A Step-by-Step Guide to the University of California Application

Padya Paramita

A Step-by-Step Guide to the University of California Application

If you’re a California resident - or you just can’t wait to move to the west coast - you might have your eyes on one or a few of the University of California schools. Students only have to fill out each of the sections within the one University of California application system in order to be considered for admission at any number of UC schools. Upon completing the sections, you can send your application to any or all of the following schools:

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

So how do you navigate this centralized system and enter your information in a way that is organized and easy to navigate? The University of California application portal is divided into the following categories:

  • Start Your Application
  • Campuses & Majors
  • About You
  • Academic History
  • Activities & Awards
  • Test Scores
  • Personal Insight

It might seem overwhelming, so you need to take it one section at a time. To guide you through the dos and don’ts of each portion, I’ve outlined them, how to strategize your answers, and any information necessary to make sure you take full advantage of the University of California application

Start Your Application

The first section is very basic. The University of California application starts out by seeking logistical information - when you want to start college, how to reach out to you, and whether you’re a California - or US - resident.

  • Term & Level
  • Address & Phone
  • Residency
  • Citizenship

Term and Level - Indicate when you wish to enroll at college and whether you’ll be a freshman, transfer, or starting a second degree. It’s pretty straightforward and obviously helps admissions officers organize your file and understand your context.

Address & Phone - Simply insert your contact information into the University of California application system so that each school knows how to reach you! They might send brochures, ask clarifying questions regarding your application, and of course, announce your admissions decision.

Be careful when typing into these boxes. Make sure you haven’t mixed up digits on your phone number or accidentally put in your school address instead of your home address.

Citizenship & Residency - Next, the University of California application asks for your citizenship information. You also have to enter your social security number if you have one. 

Since in-state versus out-of-state tuitions are different, the UC system needs to know whether you’re a California resident or not. Another important factor to note here is that the minimum required GPA to apply to any of the UC institutes is 3.0 for California residents and 3.4 for non-residents for all of the schools within the UC system. This is another reason why the University of California application wants to know your state of residence. Keep this academic threshold in mind when thinking about how competitive you’ll be for these institutions.

Campuses & Majors - This is the section where you let the system know exactly which of the UC schools you’re interested in applying to and how many, so that all of your components reach the correct institutions.

You must select a major for each of the schools on your list and the major you choose may be different throughout your UC applications, depending on what is available at each campus. The University of California application system also lets you know if certain programs or colleges within the institutions aren’t open to freshmen. For example, At UC Berkeley, first year students cannot apply directly to the Haas School of Business – so if you’re hoping to attend the undergraduate business school, you have to wait until sophomore year. For now, select the College of Letters and Science with a pre-business major.

If you wish to apply to UC San Diego, you have to rank the six undergraduate colleges within UCSD (Revelle College, John Muir College, Thurgood Marshall College, Earl Warren College, Eleanor Roosevelt College, or Sixth College) in order of your preference. Don’t worry, this is just to make sure that admissions officers know what your second and third choice colleges are in case there are no spots left in your first choice, but you might fit into another school. The order of ranking of colleges does not affect the chances for admission into UC San Diego.

About You

The About You section is divided into three parts:

  • Personal Information
  • Parent Information
  • Family Size & Income

Personal Information - The Personal Information section asks that you indicate the languages you speak, whether you're married, whether you’ll be enlisted in the army when you enroll in college, and whether you’ve been in foster care. Again, these questions help admissions officers understand you, your interests, and your circumstances better.

Parent Information - The second part of About You actually asks about your parents. Make sure you’ve verified their exact job titles, their educational information, and typed in all of the details correctly.

Family Size & Income - Next, the University of California application would like to know how many people are dependent on your parents and your household income. Unlike the FAFSA, this information isn’t used to calculate your financial aid qualifications. Instead, it determines your eligibility for an application fee waiver. This could be helpful, since the UC colleges charge an application fee of $70 per school.

Academic History

For the Academic History section, you have to elaborate on the following:

  • 7th/8th Grade Courses
  • High Schools & Courses
  • Colleges & Courses (In HS)
  • Other Academic History

7th/8th Grade Courses - Don’t worry, you don’t necessarily need to start looking for your junior high report cards! But if you took any high school level math or English classes in the seventh or eighth grade, this is the place to add it.

