Trevor Rusert, Sewickley Academy

We want to tell you a story. A story that we think gets to the heart of who most high school college counselors are -- at least the ones every parent wishes for their son or daughter. This is a story about Trevor Rusert and a student named Amanda.

Amanda lives with her father, a single parent. Her family is working class and Amanda had a significant scholarship to attend Sewickley Academy in Pennsylvania where Rusert is Director of College Guidance. But her scholarship didn't cover everything, so Amanda worked 30 hours a week at McDonald's as shift manager -- 6 p.m. to midnight, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and then full shifts on the weekend -- to make up the difference. In the summertime, she worked with Sewickley's maintenance crew during the day and was back at McDonald's at night -- 70-plus hours a week.

Nearly 50% of Sewickley's students are AP Scholars. Amanda wants to be an engineer and in addition to working full-time, Amanda took AP classes. She also took part in Sewickley's Global Studies Program, an international travel and service learning experience. Amanda spent about 3 weeks in the Dominican Republic, living and working with sugar cane workers, almost all of whom were Haitian refugees. While teaching English to the children there, she discovered a problem -- the sugar cane companies had destroyed the birth certificate of the refugees, which effectively made them indentured servants. Without a birth certificate, the workers had no access to government services or the ability to travel.  The children who were born there couldn't afford birth certificates, which were about $40 -- an amount equal to an annual wage. When Amanda returned to Sewickley, she decided to raise enough money to purchase birth certificates for the children -- organizing fund raisers, baked good sales, and contests at the half time of basketball games. She eventually raised $4,000, enough to purchase birth certificates for almost 100 of the children

Meanwhile, she applied to college. But each of the schools she was admitted to gapped her financially upwards of $15,000 to $20,000 short of her demonstrated need. Rusert told her, "Amanda, you are going to college." Though he didn't know exactly how yet. One afternoon, he visited Robert Morris University across the river in Pittsburgh. It was a visit to get to know the school a bit better and he learned more about the engineering school Robert Morris had been building.  When he got back, he emailed them Amanda's transcripts and recommendation letters. They called the next day and said we want this student. "You can't accept her and gap her," he said. "They accepted her application and funded her within 48 hours, gave her an aid package and eliminated the gap. So she could take out a subsidized Stafford loan and Perkins loan and she is there right now."  And, by the way, Amanda took her birth certificate project with her to Robert Morris where she continues to raise money for the children in the Dominican Republic.

"That experience for me, that's what makes my job worth it," says Rusert. "I will never forget her for the rest of my life."

A graduate of Allegheny College, Rusert joined Sewickley Academy in 2005 after 11 years on the other side of the desk at Carnegie Mellon University. "Sitting in the admission and scholarship committees and being a part of the decision process, deciding who got in and who didn't and why, reading all of those apps, all those essays -- I probably reviewed close to 60,000 essays -- it gives me street cred with the students here," he says. "The information isn't necessarily new, but if their mom and dad are telling them, they're not going to listen. When I tell them, look I sat on the other side of the desk and this is what I saw, that tends to resonate with students."

An independent coeducation school, serving students from early childhood through 12th grade, Sewickley is known for its academic rigor and college prep program. About 725 students from over 100 public school districts, including some from West Virginia and Ohio, attend classes on the campus, just 12 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. "Due to the academic rigor here and our size, we're a place that really needs students to do everything," says Rusert. "One of my favorite stories -- we won the state championship in boys' basketball and the lead scorer in that game was a first chair violinist and sang in the choir. I went to a high school where it would have been social suicide for an athlete to be a violinist and Sewickley is not like that. I really enjoy being part of an academic institution that embraces all of that."

Married to an attorney for the Pennsylvania Superior Court, Rusert is father to a six-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son. And when he's not working, it's all about family. "That's one of the reasons I loved the switch from college admission to high school college guidance: being able to spend time with my children," he says. "And summertime is daddy day care. I work a few limited hours in the summer and I have the kids the rest of the time and I just have a ball. Wouldn't trade that for anything in the world -- for me to experience every booboo and triumph and tooth fairy visit."

Read on to share Rusert's excellent advice about what juniors should be doing now, resources for researching colleges, and -- especially -- his first-rate explanation of "foundation schools."

How did you become a college counselor?

I spent eleven years working in the undergraduate admission office at Carnegie Mellon University.  Through the years, I had many responsibilities including everything from coordinating tour guides, running the alumni interview process, athletics liaison, and eventually chairing several admission and scholarship committees and coordinating the first year financial aid process.  However, as I climbed up the ladder of responsibilities, I had less interaction with high school students.  I had many friends make the switch from admission to college guidance, so it was something I was considering.  Eventually, an opportunity presented itself that was too good to pass up and I made the switch.

What is your motto?

The selectivity of a college does not measure the quality of the educational experience!  We are fortunate to live in the United States which is the “Mecca of Higher Education”.  There are over 4,000 colleges, universities, trade schools, and degree-granting institutions in the U.S., and students from all over the world would give anything to attend one of these schools.   The challenge is finding the schools that match a student’s interests while also offering a range of selectivity. 

