Road Trip: Stanford University

We toured some of California's top schools and found out what it's like to attend them.

By + More

Follow the Google directions from San Francisco 35 miles south to the Stanford University campus and the first Stanford sign you notice is for the Solar Car Shop. But then, the alma mater of the founders of Google (and Yahoo!, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Sun Microsystems, and dozens of other nearby Silicon Valley tech start-ups) is known for its brilliant, entrepreneurial students and bleeding-edge technology. 

It is also known for its vast and elegant mission-style campus, called The Farm: sun-drenched lawns graced by golden sandstone-arched buildings with red tile roofs, surrounded by 13 square miles of cattle land, hills, forests, and shopping centers.

Its combination of academic intensity and California ease delights high schoolers like Daniel Buchen of South Pasadena, who visited in April. "There are all these really smart kids, but they seem kind of zany and laid back," he says, noting the crowded bicycle paths and enjoying a tour guide's tales of massive student hide-and-seek games. 

Many on campus scoffed at a Web story deeming Stanford the nation's most stressful college. But advisers concede that some of the 6,900 undergrads are "Stanford ducks," who seem serene but are desperately paddling under the surface to keep up. In 2010, a record 32,022 applied to the Stanford pond. A record-low 7.2 percent won admission. 

Stanford students say they have to be smart and hardworking because the unusual 10-week quarters push them to study more intensely than do standard college semesters. 

As a balance, the college tries to reduce other stressors. It claims to meet the full financial need of students who are U.S. citizens. (It does expect each student to contribute $4,750 in summer and campus earnings each year.) It is generous with clubs and activities, and funds adventures such as film club trips to the Sundance festival. 

Keisha Frazier, a communications major who graduated in the spring, had her heart set on the University of Southern California while in high school. But when Stanford sent a thick envelope too, she figured she had to visit, at least. Struck by "the vibrancy of the students, I was sold." The lack of an undergrad business major doesn't discourage employers, scores of whom recruit on campus, she notes. Frazier went to a campus job fair last fall. Within weeks, she got a job offer from Facebook. A good job lined up months before graduation—now that's a stress reducer. 

More About Stanford

Plus Factor: Ample financial aid for U.S. residents. Scores of job recruiters. Bike paths. Plentiful club funding. A film club went to Sundance.

Undergrad enrollment, 2009: 6,878

Est. annual cost, 2010-2011: $55,385

California Road Trip:

• University of California—Berkeley
• Mills College
• San Francisco State University

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.