Palo Alto High School's Sandra Cernobori is our Counselor of the Month


College Advisor Sandra Cernobori was sitting at her desk in the College and Career Center of Palo Alto High School in Palo Alto, California, when a parent came in to talk to one of her colleagues. She was not a parent at the school, but had some questions about college admission. A few minutes into the conversation, the visitor said to Cernobori’s fellow advisor, “Let me go get my son, I want him to hear this.” Whereupon she brought into the office her 18-month-old child. Yes, you read that correctly, her 18-month-old child.

Welcome to the world of college advising in the heart of Silicon Valley where the college learning curve -- and the pressure -- starts early for some.  Founded in 1894, Palo Alto High School, known as Paly, is nationally known for its academically rigorous environment. Its campus, which serves more than 1900 students, sits across the street from Stanford University. “Our students are often from families that are highly educated or highly value education, so expectations are high,” says Cernobori. “But we also have families where the parents have not attended four-year colleges.”

A native of the Bay area, Cernobori had worked as a teacher before succumbing to the lure of the technology field -- as many in Silicon Valley do -- working as a technical writer, as well as in business and marketing development. But she missed interacting with students. A graduate of California Polytechnic University -- Cal Poly -- who earned her teaching credentials at San Francisco State, she returned to San Jose State University to earn a Master of Arts in Counseling and Student Services. She joined the Paly college advisory staff in 2006.  

There, Cernobori is part of a three-tiered advisory guidance model that is the envy of other schools. At the core of the system are teacher advisors, who as the students’ counselors of record, meet with them once a week throughout their high school years. Supporting the teacher advisors are guidance counselors – one per grade level. And building on the work done with the students’ teacher advisors are two college counselors, including Cenobori, who begin working with students in their junior year.

“I’m very happy and love working in a school again,” she says. “The cyclical nature of what we do in college advising provides a framework, but then every day is different. And this job really draws on my strengths.”

A Bay area native whose large extended family still resides on the Peninsula, Cernobori is a first-generation Italian American and a first-generation college student – something her students may be surprised to know. And she brings that perspective to her desk at Paly. “In terms of college, my parents really never talked about it with me. My older cousins went to community college and so I did, too.  There is such a college-going culture and an emphasis on four year colleges here; I think the stereotype is students go to community college because they don’t have options. I was a very strong student and definitely could have gone to a 4-year college but I chose community college. It would have been nice to have my counselor mention 4-year colleges, but the idea of leaving home was very scary and more than I was ready to do. It’s different now.”

Read on to learn more about Sandra Cernbori, our Counselor of the Month for May, and take advantage of her encyclopedic knowledge about the college search, technology in the admission process, what rising seniors should be doing over the summer and how to handle the stress of it all:

How did you become a college counselor?

I taught high school English for eight years, and then took a leave of absence.  During my leave of absence, I worked in the high tech field (first doing administrative work, later as a technical writer).  Though I missed working in a high school, I knew I didn’t want to go back to teaching full time.  I have taken the Myers Briggs and Strong Interest inventories several times in the past and remembered that, in addition to teaching, my career results suggested school counseling.  So, I went to grad school at San Jose State part time and earned my M.Ed. and PPS Credential, while working full time at SAP.  Towards the end of my program, I looked for counseling jobs and decided to interview for the position at Paly.  Initially, I learned a lot about college counseling via professional development opportunities (e.g. WACAC Share, Learn & Connect and TEACH’s “FACTS Institute”, conferences (e.g. CSU and UC), and “on the job.”

What is your motto? 

Not sure I have one.   That said, I strive to use equity as a driving principle for the decisions I make and the policies and procedures that guide my work.

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

I am a first-generation college student (and first generation Italian-American).  My parents didn’t go to college.  My dad moved to the San Francisco Bay Area at 21 (completing all his schooling in Italy) and went to night school to learn English. He is an avid reader.   My mom immigrated to the Bay Area with her family at 8 years old and struggled as an ESL student—but her command of written English and spelling is superb!  In fact, Italian is my native language though my parents switched over to speaking English all the time at home when I turned 3 so I wouldn’t be behind in school.  I understand Italian very well but, sadly, have lost the ability to speak it due to lack of practice.  

My parents were very supportive about my education (and helped me with homework when they could) but I’m first-born so I was naturally eager to do well in school, too.  I don’t ever remember discussing going to college with them, though.   Although I was a very strong student, I wasn’t ready to go to a 4-year college (nor was I encouraged by anyone in my high school to do so).  I followed the path of my older cousins and attended community college at the College of San Mateo, earning an AA in Liberal Arts before transferring to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.  In addition to Cal Poly, I applied to San Francisco State and UC Davis. I was admitted to all 3 but chose Cal Poly because my best friend was going to transfer there too (not what I’d recommend, now!).