How many colleges did you apply to? And how is the process different?

I applied to 5-6 schools, but didn’t really spend a lot of time researching them.  I applied to them because they had name recognition in our community (i.e. smart kids had gone there).  I had very little guidance with regard to the actual college admission process and no real strategy going into the application process.  I had been on a few of the college campuses while going to watch my older brother play football, but I didn’t take a campus tour at any of the schools where I applied.  I took the SAT twice and the ACT once and never did any prep work.  Essentially, I did all of the things students can’t afford to do 25 years later.  Today, students need to spend time researching schools, visiting schools, preparing for standardized tests, and planning an application strategy.

Is freshman or sophomore year too early for students to start working with their college counselor?

Yes!  I firmly believe that starting this process too early or worrying about specific colleges in the freshman or sophomore year can actually be detrimental to a student’s college process later on.  That doesn’t mean freshman or sophomores can’t have questions that are relevant to the college process.  I always tell our ninth and tenth grade students and parents to call or email if they have a question that they think is relevant to the college process (typically it revolves around scheduling or summer programs).  However, we refuse to start one-on-one college counseling in grades nine and ten.  I want the sole focus of our ninth and tenth graders to be on achieving the best grades possible, finding areas to improve, expanding their extracurricular involvements, and finding things in life that they are passionate about.  If they can do these things well, and continue to improve, they will lay a foundation for tremendous success in the college process.  We believe that students can handle this process well for about 12 months before they begin to experience burnout. 

Starting in December of junior year, our students begin their College Seminar class which meets once during every 8 school days for 75 minutes.  This class will meet for the second two trimesters of junior year and the first trimester of senior year (leading up to November of senior year when they begin submitting college applications.)  In each class we take a slice of the college process and break it down for the students, and as the class proceeds we build on the things that have been previously covered.  During this time we also schedule regular one-on-one meetings with students and parents, have regular communication with them, and offer two additional evening programs for parents.  The junior and senior years are very intense (for students and parents) and we need students to be peaking in November of senior year. 

What advice do you have for students about getting to know their high school counselor?

Attend the college guidance events, read the communications that are emailed or sent home, and visit with the college guidance counselors on a regular basis in grades 11 & 12.  Equally important, students should get to know themselves (by pushing themselves academically, getting involved in extracurricular activities, and finding the things that they truly enjoy).

What should juniors be thinking about at this time of year?

They should have already developed a list of interests and started researching colleges.  Now is a great time to begin visiting schools based on those interests.  They also should be making plans for the summer.

At this time of year, there's a lot of anxiety as decisions begin to arrive. What is your best advice for seniors during this time?  

Hang in there!  You are almost at the end of the process.  If you applied to a balanced list of colleges you most likely will receive a range of admission decisions (acceptances, waitlists, and denies).  It is vitally important that you celebrate every acceptance!  Most teenagers around the world would give anything for the chance to attend one of these colleges.  If you have been admitted to more than one school, you owe it to yourself to do some research into all of them, and maybe even go back for another round of visits.  It is also important to respect everyone’s right to privacy.  Most people don’t want to share their college results, especially not in public, and it is never o.k. to discuss who got in and who didn’t.  Lastly, don’t let this college process dominate the last two months of high school.  Enjoy this time, because you will never get it back.

What is the biggest mistake you see a student make in applying to college?

Failure to have a strategy and to be honest about your chances for acceptance.  These are the students who spend 90% of their time thinking about a school where they have a less than 10% chance for acceptance.

As well, it is important for students to express genuine interest in all of the colleges where they are applying (especially the colleges where their chances for admission are strong.)  Because more colleges are using demonstrated interest as a factor in admission, we see a lot of strong students who are waitlisted at colleges that would normally admit them.  In almost every one of these instances, the colleges will tell us that they did not believe the students were genuinely interested in enrolling.  A visit to campus helps, but it goes beyond that.  You need to attend admission events in your area, and engage the admission representative who is assigned to your home state to express your interest in their college or university.

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

Rather than start with the college where you have almost no chance for acceptance, let’s start by applying to 4-5 outstanding colleges where your chances for admission are strong (i.e., your GPA is above the average GPA of accepted students from your school, and your standardized test results are above or at the top of the average range).  We no longer call them “safety schools” because that tends to carry a negative connotation.  Just because one school is easier to gain admission to than another does not mean that you are sacrificing quality of education.  Therefore, we call these colleges “foundation schools”.  These are the schools where you can build a foundation for success in life.  Places where you can receive an outstanding education, and go on to launch a successful career.  The application process is kind of like building a house.  You don’t start by planning a rooftop swimming pool (that is probably not realistic), you start by building a strong foundation.

How do you encourage students to broaden their college search and look beyond the four or five schools that they know best?

