College counselors hurtful, Gunn grads say

School has already been looking at changing counseling system to build closer relationships, principal says

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.

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Posted by Boo-Hoo
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 10, 2008 at 1:34 pm

Low SAT scores = High College Achievement?

Seems like the Counselors were just calling it as they saw it.

Well Folks .. that's all for this week's version of:

"Everyone's a Victim"!

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Posted by gordon
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 10, 2008 at 1:41 pm

Yes, as we all know, SAT scores are the most accurate, undisputed prediction of success in life.

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Posted by CHA
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 10, 2008 at 6:42 pm

Both my kids went thru Gunn and were met with same CHA posturing from their counsellor. First one was told he'd be lucky to get into any UC or private schools with his SAT scores. Confused, scared and disappointed from this wondrous supportive feedback, he applied to 17 schools including UCs and private schools.

After the first 10 acceptances, we knew he'd been jerked around by a counselor who only wanted to CHA by simply barfing up statistics on acceptance rates.

Instead of trying to encourage kids to strategically apply to some stretch schools, while nurturing their more solid choices along the way, this counselor program is an unfunny joke and a huge waste of time. There is little empathy or regard for the student's prospects as an individual.

Why bother with a meeting? Simply pull up their SATs and GPA and announce their limited choices.


lettergetting 10 acceptancesinto his fist on the off-chance he might get into one or two.

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Posted by dott31
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 10, 2008 at 6:49 pm

My daughter, a National Merit finalist, graduated from Gunn in 1984. Her counselor at Gunn could not have been less interested in this docile, shy, and highly talented young woman, barely saw her, and gave no aid in college applications and essays.

Fortunately our daughter's credentials spoke for themselves; she graduated from Stanford with degrees in ee and in English--and also met there her wonderful husband, the father of her two children.

But my husband and I have often reflected on the neglect of her by her appointed counselor, who was primarily dedicated to getting minority children into good colleges--a very worthwhile endeavor certainly--; but our majority child needed guidance and support as well that she did not receive at Gunn 24 years ago.

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Posted by you got to be kidding
a resident of Ventura
on Jan 10, 2008 at 7:42 pm

"24 years ago"......

you got to be kidding....

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 10, 2008 at 7:46 pm

I was one of the parents that received the invitation for last night's meeting to pass on to my college student. Unfortunately, the timing is bad. Since most students are now back at college it would have been much better to have planned the meeting for sometime when they would have been able to attend.

I am sure that many recent grads have comments, and possibly they are passing their comments on by email, but I feel sure that getting a group of them together would provide a clearer picture.

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Posted by Kate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 10, 2008 at 7:49 pm

To dott31

This happened to all of my children at Paly in the early 80's. Two struggled in school but did well in college, one getting an MBA. All have done well in life. They did get counseling from a family member with an school counseling. We were lucky. It is sad that getting into or applying to a second or even third tier college let alone Foothill is looked down on. The pressure on children now - and then - is really sad.

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Posted by dott31
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 10, 2008 at 7:52 pm

Well, no, you got to be kidding, I'm not kidding. My point in relating our history with a counselor at Gunn was to document what I believe to be a long history of negligence in this area.

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Posted by MAP
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 10, 2008 at 8:16 pm

The subtle comments of high school counselors, teachers, parents, and fellow students can be detrimental to the confidence and self-esteem of a student. While the comments may be well intentioned and practical in light of the circumstances, they may unintentionally result in a talented and bright student from taking a chance on applying to a particular college. Students should not be discouraged from applying to a college where, statistically, the liklihood of acceptance is low. The worst case scenario is that the student is not accepted and the best case scenario is that they are accepted.

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Posted by let's not sensationalize
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 10, 2008 at 8:27 pm

Perhaps a headline reading "College counselors hurtful, TWO Gunn grads say" is more suitable. The fact is, thousands of Gunn grads have benefited from the help and advice of the counselors there. While there is a certain element of discontent that needs to be addressed, let's not try to blow things out of proportion.

