The Ultimate Guide to Applying to University of California (UC) Schools

Applying to college can be a very tricky and time-consuming process, and the University of California schools are no exception. Learn about how the application process, the deadlines, and all the other intricacies of the UC system.

Why Apply to UC Schools

The UC Schools (composing of UC Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego, Davis, Irvine, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Riverside, and Merced) are among the cream of the crop in the American collegiate system. The tenth UC school, UC San Francisco, is a graduate university and is excluded from this guide as the focus here is on undergraduates. That aside, if you want a thorough and meaningful college education, you would be hard-pressed to find better than the UC school system.

Applying for these schools can often be overwhelming, difficult, and scary. Our desire in constructing this guide was to make it easier for future generations of students to apply to UC schools and to help simplify the process we at had to wade through in our own youth.

Immediately below is a short table outlining the major distinctions between the nine different UC schools. Use this to help narrow your decisions when beginning the UC application process. This graph does not include the posted post-financial aid tuitions as your mileage will vary when it comes to financial aid.

University Location Average Tuition Acceptance Rate
UC Berkeley Berkeley, CA $39,376 15%
UC Los Angeles Las Angeles, CA $35,568 14%
UC San Diego La Jolla, CA $33,849 30%
UC Davis Davis, CA $35,935 41%
UC Irvine Irvine, CA $35,363 29%
UC Santa Barbara Santa Barbara, CA $36,765 32%
UC Santa Cruz Santa Cruz, CA $37,297 47%
UC Riverside Riverside, CA $35,387 51%
UC Merced Merced, CA $35,973 66%

Before you dive into the rest of this guide, let us share the guiding motto of every UC school: Fiat Lux. It translates into Let There Be Light.

Let this guide be the light that shows you to your best educational experience. Good luck.

The Good About UC Schools

The UC school system contains ten schools (the tenth, again, being omitted) for a reason. Each university has a specialty, notable staff members, different student populations, and several other distinguishing factors.

UC Berkeley
UC Los Angeles
UC San Diego
UC Davis
UC Irvine
UC Santa Barbara
UC Santa Cruz
UC Riverside
UC Merced

The UC Application Process and Deadlines

Good news! Applying to one or more of the UC schools is a simpler process than you would think. All nine universities share a single general application and a single general fee (that you must pay once for EACH UC school you apply to) of $70.

Applications for the following year open on August 1st of each year. For example, applications for the Fall of 2021 open on August 1st of 2020. On November 1st you will, finally, be allowed to submit the application. This application period lasts until November 30th of the same year. To maintain the example, our 2021 application that opened on August 1st of 2020 will close on November 30th of 2020. Your application window to apply to UC starts in August the year before and ends in that same November.

Reminder: you may edit the application as of August 1st, submit the application of as November 1st, and must have finished the application by November 30th.

Do not miss your chance!

FAFSA and Cal Grant applications (which is where a large percentage of financial aid comes from) open on October 1st and persist into the next year.

The opening of the application requires general information about you in the form of establishing an account: contact information, email, name, age, and other such simple questions. It will also ask for parental information. Fortunately, you can just hand the computer over to your parents for this step. This information is used by the university to contact you and for statistics they use to refine their advertising. Remember to record your login information!

Early Steps and Application Fees

The application fee for applying to UC schools is, as stated, $70 per school. The application will not change much between schools: think of it like a Common App, but strictly for UC schools. The only change is that the fee is $70 times the number of schools you are applying to. Applying to three UC schools? $210 application fee.

Ideally, you are starting work on this application when the edit period begins in August. It is not a terribly complicated application, despite how daunting it seems, so you should not have too much difficulty in having the application ready by November.

Early in the application you will be asked what university you would like to apply to (see the above section for help narrowing that down) and what majors/minors you are interested in. Please keep in mind that your stated interest here is NOT a commitment later down the line. You will have a chance, while attending the university, to change your mind about your major/minor. The reason why they ask here is because, depending on what your select, the application essay/personal statement steps may request that you include information about why you are passionate about this major/minor. Our recommendation is that if the application recommends you do something… you should do it.

Academic History

The academic history section for the UC applications follows the preliminary information and is a hard requirement for the application. Unfortunately, the requirement is such that, if you do not fit the requirements, you will not be considered as a candidate. There are a lot of good universities that can provide an unrivaled education experience for students that do NOT meet UC California's admission requirements, but you would need to go find those universities.

