Priya Desai 11 min read 12th Grade, College Application Tips

How I Got Into UCLA

Growing up in sunny Southern California, I had uncles who had gone to UCLA, my family attended the football games religiously, and everyone joked that I was a “Baby Bruin” before I could even read. But to be honest, I didn’t give much thought to where I wanted to go to college until the application process. But none of that actually made sense to me for years; until my sophomore year of high school, I truly had no idea what to expect in terms of what college even was, let alone the admissions process. 

 

In the winter of my sophomore year, I joined a multi-week program called Youth Leadership America that consisted of college- and professional-oriented workshops. Towards the end of the program, we had a college tour of UCLA. It was love at first sight. Somehow, walking up the main campus pathway, Bruinwalk, everything clicked. The years of hearing my family’s praise about UCLA finally made sense as I looked around the beautiful campus and took everything in. In that moment, I knew I could enjoy making this arduous trek for years. 

 

Following that day, I took many campus tours – I saw most of the UCs and a couple of California’s private schools. Though I considered each of these universities, nothing compared to that initial click that I felt on UCLA’s campus. During the course of the admissions process, I ended up visiting the campus three separate times, each time becoming more and more sure of my decision. 

 

Application Context

 

I am Indian-American and was the first in my family to be born in the United States. My parents immigrated from India as children and completed their undergraduate education in California. I attended a public high school in Southern California. I worked on my UC essays over the summer and submitted my application in early November.

 

I received admissions-related assistance from a third-party admissions counselor who helped me edit my admissions essays and looked over my application before I submitted it. The UCs do not have any early admissions options; all applicants must submit before November 30th.

 

I did not apply for financial aid. UCLA is need-blind, meaning financial status is not considered when admissions officers review applications. Check out CollegeVine’s blog for a complete list of need-blind schools!

 

Academics 

 

This past cycle, admitted students had an unweighted GPA of 3.92 – 4.00, with the former number representing the 25th percentile and the latter representing the 75th percentile. My unweighted GPA at the time of applying was below the 25th percentile. 

 

In terms of weighted GPA, the middle 50% of in-state students admitted this past cycle averaged 4.36-4.68. My weighted GPA at the time of applying was on the higher end of this range. My high school did not have established student rankings but designated the top 10% and 5% of students at the end of each year. At the time of applying, I was in the top 10%. 

 

The UCs also factor in the number of honors courses you’ve taken for domestic applicants. On average, admitted students took 19-29 advanced courses. I took 19 honors courses throughout my high school career. Keep in mind that all high schools have varying amounts of advanced courses and accessibility, so don’t worry if these numbers are not necessarily doable at your high school! Every high school has its quirks – for example, mine lacked an honors version of the Spanish 2 course, but had advanced versions of every other level of the subject. Admissions committees also realize each high school has its idiosyncrasies, and admissions officers should have a rough idea of your specific school’s nuances. 

 

Moreover, my high school didn’t allow students to take AP classes their freshman year. During sophomore year, students had the option to only take one AP course from a designated list of three to four social sciences. Even then, I didn’t start taking APs until my junior year because I opted to be on sports teams year-round and take dance my sophomore year for fun (and art credit!), so there was no room in my schedule. 

 

Freshman Year

  • None

 

Sophomore Year

  • None

 

Junior Year

  • AP Language and Composition
  • AP Physics A
  • AP Spanish
  • AP US History

 

Senior Year

  • AP Calculus AB
  • AP Environmental Science
  • AP Literature and Composition
  • AP Macroeconomics
  • AP Government and Politics
  • AP Psychology

 

Standardized Testing

 

During my admissions year, students had the option to take either the old or new SAT. The middle 50% of accepted students scored 640-740 on the Reading & Writing section and 630-780 on the Math section. I took the old SAT, and my converted score lands in the 100th percentile for Reading & Writing and in the 75th percentile for Math. UCLA does not superscore these exams. 

 

For the SAT, I used a third party tutoring service, which involved weekly practice tests and a summer boot camp. I took the exam once, in the fall of my junior year of high school. 

 

UCLA does not officially require or recommend any particular subject test for applicants, but taking a couple of these exams related to your prospective major can enhance your application. Personally, I took the Literature SAT Subject Test and scored 740, and I took the U.S. History SAT Subject Test and scored 790. 

 

I remember scheduling these exams in the May of my junior year, around AP testing time. Because this was around the same time as my other standardized exams, this led to a bit of a hectic testing week. But, I found that the content overlap made it easier to study for these tests rather than having to study ahead or recall the content later. 