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Posted by indeed
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 11, 2008 at 12:05 am

regarding the headline, right on ..... TWO students. I'm not saying there's no story, but hey, the weekly loves to get those clicks and boost their ad revenue.. by the way, isn't it about time for some controversy about the paly principal..... maybe she hurt some feelings or wants to cancel graduation ceremonies?? Get on it, P.A. Weekly!

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Posted by Mandy
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 11, 2008 at 7:38 am

High school counselors should be taken with a grain of salt. They are not highly educated themselves. My daughter was told by a Paly counselor that she was not college material. She has now completed her master's degree and is doing very well, thank you. No child should be told that he/she is not college material. Everyone benefits from higher education.

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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of another community
on Jan 11, 2008 at 8:58 am

I graduated from Gunn 4 years ago and also received this type of negative feedback from counselors and teachers. Everyone around me was wealthy and came from a structured home, I had no confidence in myself and thought that I was just a "bad" student who could only get B's and C's in my classes. I remember taking an Economics class and doing poorly because the teacher made it clear that he thought I was not one of the top students.

Fastforward to today. I have a 3.78 out of 4.0 GPA at UC Davis. I'm one of the top students at the university. I have had numerous internships at top companies across the nation, held leadership positions at various university organizations and maintain a strong social network with my peers and professors. I have never felt more motivated and confident in my life!

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Posted by More History
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 11, 2008 at 9:02 am

Good to know that at least Gunn has been consistent. I was at Gunn in the late 70s and the counselors there were my greatest complaint about how the school was run. I was bright but not competitive and suffered from ADD. Teachers and counselors swept me under the rug: no encouragement for college, no support, and even some judgmental input that was very damaging to my self-esteem. Surprise, surprise, I didn't go to college, at least not until I got out in the real world and discovered that I had a lot on the ball. (I later graduated from a respected college summa cum laude, no thanks to my high school counselors.)

Clearly there is a pattern here from decades past. Let's just hope the situation has improved.

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Posted by ES
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 11, 2008 at 10:11 am

I too was discouraged by my counselor at Gunn and thought times must have changed by now. When talking to my counselor at the time about college, I noticed brochures for the UC and CSU campuses and asked if I could have one. "We usually reserve those for people who have a chance of getting into those schools," I was told.

Luckily I still applied and I did go on to graduate from a UC with a double major, although with some support and a positive attitude I think I might have aimed at least a little higher. I didn't apply to any private schools, not knowing which I might have gotten into and finding application costs steep, and my counselor did not suggest any schools for me to look into, seeming to think Community College was the best I could do.

Gunn sent me a questionnaire a year or two after I graduated, and I provided feedback about how my counselor had been so discouraging about my prospects as a college student, but I did not hear back from them and obviously it did not make any impact on how they run their system. I graduated in 1993 and it sounds like they have not changed since then.

It may not be as much of a problem for students who come from a supportive family that is more aware of the college system, but no one in my family had been to college at the time, so it was harder to find information and know what might have been a good school to aim for. It seems to me that a student like I was would have benefited the most from some good information and encouragement. Luckily we have the internet now so it's a lot easier for students to research colleges and entrance requirements!

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Posted by Concerned
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 11, 2008 at 11:59 am

It is about time that Gunn counselors and the Principal quit ignoring the fact that the counseling department is substandard. The type of student that goes to Gunn and the rankings mean that many go to college and Gunn ranks high. The counselors have nothing to do with it but take silent credit as if there is a cause and effect.

Having the student body president defend the counselors is laughable. Blaming the students for not seeking the counselors is ridiculous--they are perceived as not helpful and not very accessible.

The administration asked for feedback, only two students had the courage to go to the meeting. Where was this student body president--he certainly wasn't proactive in going and giving his presentation, but I'm sure was given to the media to defend the counselors.

Wake up--you have one a problem. Counseling is not taken seriously at Gunn by anyone.

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Posted by Palo Alto Grad
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 11, 2008 at 1:22 pm

It isn't fair to expect 3 counselors to deal with over two thousand college-bound students. Why is it the high school's responsibility to complete this busy work? It is COMMON KNOWLEDGE what you need during your high school years in order to get into a state, UC, or IVY league school. You don't need a counselor to tell you any of the above.

