Their college counselors were unhelpful and discouraging, two former Gunn High School students told the school board and Superintendent Kevin Skelly Tuesday night.
One student said he was told he should join the military. Another said she left the counselor's office in tears.
"I was told I shouldn't go to college. I wouldn't make it. The military was the best option for me," 2003-graduate Paul Esber said.
Esber ignored the advice and attended Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, completing a triple major and going on to work for the intellectual-property firm Rambus, he said.
Esber and 2001 graduate Jenny Blake were the only students who turned out to tell the school board and Skelly what they thought of Gunn at the school district's invitation, delivered via a parents' e-mail news list, Skelly said.
If his mother hadn't been very involved in the district, he wouldn't have heard about the meeting, Esber said.
Skelly said he would likely use Internet social tools such as Facebook to increase future attendance at similar meetings.
The two alumni said Gunn prepared them well for college but their college counselors failed to help them.
"I left the office crying. I just felt so discouraged," Blake said.
Her counselor recommended obscure schools she had never heard of because her SAT scores were low, said Blake, who double-majored at UCLA and now works for Google.
After her disappointing session, Blake turned to a private college counselor, a common move among students, she said.
Nearly all his friends hired private counselors, Esber said.
Even without the recent meeting's criticism, Gunn has been thinking of changing its counseling system to create closer bonds between counselors and students, Principal Noreen Likins said this week.
"Regular contact with a caring adult is obviously fundamental in terms of building relationships," she said.
The current system assigns freshmen to counselors alphabetically and schedules a small handful of meetings during their high school stay.
Students must go on their own time during lunch or after school to get to know counselors, Student Body President Max Keeler said.
"At Gunn you only get to know your counselor if you make an effort," he said. Those who don't take the initiative "get called in once or twice a year," he said.
Keeler visits his counselor every few months and encourages freshmen to do the same, he said.
Counselors are not to blame if students don't try to get to know them, he said.
And students sometimes unfairly give counselors a bad rap, he said.
"I think rumors get spread that counselors just aren't here for us, which happens when one person goes in and the counselor's busy," he said.
His counselor, Linda Kirsch, now knows him well enough to write a good recommendation and was helpful in picking out schools, he said.
"She really knows her stuff. ... She knows how to fit kids to colleges," he said, but added he decided to apply to schools she predicted he wouldn't get into.
Despite his pro-active stance, he said the counseling system at Palo Alto High School was preferable to Gunn's.
Paly freshmen are matched with a mentor-advisor with whom they meet throughout high school in a class called "Advisory."
"I really like Paly's system. Their advisors get to know them," Keeler said.
In February Gunn's administration will survey students to ask if they want a similar system as part of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation process the school periodically undergoes, Likins said.
The process requires the school to examine its strengths and weaknesses. Student feedback is crucial -- particularly about how to fit an extra class of advising into the already-packed school day, she said.
"It has to be seen from the student point of view as not wasting their time," she said.
Keeler said students would complain for a bit but then "get used to it" if another 20 minutes were tacked onto their already-packed schedules.
Junior Keith Jones said he would welcome an Advisory-like counseling program because students "never meet" with counselors in the current system.
If students approve, an expanded advising program could begin with next year's freshmen, Likins said. Gunn has already tried to help new arrivals with a more comprehensive, multi-day freshman orientation in the past two years, she added.