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The University of California Schools: The Complete Guide + Which Should You Choose?

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As the University of California (UC) deadline draws near, perhaps you’re wondering whether you should apply. If so, to which campuses? Each school has something very different to offer its students, and you probably want to know which is the best fit for you.


In this guide, we’ll cover the basics of UC admissions and then share our thoughts on what makes each campus unique. By the end of this article, we hope you will be confident that your school list includes the right UC schools for you.


If you’re working on your essays, make sure to check out How to Write the University of California Essays.

What Are the University of California Schools?


The University of California includes ten schools. All of them except UC San Francisco have undergraduate programs. They are:


  • UC Berkeley
  • UCLA
  • UC San Diego
  • UC Santa Barbara
  • UC Davis
  • UC Irvine
  • UC Riverside
  • UC Santa Cruz
  • UC Merced
  • UC San Francisco


The UC schools make up the most selective tier of California public postsecondary schools. There are also 23 California State Universities, known as CSUs or Cal State schools. Additionally, California has 114 community colleges throughout the state.


California has devoted immense resources to all of these, meaning that students all across these 147 campuses have some amazing programs. In this post, we are only going to focus on these ten schools. You can learn more about the Cal State System in another CollegeVine post.


Before we dive in, it is also worth noting that California holds a number of private universities as well, including Stanford, Pepperdine, and the Claremont Colleges. Private universities require separate applications and are not in the UC System, even though they are in California.


The main advantage of going to a UC school is that you can study nearly any major offered to undergraduates at a fraction of the cost of most private universities. Each UC undergraduate program is fully equipped with coursework in natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. They also have the research libraries and extracurricular program that go along with a traditional liberal arts education.


By When Should You Apply?


The application filing period is November 1-30. All applications must be submitted by November 30.

How Do You Apply?


All UC schools use the same application. To add a school, all you have to do is check an additional box on the application. The application fee is $70 for each UC school to which you apply.


Here is a full list of the UC application requirements:


  • Create an account in the UC Application Portal
  • Record your basic demographic information
  • Reply to four of eight Personal Insight Questions
  • Send your transcripts.
  • Send your test scores.
    • Include your scores from the ACT with Writing or the SAT Reasoning Test. If you’re applying for Fall, sit for standardized tests by December.
    • Also, SAT Subject Tests, AP, IB, TOEFL, and IELTS scores are accepted.
  • Share tax and ID information, including:
    • Your family’s annual income for last year and this year
    • Your social security number, if you have one
    • Your citizenship status. Citizens of other countries will need to state immigration status and visa type.
    • For students in California public schools only, supply your California Statewide Student ID 


How Do You Apply for Scholarships?


All domestic applicants are encouraged to fill out the FAFSA or the California Dream Act Application. The FAFSA is for all residents of the U.S. who would be eligible to federal or state aid. Undocumented students should file the California Dream Act Application for state and school financial aid instead.


Students who fill out these forms automatically will be considered for all public financial aid programs, including federal aid, Cal Grants, the Middle Class Scholarship Program, and the Blue and Gold Opportunity Program. You will receive a letter or email if it is determined that you can receive one of these types of aid.


There are also private scholarships available from third parties. Check out our related posts on How to Secure Funding for College to find third party scholarships designed for you.


In the rest of this article, we explore how the UC campuses compare with one another.


Who Should Attend UC Berkeley?


The Stats:

  • Location: Berkeley, Just outside of San Francisco
  • Admissions Rate: 17%
  • Undergraduates: 30,600
  • Graduate Students: 11,300
  • In-State Tuition: $14,240
  • Out-of-State Tuition: $43,232
  • Room + Board: $17,764


UC Berkeley, also known as Cal, is the flagship UC school. Berkeley became famous in the sixties due to a surge of political activism. Students still participate in regular protests, usually left-leaning politically.


Lovingly termed the Harvard of the West, this is an academic powerhouse. Cal is especially strong in the natural sciences. Due to high demand, it can be difficult to get into the lectures that satisfy pre-med requirements. GPA cutoffs also make it difficult to declare impacted majors.


Even though this school increasingly places an emphasis on hard sciences, non-science majors continue to be generously funded. Among humanities majors, Classics and Music are two very strong programs.


We recommend this school if you have an outstanding academic profile, a love of learning, and the thick skin required for navigating a larger university.


Who Should Attend UCLA?


The Stats:

  • Location: Los Angeles
  • Admissions Rate: 16%
  • Undergraduates: 31,000
  • Graduate Students: 14,240
  • In-State Tuition: $13,280
  • Out-of-State Tuition: $41,294
  • Room + Board: $15,991


If Berkeley is the reigning champion of the UC System, UCLA is its most viable challenger. This beautiful campus opens up spectacular internship opportunities to which few have access, particularly in the medical and film industries.


