Graduates of Gunn and Palo Alto high schools feel well prepared academically and socially for college, though more than a quarter say better writing instruction in high school would have been helpful.
The feedback comes from a survey of alumni of the class of 2012 given online in August and September, 14 months after their graduation. Respondents included students from a wide range of colleges, including Foothill, Stanford, four-year public institutions, small liberal-arts colleges and the Ivy League. A few respondents said they'd worked or taken a gap year after high school.
While crediting Paly and Gunn for strong preparation, many alumni lamented in written comments the unrelenting academic pressure they had felt in high school.
"I don't understand why Gunn High School has to be so academically harsh," one graduate wrote. "I understand there is a lot of pressure from parents to get certain scores but, in the end, the work I did only was an attempt to make myself look better for the college application process."
A Paly graduate said, "High schools need to stop teaching students to make them excel at college and should start teaching them so they can excel at just being people."
Asked what advice they'd offer to current Palo Alto students, many suggested mastering time-management and study skills in high school, but also making time for fun.
"Don't let the pressure cooker effect overwhelm your high school career," a Paly graduate wrote.
"People forget to enjoy high school because they are so pushed to get a 4.0 (GPA) or 2400 (SAT score). I am terribly over-prepared for college and I wish that I'd known that would be the case so that I could have taken a step back in high school and relaxed more."
The overwhelming majority of respondents more than 94 percent from Paly and nearly 88 percent from Gunn said they felt "prepared or very prepared" academically for college.
Strong majorities 87 percent at Paly and 80 percent at Gunn said they also felt prepared with the "self-management skills needed for college life."
Asked in which personal respects high school had "underprepared" them for college life, the most popular choice, at 33 percent of graduates, was "None. High school prepared me well in all these areas." The categories in question were "having a sense of personal goals; having positive, respectful relationships with other people; overcoming adversity, setbacks or challenges; understanding the perspectives and experiences of other people; making ethical, constructive choices and resisting peer pressure."
More than 50 percent of students said they were well prepared in most of those categories. The exceptions getting less than 50 percent were the categories "making ethical, constructive choices" and "resisting peer pressure."
Asked in which academic areas they felt underprepared for college, 29.9 percent of graduates answered "None. I was prepared in all areas" -- again the most popular choice.
Overall, students felt most well-prepared in math (76.4 percent), followed by English or writing (69.5 percent), science (58.2 percent) and social science (55.3 percent).
But 30 percent of Paly graduates said they were underprepared in computer science and 22.3 percent of Gunn graduates said they felt underprepared in English or writing.
In written comments, several students expressed regret that they had not better mastered writing skills in high school.
"I went through Gunn without ever learning how to write," one said. "Students should have an essay a week."
A Paly graduate wrote: "I never really learned how to write a good essay. The five-paragraph essay is brutally overemphasized. I only wrote one paper that wasn't a five-paragraph essay in high school, but I haven't written a single five-paragraph essay in college. Kids need to be taught to be more generally confident and creative in their writing and instructed how to have essays flow naturally without using a strict format."
Asked what aspects of college life they found challenging, 45.6 percent chose the answer "balancing my schoolwork and social life," followed by "managing money" (38.4 percent); "making new friends" (28.3 percent); "living away from home" (27.7 percent); "lack of privacy" (27 percent); and "receiving lower grades than in high school" (24.5 percent).
In open-ended written comments at the end of the survey, many graduates expressed a wish that high school could have been less dominated by the looming college-admissions process.
"Stop trying to only work for 'what colleges will want to see,'" a Paly graduate advised younger students. "It makes it hard to become interested in learning for the sake of learning."
Said a Gunn graduate: "I think the administration really worries about the stress put on students but the stress really comes from the competition between the students, not the difficulty of the coursework. Everyone is just doing amazing and ambitious things and it's intimidating. When the school has fun activities or snacks in the quad or cool events, it relieves a lot of stress and makes school more fun for students."
Another Gunn graduate wrote: "For me, most of high school was spent with the main goal of getting into college. But once I got to college I felt lost. It was like, 'Okay, now that I'm here, what do I do?' I had spent all this energy and time working to be admitted that I hadn't given enough thought to what I would do once I was in."
Several graduates suggested that the high school Living Skills class required for graduation do more to emphasize practical skills.
"Make Living Skills a much faster-paced class that actually covers useful things like taxes, laundry and health insurance maybe even a quick 'cooking with cheap foods' unit!" a graduate wrote.
"All the time spent on lessons about accepting diversity and not doing drugs was largely wasted, since most of the material had been covered in half the classes I had taken since the first grade, though perhaps in slightly less detail."
Students differed on whether college was easier or harder than high school.
"A lot of Gunn kids came back from college and told me Gunn was harder than college but I don't think that's true at all," one graduate wrote. "It depends on the college and, in general, college is just different academically than high school."
Several also commented on the Palo Alto "bubble."
"If you come from Palo Alto you're living in a bubble a very, very thick one," a Gunn graduate wrote.
Said a Paly alum: "Appreciate your years here in Palo Alto because after leaving this city you'll realize how privileged we all were. Every single classmate I've talked to has realized how lucky they were to have grown up in such an educated and accepting community after they have left for college."
Many commented that the enduring lessons of high school had more to do with relationships than academics.
"I no longer remember most of the knowledge I learned in class but I will not forget the social and living skills I developed from various activities, or the friends I made due to seating changes and group projects," a Gunn graduate wrote. "I am thankful for the instructors I have met and their hard work that helped me.
"As an alumnus, I hope my feedback would help Gunn to become a better place for its students."
More complete survey results can be found here.
School officials said they sent the survey to 872 graduates all for whom they had email addresses.
Thirty-six percent responded to the survey 188 from Gunn and 130 from Paly.