The 12 Best Colleges in California

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Great weather, beaches, mountains, and world-class cities are just a few of the reasons why people flock to California. Another reason is the state’s exceptional collection of colleges and universities. The Golden State is home to six of CollegeVine’s 15 best public universities and three of its best liberal arts colleges.


Keep reading to learn about the 12 best colleges in California and what it takes to get admitted. 


12 Best Colleges in California 


California Institute of Technology (Caltech)


Location: Pasadena, CA  

Acceptance Rate: 7% 

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1530-1580/35-36

Undergrad Enrollment: 900  


Caltech is renowned for its science, engineering, and technology curriculum, as well as the research opportunities available to its students. Caltech receives grants from institutions such as NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Health and Human Services, and is home to impressive facilities such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Caltech Seismological Laboratory, and the International Observatory Network.


Caltech is also known for its honor code, which establishes trust across the campus community and provides students with vast access to labs, workshops, and other college facilities.


Learn more about Caltech and what it takes to get accepted.


Claremont McKenna College


Location: Claremont, CA  

Acceptance Rate: 9% 

Median SAT/ACT: 1420/33 

Undergrad Enrollment: 1,300


Claremont McKenna College is one of the best colleges in California—along with being one of the country’s best liberal arts colleges—and attracts thoughtful students interested in fulfilling the school’s philosophy of “learning for the sake of doing.” Claremont McKenna fosters an inclusive community of inquisitive students, 97% of which choose to live on campus all four years. However, don’t get fooled into thinking Claremont McKenna is insular—nearly half of its undergraduates also study abroad.   


Learn more about Claremont McKenna College and what it takes to get accepted.


Harvey Mudd College


Location: Claremont, CA 

Acceptance Rate: 14% 

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1460-1560/34-35  

Undergrad Enrollment: 900


The college was founded in the 1950s by Harvey Mudd, an accomplished mining engineer, to help future generations overcome the shortcomings of the traditional, narrow technical training available to him. The school has become one of the country’s premier STEM schools. Science, technology, engineering, and math classes are balanced with a core curriculum that includes courses in the humanities and social sciences to produce students with sharp technical skills, who are critical thinkers and proficient writers.  


Learn more about Harvey Mudd College and what it takes to get accepted.


Pitzer College


Location: Claremont, CA 

Acceptance Rate: 13%  

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1348-1480/30-33 

Undergrad Enrollment: 1,000


Pitzer’s five core values—social responsibility, intercultural understanding, interdisciplinary learning, student engagement, and environmental sustainability—are the underpinnings of the school’s experience. Pitzer was the first college in southern California to divest from fossil fuel stocks, and more than 25% of the school’s energy comes from renewable energy sources. When undergraduates aren’t putting in roughly 100,000 hours annually in community-based projects, 68% of those living on campus reside in the college’s LEED-certified residence halls. 


Learn more about Pitzer College and what it takes to get accepted.


Pomona College 


Location: Claremont, CA 

Acceptance Rate: 8% 

Median SAT/ACT: 1490/33 

Undergrad Enrollment: 1,500


Pomona College provides its students a unique opportunity to attend one of the best colleges in California and best liberal arts colleges in the country, while also taking advantage of big-school benefits thanks to its inclusion in the Claremont Consortium. The Claremont Consortium is a collection of five undergraduate schools and two graduate institutions all located within one square mile that share resources and increase academic and co-curricular activities. 


Learn more about Pomona College and what it takes to get accepted.


Scripps College


Location: Claremont, CA 

Acceptance Rate: 25%  

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1333-1490/30-33

Undergrad Enrollment: 1,000

Scripps College was founded in 1926 by newspaper entrepreneur and philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps and has gone on to become one of the country’s preeminent women’s liberal art colleges. Scripps College is known for its core curriculum, a collection of three courses centered on the humanities that challenge undergraduates to investigate and debate broad, critical topics by examining them from multiple perspectives.  


