The University of California Schools: Everything You Need to Know

Padya Paramita

The University of California Schools: Everything You Need to Know

Whether you were born and raised in California, or you are looking to move to a warmer and sunnier location for college, the University of California schools have incredible options for students interested in attending research-heavy national universities close to the Pacific Ocean. With nine colleges offering undergraduate admission, you could definitely consider one or more of the University of California schools for your college list, based on the schools whose location, specialties, and campus culture resonate with you the most.

The University of California schools have a lot of appeal, from large athletic scenes to multiple faculty members who are Nobel Laureates. If you’re indeed passionate about research and innovation, you might be interested to know that the University of California schools played a key role in the invention of vaccines, the discovery of Vitamin E and the development of the first wetsuit. If you’re not a science person, there are still plenty of opportunities at the UC colleges in the humanities, arts and social sciences. The UC schools have been home to many notable alumni - basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (UCLA), author Alice Sebold (UC Irvine), and even actor Chris Pine (UC Berkeley). To help break down the UC system and its member colleges, I have outlined which schools are part of the University of California system, what sets each campus apart, the unique academic opportunities at the schools, and how to navigate the application system on your way to admission into one of the University of California schools.

What are the University of California Schools?

In order to know more about the University of California schools, you first have to know exactly which schools come under the University of California umbrella. They are:

  • UC Berkeley
  • UC Davis
  • UC Irvine
  • UCLA
  • UCMerced
  • UC Riverside
  • UC San Diego
  • UC San Francisco (only admits graduate and medical students)
  • UC Santa Barbara
  • UC Santa Cruz

You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the University of California schools are named after the city in California they are located in. The names otherwise don’t give you a clear picture of how prestigious or competitive each school under the UC system might be. The table below shows each college’s ranking among US News’ Best National Universities, listed by competitiveness of its acceptance rate.

School Name US News Ranking Acceptance Rate
UCLA 19 14.1%
UC Berkeley 22 15.1%
UC Irvine 33 28.8%
UC San Diego 41 30.2%
UC Santa Barbara 30 32.4%
UC Davis 38 41.2%
UC Riverside 85 50.9%
UC Santa Cruz 70 51%
UC Merced 136 66.9%

The table shows that the University of California schools are not all equally selective. UC Berkeley and UCLA for example, are more selective than the others. UC Irvine, UC San Diego, and UC Santa Barbara are all fairly competitive as well. The schools have also gotten more selective over the years. UC Santa Barbara’s acceptance rate has steadily declined in the last five years - in 2013, it accepted 44%. Four years ago, UCLA’s admit rate was 19%. The competition is only getting tougher. Even if you apply to all of the UC schools, admittance is not a shoo-in!

What Sets the University of California Campuses and Locations Apart?

The University of California schools do share a few similarities in the sense that they are all large universities with state-of-the-art facilities and resources. They all offer a multitude of opportunities for students to study abroad, pursue research opportunities, and apply for internships at companies partnered with their college in a variety of fields such as marketing, finance, engineering, and operations. For example, UC Berkeley has partnered with Bank of the West, Peet’s Coffee, and Under Armor, and allows students to apply through their career portal. The campuses have museums, greenhouses, research centers, concert halls, marine centers, observatories, art galleries, you name it. But of course, the UC schools are not all identical.

Each of the UC schools holds different sized student bodies - UCLA being the largest, has a population of 45,507 students. On the other hand, UC Merced is the smallest and newest campus, with a significantly smaller enrollment of 7,887 students. UC Merced opened in 2005 with a mission to make a University of California education more accessible to underrepresented minorities, particularly first-generation students. The size difference is no joke! Campus size makes a big difference in your college experience - if you enjoy smaller classes, you should look toward a school such as UC Merced rather than UCLA.

While all UC students get to bask in the California sunshine, schools vary by location, which in turn influences the respective campus cultures. Your choice should definitely consider the environments of the different colleges. For example, UCLA’s Los Angeles setting includes proximity to hospitals, research centers, and businesses, which contributes to its fast paced vibe. UC Berkeley’s proximity to the Bay Area provides students with lots of networking opportunities across various fields that are centered in San Francisco. The liberal climate of the city of Berkeley is generally reflected in the carefree Cal student body there. UC Santa Barbara, situated by the beach, is known as having a super relaxed environment, with an emphasis on the social scene, particularly parties and Greek life. Located near a nature reserve, UC Santa Cruz provides students with wide access to forest, hills, and wildlife.