The application process I followed as a transfer student hasn’t changed that dramatically—but the 4-year colleges I applied to have certainly become more selective.  The most significant change is that there is an emphasis in the high schools and broader community about going to college, and specifically a 4-year college.  The Bay Area public high school I attended is now more rigorous and overtly encourages students to be college eligible.  I also think cultural awareness about going to college is greater; it’s certainly in the media a lot more often.  And, I also think more families are considering not only the benefits of saving money by attending community college, but are also keeping in mind the difference in the college experience when considering colleges that don’t have residential housing.

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

It depends on the student population and school counseling model/resources.  For the majority of students at my high school, yes it is.  Here, expectations are high, there is a college-going culture, and there is quite a bit of community pressure to “go to a good college.”  Freshmen and sophomores will work with their Teacher (academic) Advisors to select courses that fulfill graduation requirements and college eligibility.  In addition, freshmen meet weekly with their Teacher Advisor to cover curriculum to assist with the adjustment to high school—academically and socially—and encourage students to explore some activities or otherwise participate in school.  

Hopefully, students have their bearings by sophomore year.  In addition to focusing on academics to keep options open for their post high school plans, sophomore year can be a good time for students to start thinking a bit about possible majors and careers using tools such as the Personality Test (similar to the Myers-Briggs Inventory questionnaire) and the Career Interest Survey (similar to the Strong Interest Inventory) in Naviance, or using their PLAN test results and the Career tools ACT offers to explore their career interests (and which majors are related to those careers). 

If students don’t have access to these tools, the College Board’s Big Future webpage, California Career Zone, and other websites are good resources for this kind of search, too.  At Paly, in sophomore year, there are Advisory lessons that guide students to review their transcripts to ensure they’re on track for college eligibility and introduce career exploration exercises/tools, resumes, etc.  Sophomore year is also an opportunity for students to get more involved in extracurricular activities—maybe assume ownership/leadership of/for a project/event—and connect with their community to explore their interests by volunteering or job shadowing during the summer, both of which can be engaging and informative. 

But, I also encourage students to make the most of, and appreciate, the “here and now” and enjoy their high school experience instead of being hyper-focused on the future and college.

What advice do you have for students who are contemplating going to an independent counselor?

Students at my high school already have tremendous support and access to a multitude of resources, so I think it’s important to consider why they are seeking additional services and what expectations they have—and to inquire about these when meeting with a prospective independent counselor.  I recommend inquiring about the counselor’s training and experience, as well as the professional organizations he/she belongs to—and his/her familiarity with our school’s guidance system and college application school forms/transcript request processes and deadlines, if the counselor will be helping with that.  I also suggest asking for, and contacting, a few references. 

What are the five most important things for rising seniors to tackle over the summer?

1.       With time demands for the academics, extracurriculars, and the ACT/SAT/AP tests of junior year, many students don’t have time to adequately research colleges, so this is the most important task for summer.  This might include college visits. Even though summer isn’t an ideal time for a visit if classes aren’t in session, a visit can still be helpful.

2.       Develop a solid college list -- a list of 8-10 colleges with a range of selectivity that fit their academic, social, and financial needs/goals.   Track the application requirements and deadlines.  Students should finalize this information with their college counselor in Fall.

3.       In addition to using financial aid or net price calculators to help identify colleges that are a financial fit for their list of colleges, as rising seniors, students should look into scholarships sponsored by: colleges (sometimes these require that the college application is submitted by an earlier deadline); local business and civic organizations; cultural and religious organizations; parents' employers; places where students have performed community service, worked or interned.  Many high schools publish and maintain a searchable database of scholarship opportunities (we do so in our school Naviance Family Connection account) but students should also check resources in local libraries or national search sites like,, and many more sites we have listed on .

4.       Students should familiarize themselves with college application essay prompts and writing directions.  The UCs, the Common App, and some other colleges have already published the essay topics for next fall’s application cycle.  It can be helpful to brainstorm possible responses this summer.  Once the Common App for 2013-2014 opens in August, students can look at any application supplements their colleges might have which require additional writing.  The idea would be to map a plan for their essays to (1) avoid redundancy between the main Common App essay and application supplements (2) see which other application essay topics might overlap.

