Applying to the UCs

Applying to the UCs - South Hall at UC Berkeley
Built in 1873, South Hall is UC Berkeley’s oldest building.

[Note:  this is a pretty long article – but chock-full of great info if you are applying to the UCs! There’s a “quick tips” post on applying to the UCs here.]

Lisa Przekop’s son was denied admission at UCSB a few years back.  She’s in good company – many students were not admitted – but she’s the Director of Admissions at UCSB.  Admission to the University of California has become highly competitive over the past few years.  While the UCs tell us that California resident students with a 3.0 cumulative GPA (for 10th and 11th grades, weighted in that special UC way that allows a maximum of 8 semesters’ worth of GPA bump) are eligible to apply to UC schools, unfortunately this belies the reality that each of the nine UC campuses does not have enough space for the number of students who are qualified and want to attend.

UCLA has received over 100,000 applications for freshman admission for the past three years.

California students and parents are concerned that the UCs are beginning to admit more students from out-of-state, and international students, because they will pay higher tuition – money that the UCs desperately need.  They fear that this will disadvantage their students who are applying to the UCs.  But out-of-state and international students are only a small fraction of the population at UC schools and in fact, they are not accepted at disproportionately higher rates than in past years.

For California students and parents, it helps to understand how the UCs evaluate applications.  At a recent conference for independent counselors, several of Magellan’s counselors attended a 2-part session presented by UCSB Admissions Director Lisa Przekop and Admissions Counselor Cuca Acosta.  In the first session, they explained the UC’s requirements and detailed their comprehensive review process; in the second session, we reviewed actual student applications, including essays.

Each UC campus evaluates applicants individually, based on its own priorities and standards.  They do not share information about which students are admitted to which campuses.  UCs offer holistic admissions, evaluating both academic and non-academic factors.  “We are looking for the students who fit the culture and the values of our campus,” said Ms. Przekop, helping to explain why some students are admitted to some UC campuses but not others (always frustrating!).  

applying to the UCs - UC Merced
Dormitory building at UC Merced

Overall, here are the components that each UC campus considers as they make their admission decisions (additional detail about each of these categories is below):

  • Academic achievement/college prep work
  • Performance on standardized tests
  • Participation and achievement in academic enrichment programs
  • Special talents, achievements and awards
  • Personal qualities
  • Challenges, hardships, unusual circumstances
  • Capacity to contribute to the intellectual and cultural life of a campus community.

All of these components are considered in the context of an applicant’s environment, both personal and academic.  The last item is where different campuses can inject their own personality and make finer grain decisions.  According to Ms. Acosta, “the campuses determine which of the criteria they will use, and what weight each criterion will be given.”  The criteria are described more here, and here’s some additional detail:

  • Academic achievement/college prep work:

> The UC academic requirements (called the a-g requirements) are detailed here.  The UC requires one full year of visual or performing arts classes, and the courses should be in sequence.  The UCs will make some exceptions for out-of-state high school students whose schools do not require or offer visual or performing arts.  For California students, evaluators are allowed discretion in determining whether a student intended to fulfill this requirement.  California students may also take a visual or performing arts course at a community college.  Here’s a tip: just one semester of visual or performing arts at a community college will satisfy the full year requirement!

> California students applying to the UCs get a GPA “bump” for approved honors courses, as well as IB and AP classes, allowing a maximum of 8 semesters of this extra credit.  California students applying to the UCs should check on this website to determine if their honors classes have been approved by the UC system; some courses noted on the transcript as “Honors” may not actually count for honors credit for UC purposes (for example, there is not one English class in the entire state of CA that is approved for Honors, even though many high schools enter “Honors English 10” on students’ transcripts).  Since out-of-state high schools do not have their honors courses approved by the UC, out-of-state students only get the “bump” for AP and IB courses, making it appear as though out-of-state students have lower GPAs compared to California applicants.  The minimum GPA for out-of-state students applying to the UCs is 3.4.

> The strength/rigor of your 10th, 11th and 12th grade courseload tells the UCs how motivated you are.  They are looking to see that you have completed courses beyond the minimum requirements (this applies especially to engineers, who should have completed Physics and Calculus by the end of their senior year).

> People often ask us if they should take every single AP class available. The UCSB admissions folks agreed with the advice we usually give: think hard about what grades you might get if you take three, four or five AP courses in one semester or year.  If you think you might get a C or two, focus on your area of strength and dial back the rigor.  Challenging yourself but getting a C in an AP course does not look good.

