A Guide to Choosing a UC School
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In California, we’re lucky to have a rich choice of strong public universities – namely, the University of California (UC) schools. Sometimes, that choice can even be overwhelming. With nine schools that have undergraduate programs, how do you figure out which one is right for you?

You can use this guide as a starting point for narrowing down your choice of UC schools. Included for each school is its national rank according to U.S. News, its acceptance rate, and – most importantly – some of the characteristics that set it apart.


UC Berkeley

National rank: 21

Acceptance rate: 17.2 percent

UC Berkeley is, along with UCLA, one of the most academically rigorous UC schools. It is a major research university and regularly tops rankings of public universities in the United States. Located in a culturally vibrant college town with a history of political activism, the school also has easy access to San Francisco via public transit. Given UC Berkeley’s proximity to Silicon Valley, perhaps it’s no surprise that UC Berkeley is also known for having one of the top engineering departments in the world.



National rank: 21

Acceptance rate: 16.1 percent

Situated in LA’s Westwood neighborhood, UCLA is one of the UC system’s academic heavy hitters. Although UCLA has highly ranked programs in a wide range of disciplines, some of the best of the best include the psychology, mathematics and linguistics departments. If that’s not enough, the school is also an athletic powerhouse.


UC Santa Barbara

National rank: 37

Acceptance rate: 32.8 percent

At first glance, partying and quantum physics might not seem to go hand-in-hand. But then there’s UC Santa Barbara. Besides routinely making onto the Princeton Review’s list of the top twenty party schools in the country, UC Santa Barbara has one of the best physics departments in the United States. They also have strong offerings in other areas like biology, not to mention a bicycle-friendly campus that looks out onto the Pacific Ocean.


UC Irvine

National rank: 42

Acceptance rate: 36.6

UC Irvine is one of four UCs located in the Greater LA area. The most popular major is biological sciences, which typically accounts for about a quarter of each class. But the school has standout departments in some areas of the humanities too, like the top-ranked critical theory program in the country. Perhaps best of all, Money magazine named UC Irvine the best college in the country for people who like going to the beach!


UC San Diego

National rank: 42

Acceptance rate: 34.1 percent

UC San Diego’s undergraduate program is divided into six residential colleges, a system that is intended to combine “the academic advantages of a large research university with the finest features of a small liberal arts college.” Each residential college has its own general education requirements, housing requirements and dining plans. Academically, the university as a whole tends to have solid programs across the board, but one of the school’s gems is the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, a national leader in ocean science, climate science and related areas.


UC Davis

National rank: 46

Acceptance rate: 43.6 percent

As the third-largest UC school, UC Davis boasts a range of strong departments. However, its location in California’s Central Valley and its proximity to Wine Country make it an especially good fit for those interested in agriculture and winemaking. The school has notable departments in viticulture, animal sciences and agricultural economics, as well as one of the country’s top veterinary medicine programs.


UC Santa Cruz

National rank: 81

Acceptance rate: 51.4 percent

Yet another UC campus, yet another school with good prospects for going to the beach. But there’s more to UC Santa Cruz than that. Some of the school’s unique offerings include a bachelor’s of science in computer game design, and a popular business management economics degree. For aspiring lawyers, UC Santa Cruz has a joint BA/JD program with UC Hastings College of Law that puts students on an accelerated track. The good news for these students is that they earn their BA and JD in six years rather than the typical seven. The bad news is that they might not have much time for exploring the area’s beaches.


UC Riverside

National rank: 124

Acceptance rate: 57.4 percent

UC Riverside has come a long way from its early days as the UC Citrus Experimentation Station. While those interested in oranges can still find a home in the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, the school now offers programs ranging from the UCs’ only creative writing bachelor’s degree to one of only three undergraduate business administration degrees available in the UC system (Berkeley and Irvine also have undergrad business administration programs).


UC Merced

National rank: 165

Acceptance rate: 70.0 percent

The newest of the UC campuses, UC Merced opened its doors in 2005. The school is still growing and remains substantially smaller than other UCs – which, on the plus side, means smaller class sizes and opportunities to more easily get involved in research for undergrads. While UC Merced struggled to draw students at first, there are signs that it is more recently gaining traction.


As you can see, each UC school has its own individual strengths. From its standout academic programs to its location, every school has something unique to offer.

And as you do more research on the schools that catch your attention, no doubt you’ll discover more features that distinguish these schools. When you’ve narrowed down your choice to a handful of UCs that look especially appealing, it’s a good idea to comb through these schools’ websites (and other information available about them online), with an eye toward any fields of study or other aspects of college life you’re interested in. From there, word of mouth can also be telling – in California, you’re bound to hear about a lot of firsthand UC experiences just by asking around!

Of course, the final test is a campus visit. You’ll get a clearer sense of what sets a given UC apart when you see the school in person. Sure, UC Berkeley and UCLA both have great academics, but what appeals to you more: Berkeley’s Bay Area college town vibe, or UCLA’s atmosphere and easy access to LA? It’s hard to know until you visit! The UC system gives students lots of options, but the more you learn about what defines each school through research and campus visits, the more you might start finding that one UC resonates with you above all the others.

By Niels V.