Everything You Need to Know About Applying to the UC System

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Two students talking in a table.

Everything You Need to Know About Applying to the UC System

The University of California system is one of the most respected public university systems in the United States, and some of their campuses are considered to be among the top universities in the nation. Applying to the UC system can be a bit complicated because the application process encompasses all of the different campuses and programs.

At AdmissionSight, we have years of experience guiding students through the college admissions process, and we can help you too. In this post we’re going to cover everything you need to know in order to apply to the UC system with absolute confidence.

What is the UC system?

The University of California system is a network of ten campuses that serve over 285,000 students. Campuses are located in Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Merced, Riverside, Santa Barbara, San Diego, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz.

Asian students talking about college while sitting on the stairs.

The UC system was originally founded in 1868 in Berkeley, but the network soon began to spread throughout the entire state of California. The most recent addition to the UC system is the Merced campus that was opened in 2005. While you can apply to any or all of the UC campuses when you apply for admission, you application will be viewed differently by each school.

Are all UC schools the same?

This is a common question that applicants have when they are trying to figure out which UC school is the best fit for them. While there are ten schools in the UC system, many of the schools are somewhat specialized, and some are more difficult to get into than others. Typically, Berkeley is considered the most competitive UC campus, followed by UCLA.

While some UC schools have a program (or programs) they are most known for, UCLA is the largest and most diverse of the UC schools. UC San Diego tends to be more focused on the sciences, and UC Berkeley is more focused on liberal arts.

Harvard students talking in front of a building.

When it comes time to apply to the UC system, you should research each campus thoroughly to see which curriculum and location best fits your needs. But you also need to consider that you may not get in to your first-choice campus. That’s why, when applying to the UC system, you apply to more than one campus.

You can apply to any or all of the UC campuses when you apply, though separate application fees may apply. The advantage to applying to more than one campus is that you will have more options once you find out where you have been accepted. Because campuses like Berkeley and UCLA receive more applications than the other campuses, the acceptance rates for these campuses is lower.

How to apply to the UC system?

Because applying to the UC system is a little different than applying to other schools, we’re going to explain how to apply to the UC system. You may be wondering: does the UC system take the common app? Currently, the UC system only uses their own application portal which allows you to apply to all UC system campuses.

As you prepare to apply to the UC system, keep in mind that you must submit your application on time, and you may only submit one application per campus per term. The UC system also recommends applying to more than one campus in the event that you aren’t admitted to your first choice.

Female student shaking hands with her interviewer.

The first step to apply to the UC system is to create an account using your email address and a secure password. Be sure to use the email address you use most as this is how the UC system will contact you regarding your application.

Once you’ve created an account, it’s time to start filling out the application. First, the UC system will want to know about you and your family.

In the sext section you will be asked to select the campuses to which you would like to apply. Remember that you are free to apply to as many campuses as you want, but additional fees will apply. You will also be asked to select a major that is of interest to you.

This worries a lot of applicants because they have not yet chosen a major. If this is you, don’t worry. The UC system doesn’t require you to choose a major when you apply. They’re just trying to gather as much information about your interests and possible direction.

If you haven’t decided on a major yet, simply select “undecided” or “undeclared.” This will not affect your chances of admission, and you can simply declare your major at a later date. It’s not uncommon for students to wait until the end of their freshman year to declare their major, so don’t feel pressured by this.

Next, you will enter your academic information. When you apply to the UC system, you are asked to self-report your grades from high school (and seventh or eighth grade if you took high school-level courses.) When you do this, make sure you have a copy of your transcript handy. You will need to report your grades exactly as they are reported on your transcript. During the application process, your high school transcript will be verified by the UC’s admissions department.

Many students wonder if there is a minimum GPA required for admission to UC schools. While there is no required GPA, the average GPA for all UC campuses is above 3.0. Because many high schools now employ a weighted GPA system, many students’ GPAs are quite higher than they would be without the weighted system.

As a result, the most competitive UC campuses (Berkeley and UCLA) admit applicants with an average GPA of 4.39. As you can see, applying to the UC system can be similar in difficulty to applying to an Ivy League school.

So, while there is no minimum GPA for the UC system, a higher GPA will work in your favor, and a GPA lower than 3.0 may exclude you from any campus in the UC system unless you can demonstrate other factors that make up for a lower GPA.