I’ve mentioned a lot of this above.  It’s a constant process of educating the community about the fact that there are hundreds upon hundreds of colleges where students can receive an outstanding education.  We had a parent speak at an awards day ceremony last year, and she is an incredibly successful corporate recruiter.  She started her talk by rattling off the names of the colleges where the CEO’s for the top earning companies in the U.S. graduated.  The majority of them were not “brand name” schools.  She really challenged our students (and by extension our parents) to stop focusing on the name of the school and start focusing on what you make of the experience.  I’ve been quoting her ever since! 

What is your best advice about how many schools students should apply to?

I think 6 to 9 schools is a reasonable number, provided you have at least 4 to 5 foundation schools.  I generally discourage anything more than 10.  If you do the research ahead of time, you can easily find 6 to 9 schools with a range of selectivity where you can receive an outstanding education.

Can you address the best way for students to research colleges -- resources, criteria, or do's and don'ts?

Students need to get on the websites, review the academic offerings, and visit campus.  There is also a lot of relevant data to explore.  Ask the college for data pertaining to their freshman retention and 4-year graduation rates (most colleges give their 6-year graduation rate, yet very few parents are willing to pay for 6 years of college).  Stop at the Career Center and ask about post-graduation success.  They should be able to provide employment rates and average starting salaries by major.  There is a great website called College Data with a lot of this information.  Here is a link:

Do students who come from homes without a college-going culture or from homes where they would be the first to attend college have a different timeline or need to approach the application process differently?

The student’s with whom we work generally do not.  Our process is designed to keep everyone on a timeline.  For “A” students, “B” students, and “C” students, students from different socio-economic backgrounds, students from different ethnic or religious backgrounds -- it’s the same time-line for everyone.  It can be a challenge to convince parents of the need to research and visit colleges.  If financing college is a concern, those students need to apply to even more foundation schools, because generally speaking these are the schools that will offer more merit aid.  I realize that several of the most highly selective colleges offer outstanding need-based aid, but admission is so difficult they do not offer a viable strategy from a financial aid perspective.

What advice do you have for parents who are concerned about their student’s college application process in some way?

We give our students and parents similar advice.  We tell them that open and honest communication between students, parents, and college counselors is a must.  We institute a “one-night-per-week” rule.  Where students and parents establish one night each week where they are permitted to talk about college.  We encourage students to buy into this and participate, so they aren’t bombarded with questions about college every night.  We encourage parents to adhere to this so that they do not allow the college process to take over the last year and half that they have with their children before they head off to college.  The college process can dominate the last two years of high school if you let it and it can be stressful for everyone involved.  Instead we encourage parents to have fun, include fun stops during college visits, talk about things that have nothing to do with college, talk about the fun things that you did in college, get to know them as young adults, and enjoy their time with them before they head off to college.

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

Every college and university has different requirements.  Make sure you are following the requirements for each school and most importantly turning in all the required documents by the deadlines.  Don’t hesitate to ask if they will consider special circumstances, and whether or not they are willing to reconsider your aid package based on stronger offers from other colleges.  As I mentioned above, if you’re worried about aid, students need to apply to more foundation schools.

Finding scholarships can be a time- and labor-intensive task, any advice or tips for students and families?

Unfortunately, this is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.  Most of the scholarship dollars come from the colleges themselves.  If your high school uses Naviance, there is a scholarship database which is a good starting point (at least you know students in the past have applied and often many of the local scholarships will be listed).  After that, you can do a search on Fastweb, but you need to realize it may take a lot of time.

Which national issues in admissions most concern you and why?

The growth of international applications, the large need-based financial aid gaps that we are seeing for low-income families, and the increasing use of demonstrated interest.

With so much in the news about diversity and affirmative action, was there a time in college or your career when you had an “aha” diversity moment – a time when being in a diverse environment yourself taught you something valuable?

I attended a high school which had socio-economic diversity, but almost no ethnic or religious diversity.  College was a very different experience, and playing football in particular gave me the opportunity to meet and become friends with students from many different backgrounds.  The first friend I made within the first hour of pre-season football camp, was someone with a different background than my own.  We started talking, and realized that we liked all the same things.  We immediately hit it off, became great friends, and are still great friends today.  I quickly realized that you can’t label people and make assumptions about them based on their background or beliefs; you need to get to know them.  I spent the rest of my college years, and life for that matter, getting to know all kinds of people and truly enjoying all that we can learn from one-another.

When you think of deans of admission you admire, without naming any names, what are the qualities you admire in them?

Honesty and transparency are at the top of the list!  I admire the ones who are not afraid to speak up, when they find something in our industry to be alarming.  I admire the ones that are still willing to talk to secondary school counselors to understand the challenges and pressures we are facing.   





A great "foundation" piece, with words of advice well worth heeding.

One more bit of wisdom to add to the mix: Don't sweat the small stuff. And remember, it is almost all small stuff! Students and parents alike tend to fixate on the minutia, rather than to look at the big picture. More and more, colleges are taking a holistic approach to admissions. So, too, should applicants for admission. It is not just GPA and test scores, essay and activities. It is a combination of all of the above, plus. Nuanced, yes. Worth stressing over to the point of mental fatigue. No!

Going to college is fun. Getting in to college should be at least half as much fun. Enjoy the ride!

Great advice! Thank you!  Christine

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