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Applying to a Cal-State School? Here’s What You Need to Know About the CSU System/Process

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Even among large state university systems in the U.S., the California State University system (referred to as Cal State or CSU, although there are other CSUs in the U.S.) is a behemoth. With a population of over half a million students, staff, and faculty members across its roughly two dozen branches, it plays a huge role in educating the state of California, and also attracts students from outside the state.


If you’re used to thinking of colleges as distinct, singular entities, you may find the mechanics of applying to a large state college system like Cal State to be somewhat confusing. If you’re from outside of California, you may also have questions about how your residency affects your application requirements and chance of being accepted.


Never fear, CollegeVine is here! In this post, you’ll find an outline of the Cal State system of colleges, their application processes and requirements, and the factors you’ll need to consider if you’re thinking about applying. Read on for our advice on making wise choices about the Cal State system.



A Brief Introduction to the Cal State System


The Cal State system as it operates today was created by the California Master Plan for Education of 1960, but the colleges it consists of have existed for much longer under various names and groupings. Originally intended primarily to educate teachers, these colleges now offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in a full range of fields.


Today, the Cal State system consists of 23 distinct campuses, some of which maintain additional “off-campus” branches that extend their reach to a larger number of students. You can find a full list of these campuses and detailed information on each campus on the Cal State website. Cal State also owns a number of other research and laboratory facilities throughout the state, including an observatory and a ship for training future mariners.


Like most state colleges, the Cal State schools were originally created to serve residents of that state. California residents still enjoy preferential treatment in admissions and a lower in-state tuition rate at the Cal State schools. However, students from other states and even other countries are also eligible to apply.


Currently, nearly 479,000 students attend Cal State each year, and the system lays claim to the title of largest (by population) 4-year state college system in the nation. It’s responsible for half the bachelor’s degrees awarded in California every year, and it awards more bachelor’s degrees each year than any other university system in the U.S.


It’s important to keep in mind that the California State University system is not the same as the University of California (UC) system. Both are systems of public universities in California, but each has its own policies, campus choices, and admissions procedures, and the UC schools are generally more selective and more expensive. To learn more about the UC system and its application requirements, visit the CollegeVine blog post How to Write the University of California Essay Prompts 2017-2018.

Applying to the Cal State System


To be eligible for admission to any of the Cal State schools, you must have successfully completed certain college preparatory courses while you were in high school. If you’ve completed these requirements, your high school GPA and your SAT or ACT scores are plugged into an established equation to produce the single number known as your Eligibility Index (EI).


Your EI is the main factor that determines admission to most of the Cal State schools and majors. Each school and major has its own EI cutoff for admission. This threshold may also depend upon where you live; students who come from the immediate area of the college and, more generally, the state of California receive preference in the form of lower EI cutoffs.


Applying to one or more schools in the Cal State system is different from applying to most other colleges in some significant ways. If you’re hoping to get admitted to a Cal State school, particularly one of the more popular campuses, you’ll need to follow the instructions carefully.


First of all, instead of the Common Application, Coalition Application, or another shared application system, the Cal State schools use their own application system, Cal State Apply. You must use this system to apply to any of the Cal State schools, and you can specify multiple Cal State schools on it if you’d like.


If you take a look at the Cal State admissions website, you’ll see that it lists a “priority application filing period” that lasts from October 1 to November 31 for admission in the next fall semester. The term “priority” is a bit of a misnomer here; at some of the more popular campuses, all the available first-year spaces may be taken during this time period.


In order to have the best possible chance at getting admitted to the Cal State college you’re interested in, you should always plan to submit your initial Cal State application during the priority application filing period. Some colleges in the system may continue to accept applications after November 31, space permitting, but this is not guaranteed.


In certain circumstances, you may have to provide additional information as part of your Cal State application. What this might require of you depends on the school and the situation. (We’ll discuss these circumstances in greater detail below.)


If you’re a first-year applicant (not a transfer applicant), you should not submit any additional documents with your initial application. After you submit your initial application, you’ll be contacted directly with instructions if and when more information becomes necessary. Don’t submit anything extra during the basic application process unless you’re specifically told to do so.



Impacted Campuses and Majors

One special piece of terminology that you’ll find used in the Cal State system is “impacted.” If a Cal State college, or a specific major at a Cal State college, is described as impacted, this means that demand for admission to this college or major exceeds the available space, making admission to this college or major much more competitive.

Whether a particular school or major is impacted can vary from year to year, but some campuses, like Cal State Fullerton, are already known to be impacted for the 2017-2018 application season. Impacted Cal State colleges generally require a higher EI for admission than the others, and impacted majors may require a higher EI than other majors at that college.

Impacted schools and majors may also base their admissions decision on additional information, requiring you to submit supplemental documents. Again, if these documents become necessary, the college will inform you and provide instructions for submission. Don’t submit any additional documents during the initial application process.



Admission for Non-California Residents

As we’ve mentioned, the Cal State system was established specifically to provide educational opportunities to students from California. For this reason, preference in admission is given to California residents, especially those living in the local area of a particular college, and to transfer students from the California community college system.

If you’re not from California, you’re still welcome to apply to the Cal State system. However, you should be aware that you’ll be subject to higher admissions standards. The EI threshold for out-of-state applicants is typically higher, meaning you’ll need higher grades and test scores to get in, and you may also need to submit supplemental documents if the college requests them.

As with most state universities and colleges, it’s also more expensive to attend schools in the Cal State system if you’re from out of state. California residents enjoy lower in-state tuition.


Choosing a Cal State Campus


With so many campus options scattered across the entire state of California, you might find it hard to decide which Cal State schools to apply to. While the schools in this system have a lot in common, and are run by the same chancellor and group of administrators, each campus also has a distinct character of its own.


Some of the Cal State schools are located in major cities like Los Angeles, while others are set in suburbs or small towns. Each school offers its own set of majors, and some of the schools are extra-specializedCal Maritime, for instance, is a small Cal State school that only offers a few majors related to maritime science.


Fortunately, the Cal State system’s website provides tools that you can use to help make this decision. Along with information on each college and the academic and other programs they offer, this website offers a Campus Match Tool that allows you to search among the 23 different Cal State schools by factors like size, location, and athletic offerings.


For more details about each campus, it’s a good idea to explore the individual websites of the Cal State colleges you’re interested in, and even to visit and speak to current students to get a more personal perspective. You can find links to each of the Cal State colleges on the Cal State website.  


When you submit your initial Cal State application through the Cal State Apply system, you’ll be instructed to specify your campus(es) of choice. If any of the Cal State colleges you choose requires additional information from you in order to make a decision, the individual school(s) will contact you directly and provide more instructions for what to submit and how.


Considering the Cal State system may be a little overwhelming due to its breadth, but within that wide variety of programs, you may very well find one that’s perfect for you. Especially given the early deadlines of the priority application period, if you think any of the Cal State colleges might be a good fit for your less, it’s worth getting to know their process, checking whether you meet their requirements, and putting in your research in advance.


Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.