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SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips Ultimate Guide to the University of California Schools Posted by Justin Berkman | Dec 4, 2015 9:00:00 AM COLLEGE INFO
The University of California schools are widely regarded as some of the best public universities in the nation. Because I have provided college counseling to hundreds of students in California and chaperoned college visits to UC campuses, I’m very familiar with these colleges and know people who have attended each of the nine UC schools that offer undergraduate education. In this article, I will describe the UC system, profile each of the University of California colleges, and explain how to choose which UC school to attend.
About the UC System
There are nine UC schools that offer both undergraduate and graduate education. UC San Francisco is only a graduate and professional school. The nine UC colleges are UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz, UC Riverside, and UC Merced.
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The UC schools are large public research universities, and they are generally considered to be some of the best public universities in the country. The UC system has more than 238,000 students and more than 190,000 faculty and staff.
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Most of the UC schools are big and have over 20,000 undergraduate students. UC Merced, which opened in 2005, is the newest of the UC campuses and has the smallest enrollment. It has less than 7,000 undergraduates. UCLA, which has the largest undergraduate enrollment, has over 30,000.
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The UCs are governed by The Regents of the University of California, a 26-member board established under the California Constitution. While each school is unique and has its own personality, the University of California schools offer many of the same benefits and possible disadvantages. As parts of the UC system, they’re all well-regarded, selective, research-oriented colleges. They're generally strong in STEM, the humanities, and the social sciences. Also, UC students tend to be diverse and accepting of diversity, although African-Americans and Latinos are underrepresented at most of the UC campuses.
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Many of the complaints about the University of California colleges are typical of complaints about large public universities. Class sizes can be very large, and some students have difficulty navigating the bureaucracy. Students can have trouble registering, getting into the classes they need, and dealing with financial aid. While the in-state tuition for California residents is significantly lower than tuition at private colleges, many students claim that there is not a lot of financial aid available for middle-class students, and tuition costs continue to rise.
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Comparing the UC Schools by the Numbers
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I created a table comparing the undergraduate enrollments, average standardized test scores, and acceptance rates for each of the UC campuses. Take a look at the table to get an idea of the size and selectivity of each UC institution. Undergraduates
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UC San Diego
UC Santa Barbara
UC Santa Cruz
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Ranking the UC Schools While rankings are somewhat subjective, based on reputation and objective statistics, I’ve sorted the UC schools into four tiers. The first tier is UC Berkeley and UCLA. They’re the most selective and generally the most wellregarded of the UC schools. Non-UC colleges that would be in this tier include University of Notre Dame, Georgetown University, USC, and the University of Virginia. The second tier is UCSB, UCSD, UC Davis, and UC Irvine. Their US News and Forbes rankings, average GPAs, average standardized test scores, and admission rates are all very similar. It would be difficult to definitively rank one ahead of the others. Non-UC colleges that would be in this tier include Boston University, Tulane University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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The third tier is UC Santa Cruz and UC Riverside. UC Santa Cruz probably has a better reputation and is ranked higher by various publications, but these two school's acceptance rates and average standardized test scores are similar. Non-UC colleges in this tier would be University of ColoradoBoulder, University of San Diego, Florida State University, and University of San Francisco. The fourth tier is UC Merced. UC Merced is not necessarily trying to directly compete with the other UC campuses. It’s the newest of the UC campuses and has a significantly smaller enrollment than all the others. It also has the highest percentage of underrepresented minorities and low-income students of all of the UCs. It’s heavily invested in providing access to education to students in the San Joaquin Valley of California and offering a UC education to more California residents. I created a table with my rankings of the UC schools. Also, I included their US News rankings for National Universities and their overall Forbes rankings. Basically, I just averaged the US News and Forbes rankings to determine my own. School
US News Ranking
1. UC Berkeley
5. UC Davis
6. UC Irvine
7. UC Santa Cruz
8. UC Riverside
9. UC Merced
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UC Berkeley (Berkeley Lab/flickr)
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Profiles of Each UC School
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In many respects, there are more similarities between the UC schools than there are differences. They’re all selective, research-oriented schools that share the same governing board. They have diverse student bodies, emphasize sustainability and environmentalism, and they offer many on-campus opportunities for student involvement.