Even though the copy of your transcript sent by your school usually won’t include seventh and eighth grade results, the UC schools want to know about the foundation of your coursework. As a result, you should include any high school level classes you took in middle school, along with any foreign languages you studied at an advanced level before the ninth grade. However, if you got a grade below a C in these, don’t report them!

High School & Courses - Naturally, the University of California application wants to know your high school information so that admissions officers can learn about your school environment and the location where you grew up. Along with mentioning which school you attend, you have to mention how long you attended the institution, how the grading system works, as well as whether the school runs on a semester, quarter, or trimester schedule.

Once you’ve listed your high school, it’s time to add all courses taken. Add these by grade level, starting with the ninth grade. You need to first select the Subject Area/Course Category of the course to be entered (e.g. English, Math, etc.). Make sure your classes align with the A-G course system that is required to gain admission into each of the UC schools. The UCs will allow pass/credit grades for A-G courses during COVID-19 to accommodate that might have been implemented by your school.

The UC schools really do care that students have completed this coursework! The requirements are: 

  • “A” History / Social Science (2 years)  - Two years of history/social science, including one year of world history, cultures, and geography; and one year of US history, or one-half year of US history AND one-half year of American government.
  • “B” English (4 years) - Four years of college-preparatory English. If taking ESL-type classes, only the highest year can be counted towards this requirement.
  • “C” Math (3 years required; 4 years recommended) - Three years of college preparatory mathematics; the minimum pattern is Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II. Math courses taken in the 7th and 8th grades that the student’s high school accepts as equivalent to its own may be used to fulfill a part of this requirement.
  • “D” Laboratory Science (2 years required; 3 years recommended) - Two years of laboratory science in at least two of these three subjects: biology, chemistry, and physics.
  • “E” Language Other than English (2 years required; 3 years recommended) - Two years of the same language other than English. Courses taken in the 7th and 8th grades may be used to fulfill part of this requirement if the student’s high school accepts them as equivalent to its own courses.
  • “F” Visual and Performing Arts (1 year) - A single, yearlong visual or performing arts class such as dance, drama, music, or visual art (drawing, painting, etc).
  • “G” College Preparatory Elective (1 year) - One year chosen from additional "A-F" courses beyond those used to satisfy the requirements above or courses that have been approved elective classes.

If you’re a California resident, you should use the course name as listed in the UC pre-approved course list. If you’re not a California resident or your courses meet the UC criteria but aren’t included in the list, you’ll need to self-enter the coursework.

Activities & Awards

Now we come to the Activities & Awards section, which includes the following:

  • Coursework Other Than A-G
  • Educational Prep Programs
  • Volunteer & Community Service
  • Work Experience
  • Awards & Honors
  • Extracurricular Activities
  • Review Activities & Awards

The UC Activities & Honors section gives you up to 5 entries for each of these categories. It’s also important to think carefully and strategically about hobbies, internships, jobs, and volunteering experiences! Prioritize your most meaningful and impressive activities and honors first as you think about how to order all of your information.

Coursework Other Than A-G - This is a straightforward question - if you’ve taken any classes in high school that don’t fit within the A-G format, such as a course in religion or leadership, this is the place to put it. Note that this doesn’t include non-academic courses like PE.

Educational Prep Programs - This is the place to indicate whether you’ve been involved with any community-based organizations. The drop-down menu includes a list of common programs such as AVID, Upward Bound, Gear Up, and UC Scholars. If a program that you’ve participated in is not included, manually enter it. You have to include which grades you participated in the program, the amount of time you spent participating, and a brief description of the program.

Volunteer & Community Service - If you’ve volunteered with a national organization or in your community, the University of California application systems asks that you list the name of the organization, along with the years you were involved with the activity, the time you spent with the activity each week and year, along with 250 characters to describe the initiative and 350 more for what you did as part of the service. Knowing about your community involvement helps universities understand your priorities and provides a sense of how you might contribute to the college community.


