How to Get into UC Berkeley

Christina Llerena

How to Get into UC Berkeley

When I was an admissions reader at UC Berkeley, I reflected upon the many aspects of Cal that make it attractive to its applicants: the location, resources, campus setting, and outcomes that allow UCB graduates to be some of the most successful in the world. Over the years, high school students often ask, “Who gets accepted?” or “How can I differentiate my profile from other candidates?” These are vital confusions that many applicants have, and I am going to do my best to answer the question of how to get into UC Berkeley.

Remember, it’s far from simple. 

Research Your Odds

When thinking about how to get into UC Berkeley, it’s important to understand that UCB is an incredibly selective school. The university received about 87,389 applications for the Class of 2024, and had an overall acceptance rate of 16.8%. 

A key step in finding out how to get into UC Berkeley lies in familiarizing yourself with its unique characteristics and programs. UC Berkeley is one of the most impressive universities in the world because of its focus on research and world class faculty. 

There are over 100 programs for undergraduates with 70% of all classes limited to fewer than 30 students — Berkeley has an 18:1 student to faculty ratio. The academic and student body highly value diversity as well as the variety of research opportunities for its students. This creates a dynamic, fast-paced and invigorating learning environment.

Do your research about the typical admitted student profile and see how you compare. At first glance, most students who attend UCB have an unweighted GPA 3.89-40 and an SAT score ranging from 1350-1540. It’s important to be competitive on these points but it is also crucial to bring a well-rounded application that exemplifies leadership, resilience, creativity, and/or innovation. 

UC Berkeley, like other top schools, will make decisions based on more than just grades and test scores. If you are below their academic standards but have a strong extracurricular background or a powerful story, that really makes you stand out, I’d certainly encourage you to still apply.

How UC Berkeley Reads Your Application

At UCB, we read applications by local regions and you are competing with peers in a similar high school context. This said, your school setting matters. If your school has Naviance, that can be a great tool to use to see how your specific GPA and test scores compare to other students who applied from your school. You will be reviewed in the context of both your high school and the context of similar institutions in your geographic area. 

If your high school offers various extracurricular clubs and activities, admissions officers want to see how you are involved consistently on campus and whether you’ve sought positions of leadership and innovation. If your high school provides honors, AP, or IB coursework, are you excelling and challenging yourself with pursuing academic rigor? If there is no club that showcases your specific interest, did you start a new group at your school or take action in our community? These are key points in your application that make you attractive for Cal admission. 

Be Specific in Answering Your Personal Insight Questions (PIQs)

The Personal Insight Questions (PIQ) are four 350 word essays on the UC application. A UC application is sent with the same content to all the UCs selected. It is very important to not mention a specific UC school in your essay, especially if you are applying to more than one UC. Some students forget this point and mention that they want to go to UCLA when they are also applying to Cal. This shows a lack of detail! Your essays should not mention one UC unless you are only applying to one campus.

Then there are many applicants who take the essays for granted and don’t spend nearly as much time on their essays as they should. You have a choice of four out of eight Personal Insight Questions. Take advantage of that choice and find the questions that speak to you the most and highlight your strengths and interests. 

My advice is to spend significant time thinking about how you work with others and provide concrete examples demonstrating your commitment to your education, career goals, and how you plan to serve others in the campus community and the world at large. The stronger the connection to your interests and cohesiveness within the pieces of your application, the better. 

The PIQs should not be written in a cover letter style. They need to be more concise and direct than five-paragraph essays that you may have practice writing. I recommend being concrete in answering them rather than experimenting with the creative and unconventional in your approach. The admissions officers want to see the questions being answered in your essay; prove that you understand the prompt and have evidence to support your claims. 

Of course, it’s helpful to reveal a bit of your character - write several drafts and read your essays aloud for authenticity. Another tip is to be sure not to repeat the same information in the PIQ responses. Having four essays is your chance to show off different aspects of your personality, accomplishments and strengths. Take a hold of this opportunity!

Think Openly About Your Major

While many students will apply to Cal because of its strong reputation, it is important to be clear on what you enjoy studying. This undergraduate major guide helps students do a deep dive into what options UCB offers as well as potential minors available for future study.  

Use this knowledge to your advantage. Every single program at UCB is excellent. Every major will have research opportunities and chances to complete an internship. UCB looks for clarity in their applicants so the more you know about their specific program and major program, the stronger you appear as an applicant. Some students may not be clear on their major but know that most UCB students are very driven and apply with specific studies in mind. The more extensive your research on why you want to attend a UCB program, the better you can communicate your significant interest and preparation for the college. 

Demonstrate a Berkeley “Spark”

While this is true for each of the most selective schools in the country, demonstrating excellence outside the classroom and leadership will certainly help you find your way into UCB. Having an impact in your school and your community will be an absolute must. This is often seen as a “spark” in Cal students who are movers and shakers in their environments. This is not necessarily an innate personality trait but seen often as a risk taker, an agent of change, someone who initiates projects for good and finds solutions. 

In your UC application, make sure to concretely list examples of leadership in your high school career that demonstrate tenacity, persistence and initiative — the hallmarks of a UCB student. UCB values leadership because it often separates stand out students from others. 

Highlighting Leadership in Your Activities List

UCB engages in “holistic review.” This is an evaluation of the “whole” student in the context of their personal and educational environment to assess how they have risen to academic challenge, taken advantage of given and sought-after resources and opportunities, coped with challenges, and how they have excelled in their high school career.

Think about your role in different parts of your life: school clubs, hobbies, passions, employment, or volunteering. In which ways did you grow and/or show leadership? How do these achievements figure into your college goals? Did you lead a study group? Were you the first person in your family, school or community to achieve a certain goal? Did you get promoted at your job? Did you start a book club or teach yourself to cook? Or take on the family budget or repair the family computer? 

All these tasks can be linked to your specific academic interests while also exemplifying leadership and persistence. The portal gives you the chance to separately include work experience, volunteering initiatives, and extracurricular activities that you’re a part of, plus awards and honors that you’ve received. Make sure that you take advantage of the space provided as well as reference your pursuits as relevant in your Personal Insight Question essays. This will help you demonstrate your ability to take ownership of the activities themselves. Narrowing your interests shows how you’ve matured into increasing responsibility in your community and high school campus. 

Think about ways that you can take your interest to the next level and give back. Did you take an online community college course because you wanted more academic challenge? Did you provide childcare to your siblings while your parents were working? As you’re delving deeper into your potential college major, think about ways that you can elevate your passion with actual experiences. 

Understanding if UCB is Right for YOU

UCB does a great job of allowing their current students to be representatives of the university. Use them as a resource and get to know UCB beyond what you might learn on the website. UCB tours are run by students who are known to actively engage with visitors, and I encourage you to tour the campus in person if possible - and online if not. Even if you can’t visit, take advantage of the numerous resources so you really understand why you would be a great fit. Reach out to a student, admissions representative, or alum, and talk to them to learn more about their experience so that you can determine if Berkeley is the right fit for you.

When considering how to get into UC Berkeley, understand that the school cares about you as a person as well as what your GPA and test scores look like. UCB wants to admit exceptional students, and even more importantly, unique people who truly understand their passion. There are multiple ways to show UCB who you are and create a consistent narrative within your application that demonstrates a “Berkeley spark.” If UCB is your dream school, do your research, visit and go after it!

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