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However, I think the primary differences between the schools are related to their locations and campus cultures. I’ll give brief descriptions of each school’s location and some information about what makes each school unique compared to the other UCs. I’ve been to every UC campus except Merced, but I have been in the Merced area. Also, I have friends and former students who have attended each UC.
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My assessments are based on my campus visits, information from the school websites, the opinions of friends and former students who attended these schools, and published student reviews.
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After my assessments, I summarized student reviews for each college from Niche, a website that provides reviews, rankings, and statistics about neighborhoods and schools. I tried to include both pros and cons that revealed how students feel about their experience at the school and were representative of many of the comments that I read.
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The University of California, Berkeley is located in Berkeley, 15 miles across the bay from San Francisco. Berkeley is a vibrant, unique college town. It’s affectionately known as “Bezerkeley” because of the eclectic students and history of radical political activism in the city.
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I've always enjoyed my trips to Berkeley because there seems to be so much going on both on and off campus. At UC Berkeley, in one evening, you can attend a cultural event, join a political rally, go to a frat party, and top the night off with some good, cheap eats at Blondie’s or Top Dog.
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UC Berkeley is the oldest of the UCs and is known for its academically gifted students and renowned faculty. Berkeley has been ranked the #1 public national university by US News for 19 straight years. Also, in 2012, Berkeley started a scholarship fund for undocumented students.
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Here's what students have to say about UC Berkeley:
SAT ESSAY 12 Beautiful campus surrounded by a great college town Lots of academic and extracurricular opportunities for students Classes are difficult, but make you into a better student
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Cons: Lots of bureacratic hoops to get financial aid Not very much advising—students need to be able to navigate the bureacratic and institutional processes of the school themselves.
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UCLA UCLA is located in Westwood, a very nice area of West Los Angeles. Also, UCLA is the only UC in a big city. However, Westwood has a number of restaurants, bars, and off-campus apartments for students that give it a college town feel within a city. At UCLA, 96% of freshmen live on campus, which contributes to a lively on-campus culture. UCLA is a very spirited school. Even though many of the UCs excel in different sports, UC Berkeley and UCLA have the biggest fan bases and are the only UCs with FBS football programs. I’ve been to many basketball and football games at UCLA. The student body and alumni love their Bruins, and UCLA has more NCAA championships than any other college in the country.
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Furthermore, there are 13 Nobel Prize winners among the faculty, and this year UCLA’s hospitals were ranked #1 in California by US News.
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A diverse (and intelligent!) student body that is very social and collaborative Academically rigorous Lots of social and extracurricular opportunities Faculty is very accessible (and renowned)
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Cons: Size of the school is somewhat overwhelming
UCSB UCSB is located in Isla Vista, a beach town about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles. The school is literally steps from the Pacific Ocean, and even though it’s an academically rigorous institution, the laid back beach vibe permeates the UCSB culture. UCSB also has garnered a reputation as a party school, even though not all of the students participate in the party scene. However, UCSB still maintains an excellent academic reputation. In its 2013 rankings of the world’s top 500 universities, Leiden University ranked UCSB #2 in terms of impact in the sciences. Also, the Koegel Autism Center at UCSB’s Gevirtz Graduate School of Education has been recognized by the National Research Council as one of the top 10 state-of-the-art treatment centers for autism in the US. Student Reviews Here's what students have to say about UCSB: Pros: Students can choose whether or not to make partying the cornerstone of their social lives Very beautiful campus Student housing is very vibrant and social Cons: Can be very difficult to get into the classes and majors you want