It's pretty simple. Get good grades. Study hard for the SAT. Read up on colleges (books available at the library). Apply to the ones that interest you.

Exactly why is it a counselor's job to hold your hand during this process? If anything, the parents need to get more involved and start acting like PARENTS, guiding their kids during this process.

It's stories like these that really give Palo Alto a bad name. Most of the comments don't help either.

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Posted by Gunn parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 11, 2008 at 1:38 pm

PAUSD alums, not current students, were invited to the school board meeting so let's leave the Gunn student body president out of it. He has had a good experience with his counselor, as I'm sure many have. He has been an agent for improvement though, as he was the only student willing to serve on the district high school task force, attending weekly meetings for over 2 months.

The point is that the guidance system at both high schools could be improved to help more students and I think that's why the district held this open meeting.

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Posted by Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 11, 2008 at 8:32 pm

I remember clearly that I had quite reasonable advice from my counselor at Gunn many years ago. I don't have info on the current experience at Gunn. By contrast, I find the Paly "teacher advisor" system to be peculiar. It has not been helpful up to this point (more years to come, though, with multiple children, so we'll see).

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Posted by Another Gunn Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 11, 2008 at 8:34 pm

I have to echo the huge disillusionment about the current Gunn counselors (can't speak historically). Although there are five, not three as a previous poster mentioned, the counselors seem perfunctory at best, and totally uninterested in any non-brilliant or non-disadvantaged kids.

My child, who is a 10th grader, met last year with his/her (I'm disguising gender) counselor who had just been appointed for all of ten minutes in late March. That was it. This year my child has a different counselor with whom he/she has not met. Big change of pace, eh?

Perhaps the counselor will be able to deliver the documents needed for my child to apply to college, but I'm hiring a private coach for the rest of the application process. I just pray my child does not encounter any actual PROBLEM while at Gunn because the counselors seem complete uninterested in helping with anything.

At Paly, in contrast, the school has the teacher/mentor program, where some 30 or 40 teachers, I'm told, get a prep period to serve as a mentor for their students. They serve as the "first line of defense" for their assigned kids, with whom they meet weekly. They can refer needy kids to counselors for troublesome issues, and counselors are MUCH more responsive as they are not swamped by trying to serve so many kids. This is a KEY example of how Paly is run better than Gunn for the benefit of the kids. Why is there a two-tier counseling system in our secondary schools? Why is Gunn so screwed in this area, while Paly kids are meeting weekly with teacher/mentors? How can this have been allowed to go on for so many years????

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Posted by Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 11, 2008 at 8:46 pm

Another Gunn parent, Paly students do not meet weekly with their teacher advisors (and fellow students in that advisory, by the way). I want to warn you about wishing for the Paly system.

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Posted by Paly parent
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 11, 2008 at 10:08 pm

There is a weekly advisory period at Paly; but, not every grade level meets with their advisors every week. There seems to be more meetings for upperclassmen which makes sense since they need more information about college-related items. There is set curriculum for each advisory. Assuming students attend, it's a good way to ensure students receive the information they need in a small group setting when they can ask questions, get help and so on. The advisors case loads could be smaller, though; that said, most know their advisees well (it helps if the student has also had a class with the teacher advisor--which certainly helps with the letters they write.

In our area, it seems people are focused only "name-brand" highly-selective schools and that counselors are compelled to suggest students add some match and safety schools to the list to try to ensure students have several options. There should be a reasonable number of schools--reaches, matches, and safeties, a balanced list.

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Posted by parent
a resident of another community
on Jan 11, 2008 at 10:16 pm

Mandy: High school counselors aren't highly educated?! They have Master's degrees and a counseling credential above their Bachelor's degrees. While they may not learn a lot about college advising (it's not covered much in ANY counselor training program across the country), there are many other important ways they serve and advocate for students. I'm sorry your student was told she wasn't college material; it's inexcusable since there are so many paths to college. Not every student is eligible for a selective college directly from high school though. Just as we don't want counselors treating our students as "one size fits all", we shouldn't judge all counselors the same.