 

Extracurriculars and Awards

 

Girl Scouts (F, So, Jr, Sr)

  • Earned the Bronze, Silver, and Gold Awards which consist of original service projects with an ongoing element.
  • Considered the troop’s “badge queen;” pursued copious badges outside of meetings
  • Participated in various service activities such as community gardening, baking cookies for the elderly, and writing letters to veterans

 

Donate Life (So, Jr, Sr)

  • Secretary (1 yr), Vice President (1 yr), Co-president (1 yr)
  • Organized on-campus awareness events regarding organ donation
  • Volunteered at the annual Run/Walk at our local university

 

Indian Student Association (F, So, Jr, Sr)

  • Social/Fundraising Director (1 yr), Secretary (1 yr), Co-Vice President (1 yr)
  • Scheduled and prepared content for meetings and took detailed meeting minutes
  • Organized club events both on- and off-campus to promote awareness of Indian culture
  • Annually participated in International Food Fair and performed cultural dances during a school-wide assembly

 

Track & Field (F, So, Jr)

  • Participated in long jump and triple jump throughout high school
  • Attended daily practices and weekly meets during preseason and season
  • Qualified for League Championships

 

Lancer Award (F, Sr)

  • Annual recognition given to one student per teacher for their efforts in a particular subject
  • Awarded for Spanish in 2013, and then Psychology in 2017

 

PSAT/NMSQT Letter of Commendation (Sr)

  • Awarded to about 34,000 of the 50,000 highest scorers on the PSAT/NMSQT

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Essays

 

I applied to UCLA via the UC Application, which is separate from both the Common App and Coalition application. This application can be used to apply to all nine UC campuses, which include Los Angeles, Berkeley, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Irvine, Davis, Santa Cruz, Riverside, and Merced. The essay prompts, which are still being used for the current admissions cycle, are set up so that there are eight possible prompts spanning subjects such as academics, leadership, and challenges. Applicants are required to select and write to four of these prompts. These broad subjects can be molded to fit almost any narrative about your personal accomplishments and involvements. 

 

Here are the prompts I chose as well as brief descriptions of and excerpts from my responses: 

 

(1) Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time. 

 

For this essay, I wrote about achieving the Girl Scout Gold Award. I designed and completed a service project in which I empowered middle-school-aged girls to feel more competent in STEM by having them teach younger students STEM concepts via workshops. Part of this project took place in India. This excerpt is from the beginning of the essay and demonstrates how you can use descriptive imagery to cultivate an immersive scene before launching into a description of the leadership experience itself. 

 

“It was 110 degrees outside. Cows ambled by, and bikers slowly pedaled past, the heat-induced lassitude taking its toll. And in a cramped, unventilated classroom, I was teaching middle-school girls how to fold paper airplanes.

 

This lesson was part of a STEM workshop I conducted in Vadodara, India, for my Girl Scout Gold Award Project. Other activities included drawings, creating aluminum foil boats, and solving puzzles. I designed each activity to target skills across a range of principles — such as problem-solving, physics, and geometry — and presented them in a way that was both creative and fun. The purpose of my workshop was to teach the elder girls so that they could, in turn, teach elementary-school children.

 

But until my workshop, the girls had known STEM only as two-dimensional drudgery, an endless series of worksheets that failed to apply to the world outside their tiny classroom. My goal was to show them that STEM could, in fact, be relevant and exciting. And my strategy was to take a hands-on approach to their education.”

 

More important than what is done was the method in which the content is relayed. Admissions officers want to see that you can reflect on your accomplishments in a creative way. By setting a scene, you can effectively show admissions officers, rather than merely telling them, about the impact you have made.

 

From here, I delved into my teaching method and then reflected on my own growth as a result of this leadership experience. This is an effective way to sum up your essay that transitions the essay from less personal background to providing insight into your personal growth.

 

(2) Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.

 

Since I applied to UCLA (and most of the other UCs) as an English major, this essay allowed me to demonstrate interest in my prospective major by allowing me to elaborate on my love of English language and literature. Rather than discuss my general liking of the subject, I chose to first write about my love of language and then wrapped up with specific points pertaining to my love of literature: 

 

 “My love for reading coincides with my love of language. I would frequent my local library and consume every book I could find, unable to satiate my thirst for literary knowledge. Those books had a profound effect on me. I started reading Harry Potter, The Wizard of Oz, and James and the Giant Peach when I was five and have carried with me, to this day, the ethical lessons contained therein. In junior high, time would come to a halt when I traversed London’s Alaskan frontier, witnessed Lady Macbeth’s crime, and joined Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in the ballroom. Literature introduced me to myriad new perspectives that I could never have experienced outside of those novels’ covers.

 

In high school, I take particular joy in writing literary criticism. Some of my favorite topics include a character analysis of the Creature in Frankenstein, a look at class inequality in Great Expectations, and a rhetorical analysis of Swift’s satire. Thanks to my phenomenal teachers, the first being my parents, my appreciation for the word has blossomed and still blooms with each passing day.

 

The pleasure I gain from language and literature has shaped my desire to make them a central component of my academic career. Regardless of which college I attend, if I have a book I can make myself feel at home within its pages.