The UC Davis Campus, on the other hand, is the largest in size, at - 5,300 acres, and is surrounded by farms. There’s a dominant biking culture. as traveling between places would be time-consuming without a bike. UC Irvine, located in Orange County, is very near the Pacific Ocean, with access to surfing beaches, biking trails and mountain resorts. UC Merced is close to nature - boasting proximity to three national Parks: Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon. If you wish to be near a city with a bustling nightlife, UC San Diego is the place to be. Meanwhile Riverside is one of Forbes’ “America’s Coolest Cities” and only an hour away from Hollywood.

Whether you’re looking for a quieter campus, or if you want to go to school near the ocean, the University of California schools may have an ideal campus for you.

Unique Academic Opportunities

The UC schools run on a quarter system, with the exception of Berkeley whose calendar is divided the more common way, with semesters. While quarter systems are very fast-paced, the calendar allows you to take more classes in each academic year, offers additional chances to study abroad, and opportunities to try out new courses in departments you might not take otherwise. Moreover, most of the UC schools offer around 100 academic programs. Regardless of which school you go to, you can cross enroll online in any of the other ones, and take advantage of their unique colleges, academic programs, and research opportunities as highlighted in the table below.

School Name Unique Opportunities
UCLA - Academic programs at the College of Letters and Science, Herb Alpert School of Music, Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, School of the Arts and Architecture, School of Nursing or School of Theater, Film, and Television - Unique majors such as “Marine Biology,” “Mathematics of Computation,” and “Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution” - Students can start conducting research with faculty members as early as freshman year
UC Berkeley - Six specialized undergraduate colleges including Haas School of Business, College of Chemistry, College of Engineering, College of Environmental Design, College of Letters and Science, and the College of Natural Resources - Unique programs and majors across the schools such as “Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology,” “Race and the Law,” and “Dance and Performance Studies” - 8 of Berkeley’s current faculty members are Nobel laureates, that’s not something everyone can say about their school!
UC Irvine - More than 90 programs available across the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, School of Biological Sciences, School of Education, The Henry Samueli School of Engineering, School of Humanities, Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, Interdisciplinary Studies, School of Physical Sciences, School of Social Ecology, School of Social Sciences, The Paul Merage School of Business, Sue and Bill Gross School of Nursing, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Program in Public Health - Unique majors such as “Computer Game Science,” “Literary Journalism,” and “Criminology, Law and Society” - Every undergraduate can conduct research in any discipline under the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program
UC San Diego - More than 130 majors across six colleges, including “Nano Engineering,” “Family and Preventive Medicine,” and “Music Humanities” - Sixth College: examines relationship between art, culture and technology - Eleanor Roosevelt College: emphasizes global and multicultural economy - Earl Warren College: emphasizes connections between undergraduate education and personal and career goals - Marshall College: encourages participation in community and public service programs - John Muir college: emphasizes individual choice and self-sufficiency - Revelle College: emphasizes a liberal arts curriculum - Conduct modern climate change research at the campus’ Scripps Institution of Oceanography or test new drugs and treatment at the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center
UC Santa Barbara - Includes College of Letters and Science, College of Creative Studies, and College of Engineering - Unique major offerings include Zoology, History of Public Policy, and Language, Culture, & Society - Research and publishing opportunities at all fields - $184.5 million dedicated to research in 2017
UC Davis - Four undergraduate colleges - College of Agricultural and Engineering Sciences, College of Biological Sciences, College of Engineering, and College of Letters and Sciences - One of the most comprehensive internship programs with students having access to UC Davis’ 10,000 internship partners - Students conduct research at the 150-acre Arboretum and Public Garden, Bodega Marine Laboratory, Genome Center, Institute for Wine and Food Science, Tahoe Environmental Research Center, and the Student Experimental Farm
UC Riverside - Apply to Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering, College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, School of Business Administration, or School of Public Policy - Unique majors include “Theatre, Film, and Digital Production,” “Art History/Religious Studies,” and “Entomology” - STEM Outreach Program develops partnerships between K-12 and UCR faculty
UC Santa Cruz - Choose from 65 majors at School of Engineering and Division of Arts, Humanities, Physical and Biological Sciences, and Social Sciences - Unique majors such as Art and Design: Games and Playable Media, Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism, and Robotics Engineering - Nearly 50 research opportunities including those at the Center for Emerging Worlds, Natural Reserve System of UCSC, and the Archaeological Research Center
UC Merced - Application options include: School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, School of Natural Sciences, and School of Engineering - Unique majors include “Materials Science and Engineering,” “Critical Race and Ethnic Studies,” and “Global Arts Studies” - Students conduct research at the natural laboratory of California’s San Joaquin Valley and the school’s partnership with Yosemite National Park

All of the schools are equipped with the specialized tools and facilities to provide a strong college education, with opportunities to specialize in the field of your interest, as well as venture to departments and courses you may have never taken before.