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Posted by Anger => Energy
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Jan 12, 2008 at 12:06 am

Maybe they discourage you to get your butt moving.

Anger someone and they will show their real energy.

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Posted by '04 gunn student
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 12, 2008 at 12:41 am

I would've loved to partake in their meeting but the timing was bad and I was already back at college, as someone had mentioned.

Since I had low SAT scores and wasn't taking any AP courses, my counselor only suggested that I look at CSU schools, and when I mentioned a private college I was interested in, her only advice was to raise my SAT score to a particular level so I could be considered for the school (I wasn't given any ideas on how to boost the SAT score however).

I am now at an art school in Los Angeles, which by the way, doesn't look at SAT scores because of the school's emphasis on the visual arts. I became an honor student, have 2 graduate courses, and now maintain a 3.8 GPA, finishing up with a major in fine arts and a minor in creative writing. I don't think Gunn could've predicted that.

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Posted by Gunn Senior
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 12, 2008 at 1:03 pm

I'm a senior at Gunn, so maybe I can offer a more current perspective. The counselors work hard; they have good intentions. But there's simply not enough of them for the whole student body. It's hard to make an appointment to see them; hard to really get to know them when there's so many of us and so few of them. More counselors would be nice-- but then again, where are we going to get the money? Truth is, most schools DO base acceptance on grades and SAT scores. The UCs, for example, have an algorithm based primarily on those two factors. So when the counselors analyze your chances of getting in to a college, most of the time, they're just being realistic.

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Posted by Another Paly Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 12, 2008 at 2:35 pm

Just another bit of info about the TAs at Paly. These individuals are all regular classroom teachers or administrators who volunteer to do the counselling on top of their regular duties. They are not necessarily trained counsellors. They do vary from individual to individual. They are allotted to students for three years and the students themselves do have the choice of who they get, provided of course that they don't all choose the same TAs. Yes, there is a weekly advisory period, but quite often this is left as free time unless the TA schedules something for that particular grade level. They do meet several times during the year in a group setting, but individual attention has to be made time for outside the advisory period.

There were apparently in the past paid counsellors at Paly, but in a cost cutting measure many years ago, this was changed into the presesnt system, purely to save money not because it was thought of as being a better system.

If I have the exact facts wrong, I apologise, but having my second child going through Paly at present, this is what I have gleaned from experience.

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Posted by An Opinion
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jan 12, 2008 at 4:11 pm

Every student is entitled to their opinion, the student body president, the two students who showed up and the many who wrote in (not mentioned in the article). For the newspaper to give so much space to the Student body president and his mother (not identified by name) was a gross imbalance--enabling the Gunn Principal and counselors once again to ignore a long standing and very real problem for the majority of the students.

Gunn should take the feedback given, solicit more and try very hard to address a difficult and complex problem. Proper counseling, including timely support, direction and guidance at the right time has a tremendous influence on the futures of Gunn and Paly graduates. Palo Alto schools do such a great job educating students, let's insure that they are sent into the next phase of their lives with the maximum guidance to reach their potential.

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Posted by Paly parent
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 12, 2008 at 10:56 pm

The teacher advisory system at Paly was not the result of a cost-cutting measure. As part of school accreditation, the school was charged with finding a better way to advise students given the problem of the large student to counselor ratio of a traditional system (that is, the system that exists at Gunn). The teachers who act as advisors get a paid release period; that is they are paid as if they are teaching an additional class. There is a set curriculum for the weekly group meetings; they even post the schedule online. The teachers are not trained counselors but they do receive training. Their job is more academic advising; there are guidance counselors and college counselors too.

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Posted by Hulkamania
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 13, 2008 at 7:20 am

It doesn't look like anything has changed in the PAUSD since I graduated from Paly in the early '60s. The counselors had no idea who you were. They ran you in, looked in a folder, gave out some lame advice and pushed you out the door. I saw mine twice in three years. The best school and career advice I got was from the aircraft shop teacher.