This is also a major research university, with many opportunities to conduct research in the humanities as well as natural sciences. Students who are interested in pursuing research should check out their desired department to see what projects professors are leading currently.


UCLA operates a vast number of teaching hospitals and research hospitals, including several on campus. This is a great pick for someone who knows they want to go into health care but still wants to explore different types of medicine before committing.


We recommend this school if you have a strong academic profile, a desire to take advantage of living in LA, and the independence to thrive in a large university setting.


Who Should Attend UC San Diego?


The Stats:

  • Location: San Diego
  • Admissions Rate: 34%
  • Undergraduates: 28,600
  • Graduate Students: 7,200
  • In-State Tuition: $14,060
  • Out-of-State Tuition: $42,072
  • Room + Board: $13,733


Farther south we have UC San Diego (UCSD), which brings the best of work and play together in the scenic beachside city of San Diego. We cannot understate the value of this school’s location. It’s right beside the Pacific Ocean, and because it’s farther south than the South Bay or San Francisco, the water is warm enough for more beach activities.


But more is at stake than just how much time you’ll spend on the water. As a city, San Diego is outright friendlyyou won’t get that everywhere in California, regardless of the state’s reputation. San Diego is home to many colleges and universities, which means you will be surrounded by peers also stepping into adulthood.


And, you get all of this community support without compromising on the rigor of your education. UCSD is fully stocked with award-winning academic programs. In particular, its Computer Science program has been singled out as one of the strongest in the UC System.


This school has a great culture and phenomenal resources, making it a great fit for anyone who wants a challenging environment with good work-life balance.


Who Should Attend UC Santa Barbara?


The Stats:

  • Location: Santa Barbara, two hours’ drive north of Los Angeles
  • Admissions Rate: 33%
  • Undergraduates: 22,200
  • Graduate Students: 2,900
  • In-State Tuition: $14,472
  • Out-of-State Tuition: $42,486
  • Room + Board: $15,673


UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) offers an idyllic location in a beautiful, laid back, historic beach town right on the water. Students are laid back and friendly. This is also a historic area, the site of one of California’s historic missions.


UCSB boasts excellent academics across the board with highly engaged professors. In addition to traditional programing, UCSB offers a tailored learning experience in the College of Creative Studies. Students may choose from one of eight major disciplines that span the gamut from computer science to art.


This school is a great pick if you want to get a world-class education alongside a community that cares.


Who Should Attend UC Irvine?


The Stats:

  • Location: Irvine, between San Diego and Los Angeles
  • Admissions Rate: 37%
  • Undergraduates: 29,300
  • Graduate Students: 5,900
  • In-State Tuition: $15,516
  • Out-of-State Tuition: $43,530
  • Room + Board: $14,829


Our third beachside campus, UC Irvine (UCI), also offers a world-class education, even if the sense of community is not as strong. Because many students live at home and commute to school, there are fewer opportunities for on-campus bonding.


That said, school spirit is still high, rallying around an unusual mascot: the anteater. Since the state animal is a bear, UCI wanted to choose the wackiest animal that still classifies as a bear. You will often find beaming students on the way to a game with their hands positioned in the distinctive “anteater” shape (index and pinkie fingers out, the rest of your fingers smooshed together).


But it is not all fun and games at UCI. In fact, they have one of the strongest Honors Colleges in the UC System, which students are invited to join if they meet the academic requirements. UCI also boasts one of the strongest Philosophy programs in the country.


You will find highly engaged professors and great resources here. This is a great fit school for students who live in Southern California and want a world-class education without the private school price tag.


Who Should Attend UC Davis?


The Stats:

  • Location: Davis, within the Central Valley
  • Admissions Rate: 44%
  • Undergraduates: 30,100
  • Graduate Students: 7,100
  • In-State Tuition: $14,463
  • Out-of-State Tuition: $43,458
  • Room + Board: $15,765


Contrary to popular opinion, California is more than its coast, and UC Davis is an excellent example of the hidden gems within the Central Valley. UC Davis became famous for its excellent agricultural program. It was originally established as a farm school that kept on growing.


As such, this campus is a nature-lover’s dream. The UC Davis Arboretum is beautiful, spanning 100 acres of lush gardens that line the waterway. There are many opportunities to learn about sustainable living and to drive to the many diverse climates represented throughout the state.


While students do not have access to the same city resources as many of their peers at other UC locations, they make their own fun on campus. There is a large presence of Greek Life, with roughly 65 fraternities and sorority chapters registered.


This is a great school for students interested in agricultural sciences or sustainable living in general who are still looking for a traditional liberal arts experience.


Who Should Attend UC Santa Cruz?