5.       Prepare for fall SAT/ACT tests, if applicable. 

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

Too often, students focus on the reputation of name brand colleges rather than really researching colleges to develop a balanced list of colleges—that is colleges with a variety of selectivity that share common characteristics and fit them academically, socially, and financially.  If they focus on fit in building their college lists, students will be more likely to be happy at any and all of the colleges that admit them.   Similarly, students put more time and effort (visiting, interviewing, and completing their applications) for “reach” colleges rather than the “matches” and “likelys” on their list; I think it’s important to begin with a strong foundation.

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

Don’t rule out consideration of a college based on the posted Cost of Attendance.  Many, many college students don’t pay the “sticker price.”  Not only might a student be eligible for institutional need-based aid, but perhaps also merit aid or other tuition discounts (e.g. Western Undergraduate Exchange program).  And, often honors programs found at out-of-state public universities offer scholarships, too.

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

I give a presentation to juniors that highlights the different kinds of colleges—liberal arts colleges, research universities, co-op institutions, etc.—and emphasize that students should consider the educational emphasis, size, culture, etc. of each in comparison to their interests and learning style.  When meeting with students individually, I ask them to identify the characteristics they like in the schools they’ve heard of and/or I point out similarities and differences between the schools and ask students to explain how those aspects fit them best.  Then, I suggest similar institutions and offer tools (e.g. websites, books, etc.) to help students find more colleges with similar traits.

How can students best benefit from technology in the college application process?

There are many excellent online tools that can assist with the college search and application process—and many are free (so students aren’t disadvantaged if their high school doesn’t use Naviance).  The College Board’s “Big Future” site is excellent. Not only is there a robust survey search tool and detailed profiles that feature interesting data points and summarize important application requirements, but also fantastic student-friendly articles and videos about everything from financial aid to college essays and interviews.  Students can save their searches, add colleges to create a college list organized by deadline, and more.  In addition, colleges’ websites are a wealth of information and commonly integrate social media as opportunities for students to ask questions of the Admissions office, learn about the student experience, or connect with other prospective/admitted students.

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?

In my experience in working with this population, academic preparedness is essential.   Students need to enroll in courses that not only fulfill graduation requirements but also college requirements.  Being able to start 9th grade in Algebra or a higher math class is important so this means middle school is a good time to start the conversation about college.  The distinction between a D grade counting to earn credit for a diploma, a grade of C or higher being required as a passing grade for college is also noteworthy.  More California high schools are aligning graduation course requirements to the Cal State Universities and University of California's; being on track for CSU/UC eligibility is a good start to ensure options for a great number of colleges.  These students also need to be encouraged to register to take the PSAT or PLAN tests to prepare for the SAT or ACT in junior year. 

In addition to planning for college academically, increasing awareness about the benefits of a college degree and the many college options available can be powerful.  Again, Naviance’s Family Connection or the College Board’s Big Future site offer several college and career exploration tools that would be helpful to initiate with first-generation college students early in high school.  A conversation about college-related costs (and eligibility for fee waivers, if applicable) and different kinds of financial aid should start early, too.

With regard to the application process, organizational tools to help track all the “pieces” of the application and related deadlines are incredibly helpful. 

In Silicon Valley, there is a lot of pressure on students to perform well, what's your tried-and-true advice for students -- and parents -- to get them to relax and not stress out over the college application process?

I’m not sure any advice can make some families relax and not stress over the college application process.  It’s perceived to be a high-stakes endeavor; all the media hype focused on name-brand colleges that are uber-selective doesn’t help combat this notion.  I remind families that the vast majority of four-year colleges admit more students than they deny and that selectivity alone is not an indication of education quality.  There are excellent college options at varying levels of selectivity. Prestige is not a predictor of success. 

Interestingly, the Paly grads who return in their freshman year to obtain paperwork from our high school in preparation to transfer to another college report that they are hoping to transfer because they originally chose to matriculate to “the best” (i.e. most selective) college they were admitted to, not necessarily the college that was the best fit.  That said, some are applying to transfer still aiming for the “prize”, trying again to be admitted by one of the same selective colleges they weren’t admitted to straight from high school.  I think it’s more important to focus on fit and realize there is a place for everyone—and they shouldn’t limit themselves to the most selective/popular colleges but really do their research to find a place that is a fit.

I tell students that they have control over two-thirds of the college application process—where they apply (and their applications) and where they will matriculate—and to focus on that rather than the decisions that are out of their control.  For the applications, I think it’s helpful to break tasks into manageable steps and plot out deadlines on a calendar to stay organized.  Student sometimes feel overwhelmed by the importance of their college essays so I remind them that the essays are only one part of the application and to think of them as an opportunity to share a bit of their voice to personalize the process.  