If you want to be in the UC California school system, you need to have completed the following:

    • 2 years of History
    • 4 years of English
    • 3 years of Mathematics
    • 2 years of Science
    • 2 years of Foreign Language
    • 1 year of either Visual or Performing Arts
    • 1 year College Prep elective (in the subject fields above or any other course the university okays)
    • Achieved a 3.0 GPA as a Californian Resident


    • Achieved a 3.4 GPA as a non-resident.

    It is as simple as that. There is no wriggling out of the requirements here, as transcripts will be required by the University during the application process.

    All the requirements above are resolved by a transcript sent to the University. Talk to your high school counselor, get the transcript sent, and this step of your application will resolve itself just like that. Informal transcripts (screenshots or other such secondhand methods) may be accepted by some universities, but the UC system strictly accepts official transcripts from your high school. This transcript must be turned in by July 1st the summer before you start college.

    This completes the academic history requirement! Congratulations!

    As an addendum, if you are a resident of California whose application is denied and who ranks in the top 9 percent of Californian students state-wide and at your high school and who meets the minimum requirements listed above, you will be guaranteed a spot at another University of California school. This is an incredibly niche scenario that will only apply once in a blue moon - but may be good to know about.

    Standardized Tests for UC Colleges

    The ACT and SAT are familiar names to anyone applying to University. Here is the good news: at UC California schools the ACT and SAT are irrelevant to your chances at getting accepted. The university will look at the ACT and SAT solely to judge eligibility for course placement and for the California admissions guarantee. To repeat, the ACT and SAT do not impact your UC application. Congratulations!

    Here is the reason why.

    On May 21, 2020, the University of California Board of Regents voted to suspend the standardized test requirement for UC universities until 2024. Here is how it breaks down over the years:

    Between 2020 and 2022, the ACT/SAT will only be a factor in your application if it is included. If you do not include it, they will not account for it.

    Between 2023 and 2024, the ACT/SAT will no longer be considered except for course placements.

    For 2025 and beyond, the University of California Board of Regents hopes to have developed a new standardized test for UC California applicants to take that better reflects the goals and desires of the UC school system. If you are reading this in 2025, a link will be provided here to resources connected to the new standardized test.

    A final disclaimer: everything above only applies to Californian students. Out-of-state and transfer students, though currently being treated the same as Californian students, may have different requirements from 2023 onward. This is unlikely and not something to worry about. It is simply something to be aware of.

    If you decide to take the ACT/SAT, here are our formal recommendations:

    • Students stronger in the humanities (writing, language, history, etc.) traditionally do better at the ACT.
    • Students stronger at math should traditionally perform better at the SAT because, comparatively, a larger percentage of your grade on the SAT benefits from math expertise than the ACT.
    • Be prepared to make an appointment multiple times and for your appointment to be cancelled. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, CollegeBoard has been struggling to keep consistent test dates and times. Be patient.
    • For a more in-depth exploration, see our ACT guide.

    In this section you are also given an opportunity to turn in AP or IB test scores. These have no impact on your application and are used strictly to determine what level your freshman classes will be at. For example, if I scored a 5 on the AP Literature exam, then I may be exempted from basic literacy classes at my UC school of choice.

    UC Application Activities and Awards

    The next step after submitting test scores is to pick a few (ideally four) extracurricular activities and awards to impress the application readers and stand out as a candidate. This section, along with the section that follows this, are crucial to your application.

    Everything up to this point is proving your capability to perform at a collegiate level. You have submitted transcripts proving your academic abilities. You have submitted test scores that represent your talent as a student. You are an ideal candidate.

    Now is your chance to distinguish yourself from the crowd. Tell the world about your extracurriculars! Brag! The point of this section is self-expression. Activities and awards worth including include Gold Awards or Eagle Scout Awards, community service, clubs or sporting events, and many more.

    Once you have collected some activities and award worth mentioning, it is crucial to make the language impactful. Use online resume power word lists to help generate the vocabulary for your activity's descriptions and phrase them to make it seem like you were learning constantly from the experiences and improving the community.

    For example, if I want to include community service I did at an Art Fair in Colorado it would look like this:

    Volunteer, Castle Rock Art Fest

    I lead four groups of three in improving cleanliness and quality of life for attendees and establishing relationships with community leaders and artists.