Learn more about Scripps College and what it takes to get accepted.

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Stanford University 


Location: Stanford, CA 

Acceptance Rate: 4%

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1420-1570/31-35 

Undergrad Enrollment: 7,000 


More than just one of the best colleges in California, Stanford University is one of the most prestigious universities in the county, and has been a hub of thought and innovation for decades—the school is home to the first heart and lung transplant, the birth of the computer mouse, and the development of digital music. Stanford alumni have also gone on to found some of the world’s most recognizable businesses, including Google, Nike, Netflix, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, Instagram, and Charles Schwab.


Learn more about Stanford University and what it takes to get accepted.


UC Berkeley


Location: Berkeley, CA 

Acceptance Rate: 15% 

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1330-1530/29-35  

Undergrad Enrollment: 30,800


UC Berkeley, often known simply as Cal, has a reputation for attracting students with an interest in community action and political activism—thanks, in part, to being the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s and home to activist/icon Abbie Hoffman. While activism is important to undergraduates, so are academics. The school is renowned for its excellence in majors varying from the social sciences to engineering to biological sciences to languages. 


Learn more about UC Berkeley and what it takes to get accepted.


UC Irvine


Location: Irvine, CA 

Acceptance Rate: 29% 

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1250-1510/24-31 

Undergrad Enrollment: 29,700


UC Irvine is known for its rigorous academics, premier research opportunities, innovation—and its mascot, Peter the Anteater. UC Irvine has also earned big praise for creating educational opportunities for students from all backgrounds, earning acclaim from the New York Times for “Doing the Most for the American Dream.” Not bad for a school that has also been praised as having the best campus for beach lovers.   


Learn more about UC Irvine and what it takes to get accepted.




Location: Los Angeles, CA 

Acceptance Rate: 14%  

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1360-1550/29-32

Undergrad Enrollment: 31,500


UCLA’s prime Los Angeles location—providing easy access to the beach, mountains, and Hollywood sizzle—put it on the top of many college-bound students’ lists of dream schools (it receives more applications than any other university in the world). Driving additional appeal to UCLA is its proximity to industries ranging from entertainment to aerospace and famous alumni with achievements varying from Nobel Prize winners to NBA MVPs.   


Learn more about UCLA and what it takes to get accepted.




Location: Santa Barbara, CA 

Acceptance Rate: 30% 

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1280-1520/26-31 

Undergrad Enrollment: 23,000


UCSB is a leading research institution that is backed by a comprehensive liberal arts curriculum. UCSB is one of just 64 U.S. and Canadian research institutions that are members of the Association of American Universities, a prestigious organization devoted to maintaining a strong system of academic research and education. Outside of the classroom, UCSB students take advantage of one of the prettiest campuses in the country—the college actually owns beachfront property. 


Learn more about UCSB and what it takes to get accepted.




Location: Los Angeles, CA  

Acceptance Rate: 13% 

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1360-1510/30-34 

Undergrad Enrollment: 19,900


Admission into USC is becoming one of the most coveted prizes for high-achieving high schoolers, with the school receiving a whopping 59,000 applications in 2020. USC is also increasingly diverse: 22% of the Class of 2024 are first-generation college students and 30% of them are students of color. One thing all undergraduates can come together over is the university’s history of greatness—it has had a gold medal-winning athlete in every summer Olympiad since 1912 and alumni have been nominated for an Oscar every year since the inception of the award in 1929.


Learn more about USC and what it takes to get accepted.


What Are Your Chances of Acceptance?


Wondering what your odds are of admission at one of the great Golden State schools? ColegeVine can help. Our free chancing engine uses quantitative data like grades and standardized test scores along with qualitative factors like extracurricular activities, awards, and achievements to predict your odds of acceptance at hundreds of schools in California and across the country. 


Remember to build a balanced school list including safety, target and reach schools to put yourself in the best position to find the perfect school for you. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!


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Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.

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