How to Get into the University of California System

Spread across 10 campuses, the University of California system is home to some of the most sought-after colleges in the U.S.

Among National Universities — institutions that are often research-oriented and offer bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees — that reported fall 2020 application data to U.S. News, the University of California claimed five of the top six spots.

Applications to individual schools in the UC system, such as the University of California–Los Angeles and University of California–Berkeley, far outpace the number submitted to Ivy League universities such as Harvard University in Massachusetts or Princeton University in New Jersey.

The University of California Office of the President declined to comment for this story. However, one college admissions expert offers a twofold explanation for the strong application numbers seen across the UC system.

“California holds the largest state population in the country, which translates to a lot of applications from California residents,” Mike Pichay, principal college admissions counselor at IvyWise, wrote in an email. “Moreover, several of the best public universities in the country are in the UC system, which draws a lot of interest for Californians and out-of-state residents alike.”

[See: 10 Colleges That Received the Most Applications.]

Of the 10 campuses in the UC system, which together enroll more than 280,000 students, nine are ranked in the top 100 National Universities. The lone outlier is the University of California–San Francisco, which offers only graduate programs, thus making it ineligible for U.S. News Best Colleges rankings, though many of its offerings earn high marks in the U.S. News Best Graduate Schools rankings. Similarly, UC–San Francisco is one of three UC system schools that cracked the top 20 Best Global Universities rankings released by U.S. News in October.

Excluding UC–San Francisco, schools in the University of California system tallied a combined 692,587 applications for fall 2020, according to data they reported to U.S. News in an annual survey. Students hoping to stand out among a crowded pool of applicants vying for entry to the often-competitive UC schools should check out the advice below.

Understand UC Acceptance Rates

Application volume and acceptance rates vary across the UC system. UCLA and UC–Berkeley, the two top-ranked schools in the system, have acceptance rates of 14% and 18%, respectively. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the University of California–Merced, which reported an 85% acceptance rate for fall 2020.

While those numbers for UCLA and UC–Berkeley may seem low, those odds are much better for applicants than at even more selective schools such as Harvard and Princeton, which report single-digit acceptance rates.

“I think a lot of the students when they’re looking at Harvard, and when they’re looking at Berkeley, there’s a sense that Berkeley’s a little bit more within reach,” says Wei-Li Sun, who specializes in UC admissions as founder of By contrast, she notes that admission seems achievable to schools in the UC system.

Transfer students may fare even better within the UC system. At UCLA and UC–Berkeley, for example, the acceptance rates for transfer students in fall 2020 was 24% and 21%, respectively, per U.S. News data.

“The UCs rely on transfer students and reserve a significant number of spaces for transfers in the incoming junior class,” Pichay says. “This is a deliberate practice to ensure that the California community colleges are a dedicated pipeline for students who may have needed more time to mature academically or who may have elected to go to community college for financial reasons.”

[Explore: 10 Reasons to Attend a Community College vs. University.]

Admissions experts highlight three common avenues to transfer into UC schools: Transfer Pathways, Transfer Admissions Guarantee and Pathways+. Prospective transfer students should look into these programs to determine the best option and know that requirements may vary by campus. Some schools, for example, may not participate in all transfer programs or may require students to have a certain number of credit hours to transfer in.

School Rank Fall 2020 Applications Acceptance rate Average unweighted 2020 GPA Transfer acceptance rate Minimum credits to apply
University of California–Los Angeles 20 (tie) 108,877 14% 3.9 24% 90
University of California–Berkeley 22 88,076 18% 3.9 21% 60
University of California–Santa Barbara 28 (tie) 90,963 37% 3.9 59% 60
University of California–San Diego 34 (tie) 100,073 38% 3.9 56% 60
University of California–Irvine 36 (tie) 97,942 30% N/A 41% 45
University of California–Davis 38 (tie) 76,225 46% N/A 55% No
University of California–Riverside 83 (tie) 49,434 66% 3.8 65% 90
University of California–Merced 93 (tie) 25,924 85% 3.6 52% No
University of California–Santa Cruz 103 (tie) 55,073 65% 3.5 64% 90

Understand Testing and Admissions Criteria

While many colleges went test-optional due to the coronavirus, the UC system went test-blind in 2020, meaning that the college does not consider ACT or SAT scores if submitted. Though limited testing access because of COVID-19 concerns prompted many colleges to change their policies, the UC system move was driven by a lawsuit challenging the use of standardized testing in admissions.

But doing away with test scores doesn’t necessarily mean UC admissions got easier.

“If the UCs are no longer looking at SAT or ACT scores, they’re certainly looking at other things. Or they’re looking at the same other things that they were looking at, but with a microscope instead of a magnifying glass,” says Allen Koh, CEO and founder of Cardinal Education. “A lot of families have not understood this, and they’ve simply been celebrating the demise of testing without compensating in other ways.”

According to the University of California website, all schools within the system consider the same criteria for first-year applicants. That criteria is broken down across 13 factors weighed in admissions decisions.

“Of the 13, more than half are academic considerations,” Pichay says. “The move away from requiring standardized testing means that UC admission officers likely place even greater weight on students ‘ curriculum.”

Pichay adds that while each campus uses the same factors to evaluate applicants, the factors may be applied differently, so “students should visit the admission website for each UC school to which they apply and review how that institution specifically applies those admission factors into their specific application review process.”

Koh encourages students to take AP courses and the corresponding exams, as well as community college classes, to boost their odds of admission. He also encourages students to participate in official UC programs, for example the four-week California State Summer School for Mathematics & Science. Participating in such programs, he says, will lift applicants in the eyes of evaluators in UC admissions offices.

What a student intends to major in can also play a role in getting into certain UC schools, experts say.

[See: 10 Things to Know About Selecting a College Major.]

“Computer science and engineering at both the freshman and transfer level, are exceptionally competitive,” Sun says, suggesting acceptance into such programs is in the single digits at top schools in the UC system.

And for students who plan to apply with a major that offers better odds when attempting to transfer later, that’s easier said than done, Koh notes. “You actually have to take coursework in your major before they allow you to apply to transfer … and there’s absolutely no guarantee that this transfer will be successful.”

Plan for University of California Essays

The college essay is a standard part of the admissions process, but the UC system breaks from the pack by requiring more from applicants. UC applicants must answer four of eight prompts capped at 350 words each. Essentially, that means four essays are required to apply to colleges in the UC system.

Additionally, there is an optional fifth prompt that allows students to write about special circumstances.

Pichay encourages students to use this prompt to offer additional context to help explain their transcript, such as “an explanation of a dip in grades due to extenuating circumstances like illness or family home issues. This section becomes even more important since we ‘ re still navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, where courses might not have a letter grade or students ‘ academics may have been impacted by the pandemic.”

Experts also encourage students to throw out what they know about writing the standard college essay. In other words, forget about flowery language and philosophical pondering when writing UC essays. The UC system, they say, values clear, concise statements that highlight an applicant’s values and ambitions.

“They want to produce future leaders, people who are going to become agents of social change,” Sun says. “Oftentimes, students need to address how their values align with what the UCs are looking to accomplish.”

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.

More from U.S. News

A Complete Guide to the College Application Process

What It Takes to Get Accepted Into the Ivy League

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