I also mention that the vast majority of matriculated students state that they are happy at their college—even if it wasn’t their first choice. 

Numerous studies and articles report that where one attends college isn’t the greatest predictor of future success but rather what a student does given the opportunities within the college and their own personal attributes—inquisitiveness, assertiveness, etc .  Finding a college that fits—one where a student can feel comfortable pursuing his/her interests, needs, and goals—will help him/her learn and grow, and perhaps will nurture or accentuate those personal characteristics that contribute toward success.  

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

My advice would really depend on the area of concern.  In general, I remind Paly parents that their students are in good hands: they have received academic advising from their Teacher Advisors the past three years, the parents have attended multiple presentations and Q and A sessions about college, and they both have the Viking College and Career Guide as well as and Naviance as resources.  All family members are informed.  I also recommend that parents let students drive the application process but offer to help with organization of materials and deadlines (I provide spreadsheets to help with this).  Parents need to be prepared to help file the FAFSA.  And, perhaps parents can assist in the search for scholarships.  Students need to have ownership of this process to build confidence; when they research colleges themselves, they are more invested in the application process and find it easier to write the application essays.  Rather than ask (or nag) students about the progress they’re making on college applications, I recommend establishing a routine time/location (perhaps away from home or separate from the main family quarters) to discuss the process each week—set goals and dates for milestones, address challenges, etc.   Encourage students to meet with their college advisors or drop in or email them with questions and to attend the numerous workshops we offer (e.g. essay writing, interviews, etc.).

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

That it’s important to meet deadlines and it’s okay to use estimates to file the FAFSA and/or CSS Profile on time and then update financial data once taxes are filed.  I encourage families to apply for need-based aid so that even if they don’t initially qualify, if their circumstances change it’s easier to ask for consideration from the financial aid office.  Also, it’s important to be sure to share any special circumstances not captured in the FAFSA and Profile with the financial aid office.  I’m often asked about how to request additional money, so I explain that typically the financial aid office has offered the most need-based aid they can in their offer; so, though it’s not recommended families try to negotiate, financial aid offices welcome questions about things families don’t understand in the offer or why/how another college might have come up with more aid than others.  And, I remind families that many colleges offer merit aid, too, but not the most selective colleges (i.e. the Ivys). 

What are the favorite books on your college-counseling shelf?

·         College Admission: from Application to Acceptance (Mamlet & VanDeVelde)!

·         The College Finder (Antonoff)

·         The Fiske Guide (Fiske)

·         Colleges that Change Lives (Pope)

There are several blogs I enjoy, too: 

           NYT’s “The Choice

          College Solution

          College is Yours


What websites do you find most valuable for students and families?  

·         College Board (Big Future) 

· (especially the “list topics” section)


·         NCAA Eligibility Center 


·         Naviance Family Connection

·         National Survey on Student Engagement 

·         Associated Independent Colleges of Art and Design

·         College InSight 

·         Colleges That Change Lives 

Which national issues in admissions most concern you and why?

I am concerned about the high cost of higher education, specifically for first-generation college students, students of color, and low to mid-income students who are eligible for 4-year colleges.   I know there are colleges that target enrollment of these underrepresented students, offering generous financial aid packages that don’t include loans—but, in my experience, students need to be very, very strong academically to be admitted to these selective institutions.  However, the underrepresented students with the most financial need at Paly have much lower GPAs and test scores; the financial aid packages from private colleges and CSUs where they’ve been admitted still leave them with a considerable gap, more than scholarships can fill.  Many consider attending community college with a plan to transfer, rather than living at home and commuting to a local CSU.  These students have incredibly potential and I know they can achieve this goal, with a bit of support.  But, it is heartbreaking to see how defeated the students feel.  They want the traditional on-campus college experience our community encourages them to strive for; they’ve worked hard to be college eligible, applied for aid and scholarships, and they still can’t afford to go to a 4-year college directly out of high school.  I worry that they will lose motivation to persist at community college.  I cling to the hope that studies find that students who are most prepared for college fare better at community college.

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

Those that are honest, approachable, and take a genuine interest in students. I’m impressed with the Deans who still visit high schools and develop relationships with students—and often hand-write notes on letters with admission offers.  Rather than give a “canned” presentation, they personalize the experience for students and engage in conversations; and, they ask questions without making the interaction feel like an interview or creating a tone of intimidation.  These Deans often assume the role of counselor and advise students about the application process and why a college might or might not be a good fit, as well as how to approach essays and so on. 

I admire several college representatives as well as my high school colleagues for similar reasons.



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