States, there are just different focuses in different school systems and extracurriculars happen to be a focus of the US education system, and not so much in other places. But I think in the same way, character maybe has this sort of other side of the coin where it has been used to exclude in the past, and obviously we want to make sure that it is inclusive and helping a college meet its goals in terms of what it wants to build on its campus, but also not some coded way of actually keeping an entire segment of a population out. So what are the kinds of things that we can look to there to ensure that kind of transparency and what conversations are being had around that aspect of character.

Tom Bear: Well, Sheila, I think you did a nice job in terms of talking about the fact that the thought of how we assess out character has broadened, and I think in a very, very positive way in terms of looking at a student, not just in that they have to be participating in extracurricular activities, but they do have worker responsibilities or family responsibilities or life experiences that have shaped character traits, and I think that’s again, where it’s so important to have a diversity of admissions readers who are trained up to look for those special circumstances and not just to recognize but To appreciate how that has formed and shaped character traits. One of the things that David and I and others are also working on is thinking through also. Most all of our youth are also finding opportunities to be involved with youth development organizations, which doesn’t always tie itself to, you know, social economic background, either. So for example, here in Indiana, Indianapolis, specifically, there’s a organization called Center for Leadership Development, which serves a lot of marginalized, underserved youth. And when you look at as these, this organization is preparing young men and women to go on to college. They’re also very focused on building character traits in those individuals, so that when they go on to college, they’re also going to be successful too. And you can look at other organizations, like Upward Bound and so many others that are out there. So this idea that we as higher education institutions should be thinking about our affiliation with youth development organizations because they can tie to so many different social, economic or student experience backgrounds, and as we value those character traits that the students acquire are introduced to, we open up more and more access for more kids, knowing that really the sole purpose of many of those youth development organizations is to pair young men and women to be successful in college, in life, we have to value those experiences the students are having in those groups. And I think it’s so fundamentally important. So I think, you know, we’re just finding more and more ways to open up our doors, and higher education institutions have to be, you know, thoughtful, but also accepting of those other paths that students can take to show their preparedness and ready for success in college.

Sheila Akbar: David, what would you add?

David Hawkins: Yeah. Sheila, I was going to add, I was at a conference in Boston that was put on by Boston College where a bunch of professors who focus on character had assembled to talk about in particular character and AI, but there was a lot of conversations about character in general. And one session, which I thought was particularly timely was the question of, is character compatible with social responsibility, equity, social justice. And it was a great session. I had the opportunity to point out that, you know, if you look at some of the history of college admissions, and I’m thinking back particularly to Jerome Cara Bell’s book called The chosen where he really sort of documented how admissions offices what, how the language of admissions offices had, sort of had been coded for a very long time and had evolved, but many of the same codes were still in place, and one of them that I remember was quality of character. And in this specific instance, what I’m remembering was that quality of character used to be code for Jewish students. You know, if you didn’t have the sufficient quality of character, you didn’t come right out and say, you know, this student is Jewish, and it’s been used for all sorts of other things, too. And so being very mindful of that history. One thing that I really want to emphasize to our profession, to those who watch the profession, to students and families, this is this effort to focus on character. Is intended to bust those old molds wide open. We want to break those molds. The philosophy we have is that every. Student exhibits some form of character that can be considered a strength. It’s our job to go and find that. And so for far too long, I feel like we’ve left too much on the table. It comes to just looking at grades and test scores, far too much on the table that we end up leaving out a ton of students who are absolutely capable, absolutely committed and absolutely aligned with the work that we want to do as institutions. So I’m glad you asked that question, because I do feel like it’s important to say right up front to name that yes, character has been used towards ends that we would not agree with. But at this point in our history, we are, we are very committed to making sure that this is an effort to broaden access rather than to narrow it. That’s great.

Sheila Akbar: I actually think that’s a great place to leave

David Hawkins: Yes, you know the NACAC character focus initiative it. Thank you both so much for joining me. If people want to learn more about character and admissions, can you point us to a particular website or resource? is the name of our character work. And so if you go to nacacnet.org, and you can just there’s a little search bar, just put character focus initiative, and it’ll get you right to the homepage. So it’s n a c a c n e t . o r g

Sheila Akbar: That’s linked in this show notes. Well, thank you both again for your time. I really enjoyed our conversation.

David Hawkins: Great. Thank you.

Tom Bear: Thanks.

Sheila Akbar: Gosh. What a great conversation. And for me, just so validating, because putting character first is something that we’ve always done at Signet. So it’s really validating to see the data around this and see that colleges do care about character in the way that we’ve always guided our students to care about it. So I’m sure this will be a topic we come back to often. And you know, one of the things we mentioned in this conversation is that a place that character can be assessed is in the essay, or essays, if multiple are required. And I wanted to highlight a session that I am running on June 17, at 5pm Eastern with some of my most experienced Admissions Consultants and writing coaches to talk about the college essay, and we are going to discuss it from a number of different angles. From what are the colleges looking for and what kind of stories are they hoping to hear about students, but also some really practical guidance on how do you get started? What does a good writing schedule look like, and how do you set expectations around timelines and deadlines and final proofreading, even, how involved should parents be in this process? So I hope that you’ll join us. Check the show notes for the link, or you can check our events page on our website or on my LinkedIn. Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you next time you.

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