UCSD UCSD is located in La Jolla, an affluent community in the northern part of San Diego. La Jolla is an extremely nice area and has an average daily temperature of 70.5 degrees. UCSD is also very close to the Pacific Ocean. It's home to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, one of the first centers dedicated to ocean, earth, and atmospheric science research and education. The school is organized into six residential colleges that help give it a smaller college feel within a large university. The journal Nature ranked UCSD first in the US in earth and environmental research. It’s also top among all UCs in terms of total active inventions and total US patents. UCSD is known for having a less energetic and involved on-campus culture compared to other UCs like UCSB, UCLA, or Berkeley. However, I have friends who were part of Greek life and actively involved in extracurricular activities at UCSD, and they thoroughly enjoyed their UCSD experience. Student Reviews Here's what students have to say about UCSD: Pros: A very nurturing academic and extracurricular environment! Rigorous courses Strong sense of community Cons: Not much in the way of an athletic or party scene Not much of a college town
UCSD (SD Dirk/Flickr)
UC Davis UC Davis is located in Davis, a rural town in Northern California. Davis is 11 miles from Sacramento and 70 miles from San Francisco. The town of Davis is known for its friendly community and small town feel. Many of the UC Davis students seem to appreciate that the campus is surrounded by nature. According to the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2016, UC Davis is ranked first in veterinary medicine in the world. Because the campus is somewhat secluded, the on-campus culture at UC Davis is pretty active. It’s not known for being as wild as UCSB or Berkeley, but students seem to be more involved and social on campus than students at UCSD, UC Irvine, or UC Riverside. Student Reviews Here's what students have to say about UC Davis: Pros: Refreshing and peaceful environment Lots of research opportunities for students in all majors Campus feels very safe Robust campus services for students Cons: In a comparatively rural area; not close to urban life
UC Davis (Ivan Kozik/Flickr)
UC Irvine UC Irvine is located in Irvine, an affluent city in Orange County, California. Irvine is consistently ranked as one of the safest cities in the US and has some of the best public schools. According to US News, among specific undergraduate programs, The Henry Samueli School of Engineering ranked 44th among engineering schools whose highest degree is a doctorate. UCI’s undergraduate major in The Paul Merage School of Business was ranked 32nd. Furthermore, in US News's most recent rankings of graduate programs and specialties, UCI's literary criticism and theory, criminilogy, creative writing, and healthcare management programs each ranked in the top 10 in the country. The city of Irvine is not known for being the most exciting place, and the UC Irvine campus is also on the quiet side. The people I know who had the most fun at UCI were outgoing and involved with oncampus activities. Student Reviews Here's what students had to say about UC Irvine: Pros: Positive academic environment created by other students, advisors, and professors Cons: Difficult to make friends without becoming involved in clubs and putting forth a lot of effort Some students find it hard to adjust to the quarter system
UC Irvine (UCI UC Irvine/Flickr)
UC Santa Cruz UC Santa Cruz is located in Santa Cruz, a coastal city about 32 miles south of San Jose and 75 miles south of San Francisco. Santa Cruz is known for its coastline, redwood forests, and being socially liberal. The biggest tourist attraction in the area is probably the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The campus of UC Santa Cruz is in the forest, and the students have a reputation for being a tad on the hippie side. PETA2, the young adult division of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, rated UC Santa Cruz as the #1 most vegan-friendly college in 2011. Approximately 25 percent of produce served in dining halls is organic, with much of it coming from local providers, such as the Farm and Garden run by UCSC’s Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems. In 2014, Bestcolleges.com ranked UCSC #1 in the nation among top 50 colleges for Hispanic students. My friends who attended UC Santa Cruz speak highly of their undergraduate experience. Because it’s smaller than most of the other UCs, it seems to have more of a community feel, and it offers a social, progressive environment. Student Reviews Here's what students have to say about UC Santa Cruz: Pros: Campus and surrounding environs are beautiful! Has a liberal arts feel at a public school Cons: Limited choice in majors Dining hall food is on the gross side Financial aid process can be a hassle