    Notice how the basic volunteer work I provided (emptying trash cans) is reframed as a community experience that improved my life and the lives of those around me. It is not disingenuous; it is simply understanding the subtle importance of things like volunteering. That is what you are trying to accomplish in this section. When you have accomplished this, join us for the next step: the personal statement.

    Your Personal Statement and You

    The personal statement standard to college applications comes under a different name for UC applications. They call it Personal Insight. They offer you some advice on the opening page, which will not be repeated here. Our recommendation is to listen to the advice provided by the application and our own advice, which will follow the explanation.

    Eight questions are provided. You must answer any four of these questions. Your responses are required to be between 250 and 350 words.

    Personal Insight Questions

There are no questions preferred over other questions. All that is required is that you answer four. Each is considered by the reviewers equally. UC California's rationale for providing eight questions is to allow prospective students to have a wide range of options to answer so they may best pick a question that applies to their own lives and experiences.

Answering Personal Insight Questions

Strong personal statements directly answer the provided questions while including secondary information that provides an image of your values, your character, and yourself. For example, let us say that you decide to answer question three (about greatest talent or skill). Let us say that your great skill is building and programming computers.

To answer prompt three effectively, you would need to state your talent with pride and provide a distinct example that conveys how/why you would consider this your greatest skill. Perhaps you built your own computer? Or maybe you wrote a program to expedite a common task? Show us your talent. Once you have done that in the first hundred to hundred-fifty words, you need to represent a few phrases that the university will be looking for. This is not an exhaustive list, simply a short list to get you thinking.

Growth Mindset: This is the mindset of always improving and always trying to find minute improvements to life. Representing this would be by showing how, each time you use a skill, you change and learn from that usage.

Open-Mindedness: Universities try to avoid political bias, though feel free if you are passionate to express your beliefs in this personal statement. Ideally, however, you want to express yourself as an open-minded individual who looks at all sides and considers with humility their place.

Initiative: This often goes overlooked, but it is paramount that you, as the writer, represent yourself as someone who takes initiative, even if it is after delayed consideration, to act on things you believe. It is easy to be passive and distant. It takes heart to take the initiative. Universities will see that.

At this point, after you have answered the four required questions, you will likely have some thoughts. Maybe you had to cut some important information. Maybe it revealed insecurities you did not want to reveal. Whatever else you have to say, there is a section for it: Additional Comments.

Do not feel obligated to write in Additional Comments. It exists to enable people in unique situations to speak about that. Have you struggled with depression? Lost a loved one? Immigrated from another country? Whatever your extenuating circumstances, this is your place to speak them. But, again, do not feel obligated to speak here. It is not required, nor frowned upon.

Congrats! You are almost there!

Paying for UC Schools

Paying for college is not a topic this guide will dive too heavily into. For that we have our Ultimate Guide to FAFSA and Financial Aid.

This section (below) will focus on providing resources for UC California specific scholarships, of which there are a few, and illustrate for you the importance of investigating these financial options. Often, students who fully explore and take advantage of financial options pay dramatically less for college than students who do not. If you do not believe this, do some investigating of your own. The evidence is abundant. Take this coming section seriously and investigate your compatibility with the provided scholarships.

In the UC application, a tab is provided to help connect students to financial aid. Use the resources provided here, but also use the UC resources. Take advantage of the free resources provided to you to make your life easier in the long run.

Trust us.

UC Scholarships and Grants

There are countless scholarships available for students across the country, but this section is for UC specific scholarships. Three scholarships and the resources to connect you to additional scholarships. Again, be sure to use the UC application page to connect you with additional scholarships.

Here are three specific scholarships that we hope you find helpful. Some of these are highly advertised and are explained here so you may understand them better.

Cal Grant Award
Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan
Middle Class Scholarship Program

Hearing Back From UC Schools

You have finished the application. You have written the personal statements, done your due diligence, sent the proper forms, filled out the FAFSA and CADAA, and investigated additional scholarships. Now remember:

August 1st you can start the application.

November 1st you can submit the application.

November 30th is the deadline.

It will not be until March 1st to March 31st, however, that you are likely to hear back. Always double check this timeframe with the university itself, as each of the nine schools have slightly different times they like to reply between. Therefore, it is usually recommended that you apply to back-up schools as most application deadlines are far before March.

If anyone can get into a UC school, it is you. You are unique, you are talented, and you got this. Good luck.