 

Providing this specific information in a story-like format engages admissions officers and adds dimension to your application. In this essay, I mainly discussed in-class examples of my passion for the subject; however, it could have been enhanced had I mentioned my literary endeavors outside of the classroom. 

 

Note how the conclusion is future-facing and directly addresses my prospective college experience. At the end of your essay, readers might find themselves asking “why,” as in what the purpose of your essay is. By signaling ahead to how you hope to implement this academic passion in the future, you can draw readers back to the focus of your essay – how you fit into their school. 

 

(3) Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

 

For this essay, I wrote about overcoming AP Physics, which was a challenging course for me. In retrospect, this probably isn’t the best essay topic because my personal struggle did not consist of a particularly unique educational barrier. Furthermore, I already discussed my favorite academic subject in another essay, so my application may have benefitted from a disparate topic. Though the topic is not as strong, this essay allowed me to demonstrate writing prowess and illustrate the unique way in which I saw the world. Through figurative language and word choice, I wrote the following response: 

 

 “I could not understand what was wrong. I was drowning in a sea of variables, equations, and diagrams, rogue currents of confusion sweeping away comprehension. Physics, a subject based on the fundamentals of reality, was as mystifying as magic, and therefore an insurmountable academic obstacle to me.

 

I struggled to wrap my head around kinematics, vectors, and the various esoterica that plagued my mind each day. I pored endlessly over my textbook, hoping to glean a morsel of enlightenment from its pages. I copied an infinite number of problems, but to no avail. And despite my best efforts, a C grade was staring me straight in the face.”

 

(4) What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  

 

This prompt is asking about community impact; however, it is up to you to describe community as you see fit. I had been a Girl Scout since I was seven and participated in multiple other service organizations by the time I applied to college; however, I felt that this was already apparent through my extracurricular profile on my application. Also, I had written about my Gold Award in another essay, so I chose to take this prompt in a more unique direction. I wrote about my family as my community and the ways I helped out around my house.

 

 “I have always held a great appreciation for my family and their contributions to our home, our bijou Desai community. I have memories of myself as early as three years old, helping my mother hang garments out to dry on the clothesline; watching with fascination as my father pushed the vacuum through the thick living room carpet; and standing, transfixed, as rotis (Indian flatbread) inflated into flour-coated balloons before my grandmother snatched them from the burning stove .

 

When I grew older, I became responsible for my own share of domestic duties. My younger sister and I began washing the dishes, doing laundry, taking out the trash, setting the dinner table, dusting, vacuuming, and completing other tasks as needed. I used to have mixed emotions toward my chores, since they took time away from my pressing academic responsibilities, but as I have matured, I have come to see the value in performing such seemingly menial tasks. Aside from the positive influence on my work ethic, doing chores is a vehicle through which I can meaningfully contribute to our home.

 

These first paragraphs paint a clearer picture of my upbringing, and the next summarized my cooking endeavors. I then concluded this essay with a reflection on what doing these things for my family meant to me and how I felt about my contributions. Out of the four essays I chose, I definitely felt the most vulnerable writing this one. This essay content is unique in that it cannot be gleaned from any other part of my application. These memories were specific to myself and my family, and choosing this topic allowed me to express things about myself and my home life that only those closest to me knew. 

 

Whatever you choose to write about, choosing disparate topics that each showcase a unique part of your life is key. Your topics should not only span academics and extracurriculars, but also offer insight as to what unique communities you are a part and how they have shaped you. This approach to your application will demonstrate how you fit into UCLA’s diverse community. 

 

Letters of Recommendation

 

UCLA does not have an option to submit letters of recommendation.

 

Interviews

 

UCLA does not offer alumni or admissions officer interviews. 

 

Wrapping it Up

 

UCLA is the most applied to school in the world, so it might feel overwhelming or daunting to start your application or make it unique. One of the things that helped me out the most was breaking up my applications into chunks and just working towards them little by little each day. 

 

Just remember that the best applications are the ones that are vulnerable, honest, and well-thought-out, so take your time to answer the essay questions and speak your truth. Think about what you want admissions officers to know about you and, though it might sound cliche, be yourself! And next year, you might just be getting Bruintized in the inverted fountain, studying in Kerckhoff’s massage chairs, or attending the rivalry game with your roommates. 

 

If you want to know your chances of getting into UCLA, you can calculate them for free using CollegeVine’s chancing engine. You’ll also find more information about majors, cost, and scholarships.

 

Want more help with answering the UCs’ supplemental prompts? Check out CollegeVine’s guide with more tips and examples on how to write these essays!

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Priya Desai
Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Priya has been working at CollegeVine for two years in various capacities, including mentoring students, editing hundreds of essays, and creating blog content. She has also interned in healthcare consulting. She is extremely grateful for all the help she received as an applicant and wants to pay it forward by demystifying the admissions process for others.