The Stats:

  • Location: Santa Cruz, on the Central Coast
  • Admissions Rate: 51%
  • Undergraduates: 17,600
  • Graduate Students: 1,900
  • In-State Tuition: $13,949
  • Out-of-State Tuition: $41,963
  • Room + Board: $16,407


Back out west, US Santa Cruz (UCSC) offers another beach town experience at the northern edge of Monterey Bay. There is a very small Greek life presence. Instead, students typically head to the water or enjoy the over 25 miles of hikes and trails in this beautiful part of California.


In terms of academics, UCSC is particularly well known for its Space Sciences and Astronomy programs. Its location also gives its students majoring in Marine Biology a distinct advantage.


UC Santa Cruz beats UC Irvine in the competition for strangest mascot. Here, students rally around Sammy the Banana Slug! Be prepared to dress in gold.


We recommend this school for students looking to spend four years by the Pacific Ocean and for those interested in one of UC Santa Cruz’s strongest academic departments.


Who Should Attend UC Riverside?


The Stats:

  • Location: Riverside, a little over an hour’s drive east of Los Angeles
  • Admissions Rate: 57%
  • Undergraduates: 20,100
  • Graduate Students: 3,200
  • In-State Tuition: $13,887
  • Out-of-State Tuition: $42,879
  • Room + Board: $16,000


Formerly citrus groves, UC Riverside (UCR) sits in the heart of historic California, giving students access to a number of historic landmarks, theaters, and restaurants. Contrary to popular opinion, Riverside is not “just outside” of LA. Students will likely spend more time in Riverside County, with very occasional trips west to see museums or visit the beach.


Though not as prestigious as UC Berkeley or UCLA, UC Riverside also has a full set of majors separated by school, ranging from Environmental Engineering to Gender and Sexuality Studies. This university also has a number of special collections in its research libraries, including the Eaton Collection, one of the largest collections of fantasy, horror, and science fiction in the world.


We especially recommend this school for students who live in Southern California and want to earn a well-respected degree while staying close to home.


Who Should Attend UC Merced?


The Stats:

  • Location: Merced, within the Central Valley
  • Admissions Rate: 69%
  • Undergraduates: 7,400
  • Graduate Students: 600
  • In-State Tuition: $13,627
  • Out-of-State Tuition: $41,641
  • Room + Board: $16,454


Founded in 2005, UC Merced is the newest addition to the UC System. By far the smallest UC, this school offers a great environment for students who are looking for a close-knit community without paying for private school tuition. As the most recent addition to the UC system, there are many opportunities to start clubs and shape new extracurricular initiatives that are still in their infancy.


All of UC Merced’s buildings are LEED certified, making it one of the most environmentally-conscious campuses in the UC System. Since UC Merced is also surrounded by farmland, it lends itself to learning about food literacy, sustainability, and the dynamics of food production. That said, UC Merced is not a farming college. Rather, it offers a liberal arts education.


This may not be the school for you if you are looking for an urban or coastal college experience. UC Merced is the perfect school for a student who wants large university resources but a more intimate campus experience. It is much easier to make yourself stand out here.


Who Should Attend UC San Francisco?


Last on our list is UC San Francisco, a collection of stellar graduate programs in the heart of this picturesque city. This university does not accept undergraduate applicants. However, students interested in pursuing graduate school in a biomedical field should re-examine this campus in four years.


What Else Should You Know When Applying?


One important point to keep in mind is the concept of restricted majors. As you can see, each of these schools has several thousand attendees. For that reason, certain majors have enrollment caps. When you are applying, check for closed majors at each location to see if you will be asked to meet additional requirements for your major of choice.


Are you worried that your personal background will impact your admissions decision? Under California state law, it is illegal for the UC System to practice affirmative action. For that reason, race is not considered in the application process. You will be evaluated on the merits of your academic and extracurricular profile only.


Because these are public schools, tuition is rather low for in-state applicants. Even for out-of-state applicants, the price tag beats many private university financial packages. Remember, despite the low cost, you are getting at top tier education. California has spent decades cultivating one of the strongest public postsecondary education systems in the U.S., so students have access to incredible programs and resources.


To cut to the chase, every single UC school offers an excellent education, but their different locations, programs, and communities mean that all students will fare better at some but not others.


If you have already secured admission to one of these schools, congratulations! You can check out CollegeVine’s post on Tips for Choosing the Best Fit College to help decide if this great school is the right one for you. Since many UC campuses separate instruction into field-specific schools, you might also want to read our post on Choosing the Right School Within Your College.


Looking to learn more about other schools in California? Check out CollegeVine’s related articles:


How to Apply to UC Schools

How to Write for the University of California Essays Prompts 2018-19

Applying to a Cal-State School? Here’s What You Need to Know

University of Southern California

How to Write the Pepperdine University Essays 2018-19

How to Write the Stanford University Application Essays 2018-19


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Short Bio
Veronica is an alumna of Harvard College, where she earned her A.B. in History and Classics. After graduating, she joined CollegeVine serving as the Curriculum Development Manager. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA and is writing her debut novel.