Applying to the University of California Schools

The University of California schools are neither on the Common Application nor the Coalition Application. They actually have their own application system. Unlike the Common Application, the UC schools do not offer Early Decision or Early Action. Students must apply to all of the schools by November 30.

The UC portal asks students for personal information, activities and interests, test scores, and a personal statement (“Personal Insight”) that answers four of the eight UC prompts. The Activities & Awards section is further divided into:

  • Coursework other than A-G
  • Educational Prep Programs
  • Volunteer & Community Service
  • Work Experience
  • Awards & Honors
  • Extracurricular Activities

When filling out the Common App, you would normally include volunteer work, work experience, and extracurricular activities under one umbrella. The UC application system lets you add them separately.

The personal insight prompts give you a chance to reflect on your achievements and interests, as well as highlight what qualities you would bring to the University of California.

As with filling out any application system, make sure all your information is correct - including your address, parents’ information, etc. When listing your activities, awards, and volunteering experience, prioritize the most impressive ones and stay within the 160-character limit when it comes to describing your accolades. Although the broader application system doesn’t ask for letters of recommendation, individual schools ask for letters as part of supplementary materials.

You can use the application system to apply to one, all, or however many UC schools you wish to. When making your decision, think about which academic specialties appeal to you, along with whether your scores match or surpass the median scores at each school, as shown below.

School Name Median SAT Range Median ACT Range
UCLA 1180-1450 25-33
UC Berkeley 1340-1530 29-35
UC Irvine 1230-1490 26-33
UC San Diego 1300-1520 28-34
UC Santa Barbara 1270-1500 28-34
UC Davis 1260-1460 28-33
UC Riverside 1130-1380 22-30
UC Santa Cruz 1210-1450 26-32
UC Merced 1020-1280 19-27

You can tell that the ranges vary distinctly from school to school, so even if your scores may not match up to Berkeley’s, but the rest of your application is strong, you could think about applying to UC Davis or UCLA. If you’re still struggling to make a decision, you could try talking to students or alums who went to one of the schools. There are over 1.7 million UC system alumni all over the world, so there’s got to be someone near you!

Close to 90% of UC undergraduates are California residents. Unsurprisingly, applying in-state makes a major difference in your college tuition. The in-state vs out-of-state tuition for each school is listed below:

School Name In-State Tuition Out-of-State Tuition
UCLA $34,984 $63,976
UC Berkeley $17,450 $46,556
UC Irvine $15,450 $44,442
UC San Diego $31,887 $60,879
UC Santa Barbara $36,921 $65,913
UC Davis $14,490 $43,482
UC Riverside $34,663 $62,677
UC Santa Cruz $37,215 $66,207
UC Merced $36,008 $65,000

Of course, tuition also depends on whether you want to live on campus or off campus, in a residence hall or in an on-campus apartment. Either way, if you’re a California resident, attending one of the University of California schools could save you thousands of dollars!

If you’re a high-achieving in-state applicant, you can apply for admission to the University of California schools through one of two paths. If you’re in the top 9% of California high schools, and aren’t admitted to any of the UC schools you’ve applied to, you’ll be offered admission into another campus if space is available. If you’re in the top 9% of your school (based on sophomore and junior year GPA), you qualify for Eligibility in the Local Context, which acts as an added boost in your UC application. Although ELC does not guarantee admission, it is one of the 14 factors considered by the UC system. Out-of-state applicants must have a minimum GPA of 3.4, with no C’s on their transcript. This is important to remember when deciding to apply to the UC scores!


No matter what excites you, there is a place in one of the University of California schools for you. They can seem overwhelming when you look at them at a glance, but once you delve into the specialties and pick a couple that appeal to you, with the right numbers and quality of personal insight you can put yourself ahead of the game. So go ahead and look through the programs, research opportunities, and faculty offerings and who knows, one of the University of California schools might just be the perfect fit for you.

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