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Posted by former student
a resident of another community
on Jan 13, 2008 at 12:32 pm

I'm so disappointed to see nothing has changed in the 20 years since I was a student at Gunn. I was struggling with classes and not the typical over-achieving Gunn student the counselors loved. So instead of offering help or encouragment, I was told by a counselor that I would "end up working at McDonald's". Her exact words, I clearly remember that b***h saying that to me. These people have no idea how hurtful they are and the kind of impact they make on a young person's life. They have no business working in a school. I would never send my kids to Gunn.

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Posted by Carolyn Lawrence
a resident of another community
on Jan 13, 2008 at 3:32 pm

As someone who has been both a private college counselor and a school college counselor, several comments in the article and here strike home with me.

First, I believe that no parent should rely solely on someone else to help their students through the college admissions process. That goes for BOTH independent counselors AND school counselors. Parents know their children best, and they are almost always are also their best guides through the process. Am involved parent who is willing to educate themselves fully about today's college admissions environment is better than any counselor, be it school OR private.

Contrary to popular opinion, this is NOT rocket-science, folks. Anyone who is willing to do research, to really look at their child's strengths AND weaknesses, and invest some time into the process, can insure that their child ends up at the right college. This was true 30+ years ago when my mother, who had never attended college herself, helped me through the process, and it is true now as well. So, folks, if you are unhappy with the counseling at your school, don't immediately rush to hire a private counselor -- get yourself educated about what it takes to get into various colleges, what the median grades and test scores of admitted students are, and help your child make realistic choices.

Second, don't assume that hiring an independent counselor is going to automatically give your child an "edge." While there are many wonderful, experienced independent counselors, there are many people these days hanging up a counselor shingle who don't know any more than the average person on the street about college admissions. So, buyer beware. (For reliable independents, do a google search for the Higher Education Consultants Association or the Independent Educational Consultants Association, both of which have standards for the experience and education of their members).

Third, while it is true that many school counselors have heavy caseloads and many responsibilities unrelated to college counseling, I have found the vast majority of school counselors to be good people who sincerely want to help. School counselors have some advantages that independent counselors do not have. For one thing, they have knowledge about the high school's prior admissions records at various colleges (independents only have partial knowledge in most cases), and they are the only ones who can write recommendations for students (independents can't) and contact admissions people on a student's behalf (independents shouldn't). School counselor knowlege of the school's previous placement history means that they can be a better judge of whether a particular student's college application list is reasonable and realistic, based on past admissions and rejections. School counselor's ability to advocate for students is another reason why no student (or parent) should ignore their counselor or wait for them to seek them out. As someone noted above: it is YOUR responsiblity as a student to ask for more attention if you need it. True, some counselors are very busy, but if you have a parent who is giving you help and advice at home, you do your own research as well, you should not really need tons of time with a school counselor to apply to and get into college. (On the other hand, students who do not have parents to help need to be extra dilligent about getting to know their counselor and seeking out advice from teachers as well)

Think of it this way: If you were a busy school counselor with a caseload of several hundred students, wouldn't you be more likely to help the student who has consistently made an effort to get to know you, to seek out your advice on other things, and to THANK YOU for the help you do provide. They can be your best advocate if you work with them, but approach them right off the bat with an adversarial attitude, and you won't get much help at all.

Finally, and most importantly, it is important for students and parents to maintain some perspective on college admissions. This is where educating yourself and your child is so important. Someone who is fully aware of the admissions statistics for a particular school and knows that their grades and test scores are outside of the medians for students who are admitted shouldn't feel insulted if a counselor - independent or school - tells them what they already know: some colleges and universities have become very selective in the past five years and ANY weakness on the applicant's part - be it grades, test scores, personal characteristics, extracurriculars - can reduce one's chances significantly.