UC Santa Cruz (Benjamin Pender/Flickr)
UC Riverside UC Riverside is located in Riverside, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. Riverside is the largest city in what is known as the Inland Empire of Southern California. The area around the campus is probably not the nicest, and students have commented on the crime and not feeling safe walking alone at night. Originally, UC Riverside was a small liberal arts college when it opened in 1954, but it became a general university in 1959. Over the years, the student body has expanded rapidly, and the school and student body are still growing. The UC Riverside School of Medicine enrolled its first class in 2013. Also, according to its website, UCR enrolls a higher percentage of Pell Grant recipients than any other top research university in the country. There seems to be a significant push by UCR to make sure that it’s on the same level as the other UCs. It's adding students, new facilities, and plans to add 330 ladder-ranked faculty members. UC Riverside doesn't have the most active on-campus culture. About 70 percent of students are commuters, and freshmen don’t have to live on campus. Student Reviews Here's what students have to say about UC Riverside: Pros: Very diverse student population School provides lots of resources for students SoCal environment allows for lots of outdoor activity Cons: Area surrounding the campus is not safe Not a very extensive alumni network
UC Riverside (Ken/Flickr)
UC Merced UC Merced is located in Merced, a small city in the San Joaquin Valley of Northern California. Merced is less than two hours to Yosemite National Park to the east and Monterey Bay to the west. Merced is more of a rural area. Also, UC Merced opened in 2005 and it has a substantially lower undergraduate enrollment than the rest of the UCs. According to its website, UC Merced is the only American university with every building on campus environmentally certified. It pledges a Triple Zero Commitment, a plan to consume zero net energy, produce zero landfill waste, and zero net emissions on campus by 2020. Some students wish that Merced was more of an exciting town while others appreciate the smaller tight-knit community on campus and the small town feel of Merced. Furthermore, many students seem to appreciate that they’re part of creating the on-campus culture at UC Merced because it’s only 10 years old. They get to start organizations and leave a lasting legacy for future students. Student Reviews Here's what students have to say about UC Merced: Pros: Small classes allow for lots of professor interaction and research opportunities Excellent "hidden gem" academic programs Cons: Campus is small and boring, with not many social and extracurricular opportunities
UC Merced (tanyaboza/Flickr)
How Do You Decide Which UC Schools to Apply To? One benefit of applying to University of California colleges is that you can apply to all nine of the UC schools with just one application. However, I don't recommend applying to a school that you have no desire to attend. Also, unless you qualify for a fee waiver, you have to pay $70 for each campus that you apply to. Even if you qualify for a fee waiver, UC will only waive the application fee for up to four UC campuses. Fee waivers are based on your family's income; you can apply for a fee waiver within the online application, and you'll be notified immediately if you qualify. Before selecting the UC colleges you'll apply to, look at your list of all the colleges you're applying to. Make sure you have enough safety schools. If not, consider applying to at least one of the less selective UCs, if your credentials would make you an extremely strong candidate for admission. Generally, you should have at least an 80% chance of getting in to consider a college a safety school. To help determine your odds of admission for each UC, google the name of the school and "prepscholar admission requirements." On each school's profile, you'll find our admissions calculator that will help you roughly determine your chances of gaining admission to that college. Start by eliminating the UCs you know you don't want to attend. Research each of the campuses. If possible, visit and take campus tours. Which schools don't have the majors you're considering? Which schools have a location or on-campus culture that doesn't appeal to you? If you're applying to UCs, I recommend applying to 2-6 campuses, depending on how many other schools you're applying to and your specific needs. Also, if you're in the top 9% of California high school graduates and aren't admitted to any of the UC campuses you apply to, you'll be offered a spot at another campus if space is available. However, you shouldn't assume there will be available space; that's why you should apply to safety schools.