Work Experience - Participating in paid work during high school conveys to admissions officers that you’re diligent, responsible, and not afraid to step out of your comfort zone by applying to jobs. Again, you should stipulate what the work was in 250 characters, the years you participated, the time you spent during each week and year working - clarifying whether it was a summer job or an after school job, and a brief description of the company followed by a description of your role in 350 characters.


Awards & Honors - If you’ve received recognition for your efforts throughout high school, this is the place to boast about your achievements. Name the honor, select the type between “academic” or “other,” and briefly describe what you won. Awards could include winning a basketball state championship, being a semifinalist for National Merit Scholars, winning a scientific decathlon, or being published in a well-known journal. Keep the description of your achievement short and to the point, since you can only use 350 characters to describe each award. Always list the achievement with the biggest impact first.

Extracurricular Activities - This section covers extracurricular activities that don’t fall within any of the above categories. Admissions officers want to know what you’re passionate about outside the classroom. If you’ve founded a club or organization, or held leadership positions in your initiatives, these are the feats which should take precedence over others. When thinking about order, consider where you’ve spent the most amount of time, the areas in which you’ve had the biggest impact, and how the activity fits in with the rest of your application. When writing the description, think about tangible achievements - use numbers to emphasize the extent of your work as a member or leader of a club, project, or initiative.

Note: The order of the activities cannot be changed once they have been entered into the application system, so be sure to pre-plan and organize the order ahead of time.

Test Scores

  • ACT & SAT
  • SAT Subject Tests
  • AP Exams
  • IB Exams
  • International External Exams

This is the section where you report your standardized test scores. As you can see, they’re arranged according to the different tests. Just choose whichever one you’ve taken, and don’t worry about filling TOEFL or IB if those don’t apply to you! Let’s take a look at how you should go about adding your test policies.

Here are some notes and tips to keep in mind for the various tests: 

  • The SAT and ACT are optional for students applying for admission for Fall 2021 and 2022. The UCs will go test blind starting 2023.
  • ACT with Writing and/or SAT with Writing/Essay scores must be completed by December of senior year. You must report the completed test(s) with the dates/scores or planned test date on the admission application.
  • SAT subject tests are not required but may be recommended for specific programs at some campuses as an additional piece of information to consider during the review process. SAT Subject Test Recommendations can be found here.
  • UC does not recommend that applicants use the College Board’s Score Choice function because it might delay the delivery of test scores.
  • The University of California schools strongly encourage students to report all official scores although they only use the highest score from a single sitting for admissions consideration.

Personal Insight

The Personal Insight section is divided into:

  • Personal Insight Questions
  • Additional Information

Personal Insight Questions - This is the personal essay for the University of California application. Unlike the Common App, the UCs ask you to answer 4 out of the following 8 questions, with a word limit of 350 words for each of your responses.

  • Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
  • Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side. 
  • What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
  • Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
  • Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
  • Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
  • What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
  • Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

Remember that these 4 shorter essays act together as your personal statement and supplemental essays all in one. Make sure that you’ve highlighted who you are, along with any interests and goals that you haven’t elaborated on in the rest of your application. Your response should enhance your application and make a strong impression on the admissions officer. 

You want to stand out, tell your story, and share some of the biggest and most meaningful aspects of your life. It’s all about thinking strategically to determine how you can differentiate yourself from your peers. For our in-depth analysis of the personal insight questions, check out this blog.

Additional Information - Additional information could include a reason behind a particular trend in your GPA or whether any unforeseen circumstances, such as illness or a death in the family, impacted your school performance. You could also address any disciplinary action that might be on your record. You should be very careful when filling out this section. Since each admissions reader has a thousand applications to go through, double-check whether what you’ve put into this section can be mentioned in any of the pre-assigned sections.

This section is not a place to extend your personal insight essay or expand on an activity description! Those word and character limits exist for a reason. You don’t have to fill out this section if there’s nothing for you to add.

The University of California application system is designed to help each of the different schools within the UC umbrella understand what makes you tick. By carefully including information that adds valuable color to your application, you can convince admissions officers what makes you a strong fit for your dream California college. Best of luck!

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