The next section is where you will enter your test scores if you choose to provide them. Like many schools, the UC system has gone to a test-optional model, and as such, they do not consider your SAT or ACT scores when making admissions or scholarship decisions.

Students huddles in a bench of a campus.

So, if your scores don’t affect your chances of admission, why should you provide them? If you have high SAT or ACT scores, you can submit them as an alternative method of fulfilling minimum requirements that will affect your individual curriculum. Likewise, if you have older SAT subject tests (the subject tests were discontinued in 2021), you can submit them for this type of consideration.

On the other hand, AP and IB courses and test scores will be considered as part of your review process for admission. In the application, you will find separate pages to report these courses and scores. If you have taken an AP or IB course but have not yet taken the exam, you can indicate when you plan to take it.

The next few sections of the application are all about telling your story. Even though the UC system is very large, they still take a personal approach to the application process. The first of these sections will ask about your activities and any awards you have won as a result. When filling out this section, follow this tip: Focus on your passions

If you are a high achieving high school student, there’s a good chance you have a long list of activities in which you have participated. But when you apply to the UC system, they want to hear about the activities you are most passionate about. Instead of providing them with a list of everything you’ve done in high school, focus on the activities that have made the biggest impact on you.

In this section, you will also be asked about any awards you have won as a result of your academic coursework, extracurricular activities, and community service/work experience.

The next section allows you to apply for the many scholarships and educational opportunity programs offered by the UC system. You are free to apply to as many scholarships as you’d like but be sure to read each description carefully to make sure that the individual scholarship applies to you.

Other than your high school transcript, the personal insight questions may be the most vital part of your application. The UC system provides you with eight questions and a certain amount of guidance for answering each question. You are only expected to choose and answer four out of eight questions, so it’s important that you choose your questions wisely. For the upcoming application year, the personal insight questions are as follows:

1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.  

Things to consider: A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or taking the lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about what you accomplished and what you learned from the experience. What were your responsibilities?

2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem-solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistic, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.

Things to consider: What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem?

How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?
3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?  
Things to consider: If there’s a talent or skill that you’re proud of, this is the time to share it. You don’t necessarily have to be recognized or have received awards for your talent (although if you did and you want to talk about it, feel free to do so). Why is this talent or skill meaningful to you?

4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

Things to consider: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in honors or academic enrichment program, enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you — just to name a few.

5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

Things to consider: A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone?

6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom. 

Things to consider:  Many students have a passion for one specific academic subject area, something that they just can’t get enough of. If that applies to you, what have you done to further that interest? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom — such as volunteer work, internships, employment, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or clubs — and what you have gained from your involvement.

7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  

Things to consider: Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place — like your high school, hometown or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community?

8. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

Things to consider:  If there’s anything you want us to know about you, but didn’t find a question or place in the application to tell us, now’s your chance. What have you not shared with us that will highlight a skill, talent, challenge or opportunity that you think will help us know you better?

When choosing the questions you want to answer, keep in mind that every question is considered equal. There are no “hard” questions that will get you extra credit, and there are no “easy” questions that you should avoid. The important thing is to select questions that allow you to highlight your talents and experiences.

Once you have chosen your topics, make sure you do not exceed 350 words per essay. Part of the challenge is to distil your experience down to a concise statement that conveys your character and integrity.

When writing your essays, make sure to focus on yourself. This isn’t an academic essay, so you can feel free to use “I” statements when writing. You are being evaluated by an enormous pool of applicants whose academic careers may look very similar on their transcripts. Your essay answers are what will set you apart from the crowd, and allow the UC admissions staff to get a sense of who you are and where you are headed within the UC system.

When can I submit my UC application?

Many students worry about when they can submit their UC applications, but there is actually quite a large window for applying. The first date of interest is August 1st when the application period for the following fall opens. So if you applied on August 1st, 2022, you would be applying for admission for Fall of 2023.

Male and female student leaning on a bookshelf.

Federal Student Aid programs open their application process on October 1st, and this is also when the Fall 2023 application period begins for all students at all campuses. Applicants will be notified of their admission status between March 1 – 31 of 2023.

If you plan to apply to the UC system, you need to have all of the facts at your disposal. Here at AdmissionSight, we have years of experience guiding students through the admissions process and achieve their academic dreams. If you want to see how AdmissionSight can help you, book your free consultation today.


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