How Do You Decide Which UC School To Attend? If you’re in the position to choose which UC school to attend, then congratulations! You’ve done well enough in high school to have the opportunity to attend a great college, regardless of which one you choose. Honestly, you should choose which UC to attend the same way you would go about choosing any college. Determine the factors that are most important to you in a college. Then, research the colleges you’re considering extensively. There are many factors to consider to determine if a college is a good fit for you including location, selectivity, support services, and the majors offered. Look at the school’s website, and use guidebooks, college finders, search websites, and other ranking lists to help you in the college selection process. If possible, consult with teachers, counselors, parents, current students, and alumni. Most students who are deciding between UCs seem to base their college decisions primarily on selectivity, location, and campus culture. Selectivity seems to be the biggest priority for most students who are deciding between UC schools. It’s rare to find a student who opts to go to UC Riverside over UCLA. Most students want to go to the most selective school that accepts them, especially if both colleges are in the same general area. The next biggest priority for most students is location. Even though Berkeley may be be ranked a little higher and might be slightly more selective, many students choose to attend UCLA over Berkeley. Some students prefer Southern California to Northern California, or they find the environment in Bezerkeley to be too overwhelming and prefer the more subdued confines of Westwood. Additionally, some students want to be close to home and some prefer to be a little further away. If you want to be in a rural environment, UC Davis and UC Merced are good options. If you want to be by the beach, you may prefer UCSB, UC Santa Cruz, or UCSD. If you want to be in Northern California, you should consider UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz or UC Merced. Furthermore, the campus culture is an important factor for many students. By campus culture, I’m primarily referring to the energy and activity on campus. You can find parties and numerous on-campus activities and organizations at all UCs, but some are known for offering a more enthusiastic on-campus environment and a more festive culture. Some students prefer to embrace a more lively college experience while others like being in a more quiet environment to focus on their studies. UCSB, fairly or not, has probably earned the reputation for being the best party school. UCLA and UC Berkeley have lively campus cultures, big-time sports, and active Greek life. UC Irvine and UC Riverside have more commuter students and the on-campus environments are not quite as lively. Also, while all the UCs are well-regarded academic schools, they do have different majors and programs. Because UC Davis is in a more rural area, it has more majors related to agriculture. For example, you can get a Bachelor’s in food science or international agriculture at UC Davis. Meanwhile, you can’t major in any agriculture-related field at UC Berkeley. If you’re interested in a specific major or program, or if you want to compare the majors offered at the different UCs, I recommend using a college finder like Big Future to quickly and easily compare the different colleges and get a complete list of the available majors. Finally, finances can be a major factor for some students when deciding which UC to attend. The cost of attendance is basically the same for each UC, but the financial aid you receive from each school can vary. Also, some students save money by living at home, so they choose the campus that is closest for financial reasons. Especially because most upperclassmen live off campus at UCs, the cost of living of the area of the school is a factor for students who are concerned about finances. It’s much cheaper to live in Davis, Merced, or Riverside than in Los Angeles, Irvine, or Berkeley.
Conclusion All of the UCs are great colleges with many similarities. There are notable differences in their reputations and selectivity, but the most significant differences between them are their locations and campus cultures. When selecting the colleges you're going to apply to, and especially when you choose the college you attend, pick the school that will be the best fit for you and your needs.
What's Next? Ready to start your UC application? Check out this post on how to apply for college. You may also want to read about how to write a perfect UC personal statement and learn how to come up with great college essay ideas. Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now: Get eBook: 5 Tips for 160+ Points
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Submit Comment Ahmed can u get a sat score of 1400 and get enrolled in california state university los angeles Justin Berkman Are you asking about Cal State LA or UCLA? If you're asking about UCLA, you will probably have difficulty getting into UCLA with a 1400. Check out the admissions calculator: http://www.prepscholar.com/sat/s/colleges/UCLA-admission-requirements If you're referring to Cal State LA, depending on your GPA, you'll have a decent shot of getting in with a 1400. Check it out: http://www.prepscholar.com/sat/s/colleges/Cal-State-Los-Angeles-admission-requirements Also, the Cal States don't consider your Writing score. Maureen Chevalier This article has been very helpful! All of the UCs seem to have different scholarships for Out Of State students. Do you have info on which of the UCs has the best merit scholarships/financial aid? thank you :) Justin Berkman Hi Maureen, Thanks for your question. I'm glad you found the article helpful! Unfortunately, I don't have info comparing the merit scholarships or financial aid for out-of-state students. Typically, UCs don't offer much merit aid, but you're likely to get more of it at the less competitive UCs. Also, unfortunately for you as an out-of-state student, there's much more financial aid available for California residents. I recommend reading our articles on financial aid and scholarships on this blog. Most definitely, you should apply for financial aid and private scholarships. Also, if you want to go to a UC and money is a big factor in your decision, you should apply to a few UCs so you can compare your financial aid packages. Hope that helps. Best of luck to you! Justin Ellen Sun Excellent article that shows different views to help students decide! A well rounded summary of each school to help us determine which may be a better fit! Thank you as this has been very helpful!
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