As a counselor, both a school counselor and an independent counselor, it is my responsibility to make sure that my students are fully informed about their chances. That may mean sometimes telling students and parents what they don't want to hear. But, if I am not honest, I can't help students find colleges where they do have a great chance of admission, and EVERY student needs at least some colleges on their list where their chances of admission are very good. That doesn't mean that you can't add a few "reach" schools in the mix, but you need to have the solid foundation to your list in place first.

Additionally, no one should be insulted if a counselor mentions schools you have never heard of -- they are simply encouraging you to look beyond the obvious choices like the UC's and the Cal States. I find that Californian students and parents are the most parochial college consumers of any part of the country. They don't want to look beyond those UC's and Cal States. They deem anything else as inferior. While the UC's and Cal States are great, it really is a shame to stop with them because there are over 2,600 four year colleges and universities in the U.S., and so many wonderful options to choose from if you keep an open mind and do your research. By the way, none of the UCs or Cal States meet the full financial need of 100% of their students -- in many cases, you will pay LESS or at least end up with less LOANS if you attend a private university, and I'm not talking just about Stanford, Harvard, and Yale and the other "designer label" schools folks in California seem so fixated on. Check out Oberlin, Grinnell, Lawrence U, Rice U, Trinity U, Southwestern College, Beloit College, Hobart & William Smith, Fordham, Rhodes College, University of Rochester, Reed, Northeastern, Villanova and many, many others for starters. These may not be names you've heard of, but they are all excellent colleges that will give any UC and Cal State a run for their money in terms of giving you a good education. The key is: focus on finding the best match for your child, not the best known name.

But, the bottomline -- when your counselor tells your child that perhaps they should add a few "safe bet" schools to their college list DO NOT think that they don't have confidence in your child, or are saying your child is a bad student. They are merely trying to get your child to add some safer options to your list. Again, given the admissions landscape of the most selective colleges these days, that is good advice, not bad.

A bad counselor is the one who tells a student: You can get into any school you apply to. The truth these days is: NO student, even one with straight A's and 2400 SAT scores is guaranteed of being admitted anywhere. Flying without a safety net of good schools where your chances are high of being admitted is foolhardy. Sure, take a chance on those highly competitive schools, but don't expect miracles. Miracles in college admissions at the nation's most selective schools are few and far between these days. If you're going to play with the big boys, make sure you fly with a safety net, and you will sleep a lot better at night while waiting for your college results.

So, listen carefully when your counselor - whether private or school - tells you that you need to maybe consider a few safer bets. They're not saying you aren't good enough, they're just telling you that you need a safety net. That is the best advice any counselor can give, and you should thank them for it.

Carolyn Lawrence, the blog about college admissions

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Posted by laura
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 14, 2008 at 7:02 am

Basically the counselors base the chances of your child getting into college based on the last year's acceptance rates at the UC's and Cal State colleges. They try to be as realistic and honest as they can. They will identify when a school is a "stretch" based on these statistics. That is about all they can do. I must say Gunn tends to push UC's even though many kids end up getting degrees from them that are useless - religion, sociology, liberal studies, etc. That is why so many UC grads are waitressing..... The California State colleges tend to offer more practical degrees - nursing, business, teaching credentials but Gunn counselors tend to shy away from them.

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Posted by MM
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 14, 2008 at 9:43 am

well, after reading these other postings here is mine: I, female, graduated from Cubberley High in '72. I was discouraged to even take the SAT test by a counselor there. She said to me, " I wouldn't even bother taking the SAT test as you probably won't go to college". CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT?
I attended De Anza College with a 3.89 in science and math. Which was all A's and one B.
Ended up graduating at the University of California @ Santa Cruz with a B.A. in Psychcology. I was the first in my family to go to college. My family did not know how to support me in preparing for college so I really needed the support of a counselor but did not get any. I took classes in college that I should have had in high school but did not. I didn't get ANY support for going to college from the Cubberley counselor in high school nor from any teachers. I remember thinking that I was not smart enough to go to college. Mostly due to lack of attention and support. I discovered in college that I was very smart.
I remember teachers and counselors not supporting me to take science or math classes in middle school or high school. Girls were not supported back then in science.
Female student
late bloomer

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Posted by anon.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 14, 2008 at 10:01 pm