  • Standardized testing: The UCs require students to submit either an SAT or an ACT score, and they DO NOT superscore.  Students applying to the UCs should send in scores from just one sitting, their highest overall score, and should take the writing/essay section of either the SAT or the ACT.  Applicants can send SAT or ACT scores to just one UC campus, and that campus will share those scores systemwide.  SAT Subject tests are optional (strongly recommended for a small handful of majors and campuses), but if you took them and did well, they may add value to your application at some campuses.  AP scores are never required; you may still send scores after you enroll to get college credit.
  • Participation in academic enrichment programs:  these could include summer programs, community college courses, or college prep courses offered within the context of your school.  The UCs want to know these things about whatever you list in this category:

> Time and depth of participation (was it a one-week program or a three-year program?)
> Academic progress made during participation (Why did you sign up for it; what did you accomplish?)
> Intellectual rigor of the program

  • Special talents:

> Accomplishments in visual or performing arts
> Athletic talent
> Leadership in school or community organizations or activities
> What do you do?  What do you love?  What is your passion?  What is your talent?  There are always opportunities to shine in some leadership role.  Your activities are not limited to those sponsored by your high school.  With regard to your activities, “we like things that show depth and breadth,” say the UCSB admissions folks. “Four years of an activity is good.”  In the section where you report your activities, give them some context.  If you are on student council, tell them how large your class is.  Explain acronyms (they WON’T look them up!!)  Tell them specifically what you are responsible for if you hold a position.  And keep in mind that one single activity will not make or break your application.
> Remember that the pool of applicants for the UC campuses is smart and talented!  National Honor Society is particularly common, so it’s not very impressive.  Eagle Scout, on the other hand, is not as common, so it is impressive.  What do you do, or have you done, that your classmates have not?

  • Personal qualities: “This is the area where I see students shortchange themselves the most,” said Admissions Director Przekop.  Since the UCs don’t interview and won’t accept teacher recommendations, they can really only glean these personal qualities from what YOU say about yourself in your responses to the personal insight questions.  And since you’ve been taught your whole life not to brag, it’s easy to see how the UCs could miss something about you that you’d really like them to know.  Give specifics when you talk about your personal qualities in your essays.  Talk about things like:

> Leadership ability
> Motivation, tenacity, initiative
> Originality, creativity
> Intellectual independence
> Commitment
> Character
> Responsibility
> Insight
> Maturity
> Meaningful contributions to your community

  • If you’ve dealt with challenges and hardships, the UC wants to know.  Don’t focus on the challenge, focus on how you dealt with it and what you learned from it.  Don’t be shy; it’s OK to talk about anxiety, ADD or other mental health issues.  You can tell them if you have a disability, or a situation with your parents’ income, family situations, or if you’re the first in your family to attend college.  They’re looking for maturity, determination and insight into dealing with or overcoming circumstances.  It may seem harder to be a student who HASN’T faced challenges and hardships; this is where you need to dig deep and figure out what’s important and interesting about you, and what you could contribute to a college campus!
  • Applying to the UCs - UC Santa Cruz
    McHenry Library on the lush and woodsy campus of UC Santa Cruz

    Your capacity to contribute:  Again, this is where each UC campus can inject their own personality as they try to determine if you are a good fit for them.  Tell them about:

> Experiences that demonstrate your promise for leadership
> Significant achievements that demonstrate your promise to contribute to the cultural and intellectual vitality of the community
> The likelihood that you would make meaningful and unique contributions to social interaction with students and faculty (SHOW, don’t just TELL!)
> While the UCs cannot use ethnicity/gender in admission decisions, they can consider if you have spent time exploring your ethnicity through dance, language, food, cultural groups etc.  Keep in mind that the UCs place very strong emphasis on building a diverse class of students from different backgrounds.

The UCs require four responses to their 8 personal insight questions.  This is where students applying to the UCs have the opportunity to show their personal qualities – SHOW not TELL.  Let the stories describe you, instead of describing yourself (which can come off sounding a little snotty!)  Ms. Acosta was adamant that the UC questions are different from the Common Application essays – “We’re looking for facts,” she said.  “Don’t take us into the moment with fluff.  Get to the point.  Write the essay as if you were writing a news article about yourself.  Think journalism, not creative writing.  Cram as much information into it as possible.”

You have 350 words each, in four responses, to tell them everything you want them to know about your – everything they don’t already know from the Activities section, in which you have ample space (about 500 characters per activity, award/honor, work or volunteer experience, which is more than you get in the Common Application!) to detail your extra-curricular and volunteer activities.  There’s no need to repeat that information, by the way, unless you want to expand on it in a way that you can’t in the space you’re given in the activities section. 

Students applying to the UCs can start their applications on August 1, and may submit applications between November 1 and November 30.  There’s really no benefit to submitting early, but don’t wait until the last minute!  Once again, all campuses review applications independently, and most campuses notify in February or March.  For more information, you can visit the main UC application site here.

Many California families assume that their kids will be admitted to the “best” UCs and are disappointed in the spring.  The “ELC” letter, which tells you if you’re in the top 15% of your high school class, DOES NOT guarantee you admission to a particular UC school; it guarantees you admission to the SYSTEM.  Which really means you have a spot at UC Merced.

We’ve found the UC decisions to be unpredictable at best.  Don’t wait until the responses come – it will be too late by then.  The best strategy is to expand your list and apply to some non-UC options.  If you need help with that part, we love helping students and families broaden their college list and go beyond the names they know.  There’s a college out there for everyone!  Get in touch if you want help.

~ post updated fall 2019 ~

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