I think teachers/counselors at high schools and colleges everywhere can be discouraging at times. My boyfriends Sacramento high school german teacher told him he was too lazy and would only be able to work at McDonalds. He since graduated rom UCD and got a PhD in chemistry from Cal. We both got minors in Env Toxic fro UCD, the admin for that major wouldn't give us the brochure for the PhD program because she didn't think we'd get accepted. So I didn't try. I've since got a ms from State. And, my college roommate was told by the law school advisor that she wouldn't get accepted by any law school (even though she got an A in logic). She came home crying and had to be encouraged by her dad on the phone. She did get a law degree from UCD and now is a DA who has argued to the state supreme court. All teachers/counselors need to be aware of how they speak to students.

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Posted by RealityCheck
a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 14, 2008 at 10:19 pm

Who actually WANTS to be a HS guidance counselor as their career goal?
BINGO - that's why they are generally as useless as HR personnel!

My counselor just assumed I was going to the big state university where I was living or, if not, the big state university in the next state over when, in fact, I hadn't even applied to either school! And of course he had no clue about my chosen major, much less help me pick it out. Help with scholarships or other financial aid? Forget about it! In short, a total waste of time (much like HS, actually),

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Posted by work together
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 18, 2008 at 10:30 am

I am shocked about some of the negative comments posted here. Personally, I have met and gotten to know one of the Gunn counselors recently. I am impressed with his/her high level of committment to help and guide my child. They're all overloaded and overworked. Lets stop complaining and work together to help the counselors, the school, and ultimately our kids!

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Posted by solon
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 24, 2008 at 11:39 pm

Government schools should not have counselors. All counselor positions should be eliminated, there are myriad resources" parents, real teachers who teach, principals, coaches, peers older students who have gone before, blogs, internet resources, clinic psychologists, student neighbors, student employers, church members, rabbis, pastors, books ...

. remember, when there is a problem, the first question to ask is, "What can government stop doing to help?"

I know one HS student, was told, no more than a YMCA secretary. This person became a partner is a significant law firm, community leader, and president of a school board.
Another, the counselor would only recommend one school -- HIS! - later admitting the reason he thought the student himself was so spectacular her would raise the reputation of the school, which was possibly true, in this case, but poor guidance for that student.

In fairness, maybe only these absurd but true anecdotes receive notice, when well served students are silent. Specific counter examples, please?

How are the counselors objectively evaluated? Are these evaluations public? Done by students? Available to the press and PIE and objective and numeric?

Possible time for students to create an objective, numeric-based publicly available evaluation system.

This has been done at universities.

"What can government stop doing to help?"

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Posted by Gunn High Senior
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 26, 2008 at 8:18 pm

I have a friend with a 3.6 GPA that was told he should go to community college by his counselor.

While I feel that my particular counselor has been relatively supportive and helpful, I think that it is very unjust that there is such poor college counseling overall at a place such as Gunn. The great majority of students at Gunn work VERY HARD to achieve the credentials necessary to gain admission by selective colleges, and I feel that their efforts are put to waste by poor college counseling.

It is true, however, that the availability of outside resources (such as the internet) enable parents and students to figure out the whole college application process on their own. I have found websites such as to probably be far more useful than any college counselor could ever be.

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Posted by Student
a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 14, 2008 at 4:56 am

I agree that counselors are not very helpful with almost anything, but one could bring up the point that the over-emphasis they place on GPA pushes students to really get the highest grade they can, instead of leaving the admissions strategy to solely to chance and extracurriculars.

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Posted by Joana Mandoli
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 24, 2009 at 10:14 pm

I was told by my Gunn high school counselor that I simply wasnt college material and transferring from Foothill was not offered as an option. My brothers were told similar things, one counselor laughed in my mothers face when she told the counselor my brother wanted to attend a military academy. Im graduating next year with a BA in history (a subject I had all A's in in high school) from the University of Oregon and plan to attend law school. These counselors are told that if you're not on the fast track to an ivy league or a UC you're simply not worth bothering with.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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