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Choosing a College

Best Colleges in California

Picture of Ian Parker
By Ian Parker on March, 30 2023 | 13 minute read
california colleges

You’ve decided you’d like to go to college in California. Now: how do you choose? What are the differences between different California colleges? How should you prepare? My students have been admitted to every well-known (and some not-so-well-known) California colleges, so in this post, I’ll give you advice on how to answer those questions, decide which schools are the best colleges in California, and which ones are right for you.

In my time as a college counselor with Collegewise, I’ve worked with students from all over the nation and the world, from the Middle East to Asia and every US time zone. They’re all different from one another, but many of them share one thing in common: a desire to attend a college in California. And they’re in luck: in addition to great beaches, spectacular weather, and amazing culture, California boasts some of the world’s best and most unique colleges. 

But the question remains: how to select a group of colleges to apply to, while keeping in mind your own preferences, the selectivity of the colleges, and your ultimate educational goals? To do that, let’s start by separating these colleges not into a ranking, but into types.

First, we should identify the groupings of California colleges.

The University of California Colleges

The most well-known and respected public college system in America is the University of California (UC) system of colleges. This is where you’ll find world-famous institutions like UC Berkeley and UCLA. All told, there are nine undergraduate UC campuses all over the state, from the beach to the agricultural heartlands and everywhere in between. The UCs are intentionally designed as research universities, and each one is classified as an R1 or R2 institution (the two highest-research-intensity classifications). UCs can be very selective, but some campuses are less so, and most students will live on-campus for at least their first year.

If you’d like to participate in cutting-edge physics research while playing in the marching band, and you don’t mind large lecture halls, a UC campus might be right for you. 

The 9 UC schools include:

  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, Davis
  • University of California, Irvine
  • University of California, Merced
  • University of California, Riverside
  • University of California, Santa Barbara
  • University of California, Santa Cruz
  • University of California, San Diego

What are the UC acceptance rates?

The UCs can be highly competitive depending on which college your family is aiming for. Here are the latest acceptance rates for the UCs and how Collegewise compares. 

School # of Applications Acceptance Rate Collegewise Rate Collegewise Admits


149,813 8.6% 11% 238

UC Irvine

119,209 21% 36.5% 291

UC San Diego

131,245 23.7% 32% 362

UC Santa Barbara

111,000 25.9% 31.5% 386

UC Santa Cruz

66,034 47.1% 57% 319

UC Davis

94,759 37.5% 41% 343

UC Riverside





UC Merced





UC Berkeley

128,225 11% 5% 229


Interested in learning more about the UCs? Download our FREE UC application guide today. 

The California State University Schools

The California State University system is the largest public university system in America, with 23 campuses and more than 400,000 students. They’re designed as “teaching” colleges rather than high-intensity research institutions, which means professors will be mostly interested in being the best teachers they can be. “Cal States,” as they’re called, have a mission to develop the workforce of the future, so they tend to focus more on hands-on learning, career training, and mentorship. Most CSU campuses are not very selective, and some will admit every student that meets their (relatively steep) qualifications. Although some campuses are very residential, most are not, and a minority of students will actually live in campus housing.

If you want to learn film production while experiencing a close relationship with your professor, and you don’t mind a less-residential campus, you might want to think about the CSU system.

Some of the 23 CSU schools include:

  • Bakersfield (CSUB)
  • Channel Islands (CSUCI)
  • Chico State (CSUC)
  • Fresno State
  • Fullerton
  • San Diego State

The California State University Schools

Okay, I cheated. The three Polytechnic campuses are technically part of the CSU system, but they have a somewhat unique identity. The three California State Polytechnic campuses (one in southern California, one on the central coast, and one in northern California) focus more on STEM subjects than the other campuses, especially engineering. They’re widely known for hands-on learning and practical, career-focused education, but there is also substantial research happening on those campuses, complete with the lab infrastructure to support it.

Private California Colleges

Finally, California has many private colleges, from the famous (it sounds like Slanvord) to the relatively unknown. Frankly, being private is the only thing they have in common. There are sports-obsessed research universities, rural liberal arts colleges, and religiously-affiliated surfer havens — it’s a Mad Libs of colleges. Not to worry, though — I’ll explain more below.

Now, where should you apply? Well, that depends entirely on your priorities. Let’s take a look at some archetypes.

Schools to Consider if You're Looking for a Social Atmosphere

  1. San Diego State University is a large, undergraduate-focused college that also happens to have one of the best social scenes in America. You can head to the beach in the morning, cheer on the Aztecs in the afternoon, and then attend a party at night — while still getting a fantastic education.
  2. The University of Southern California is a top-tier research institution in the heart of Los Angeles. Students there get to take advantage of everything a major city has to offer, while being able to watch the USC Trojan football team - who’ve won more championships than anyone else in college ball.
  3. St. Mary’s College doesn’t have a football team, nor is it in a major city. But it does have one of the country’s most successful men’s basketball programs, regularly competing in March Madness and rivaling Gonzaga for West Coast dominance. And the camaraderie and social support at St Mary’s is an integral part of the experience for students. 

Schools to Consider for Students Looking for a Future in Business or Medicine

The University of the Pacific offers a host of preprofessional programs, from pharmacy to law to health professions. Students can benefit from accelerated pathways to grad school and frequent meetings with advisors to make sure they’re staying on track. For business students, Pacific also has an incredible undergraduate business school, where students can begin taking classes in the major in their first year, and where students can practice their investment skills by participating in using the multi-million-dollar Student Investment Fund. 

California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo (or Cal Poly SLO) is an interesting case: it operates within a university better known for engineering and the sciences but achieves some spectacular outcomes for its students. The multidisciplinary nature of the campus allows business students to also gain experience working with engineers and scientists. And, true to Cal Poly’s “learn by doing” philosophy, students can take part in many internships and other experiential learning programs. For future health professionals, Cal Poly also has an immersive Pre-Health advising center, with peer and staff advisors, workshops, and even a blog.

Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business is one of California’s most well-regarded undergraduate business programs and boasts the career outcomes that justify that regard. Almost all business students complete at least one internship, and nearly 100% go on to find work immediately after graduation. They also have excellent Pre-Health and Pre-Law advising programs, even incorporating pre-professional courses into the general curriculum.

Schools to Consider for Students Looking for a Peaceful or Spiritual Experience

Sonoma State University, part of the Cal State system, also functions as its closest approximation to a small, liberal arts university. The university is in California’s beautiful wine country (and students can actually major in the business of wine). The campus is highly residential, with only about 7,000 students, and has some of the more unique housing options in California (and they’re all named after wines!). The overarching experience of being a Sonoma State student is one of community, and it’s an experience at the core of the university’s mission.

Point Loma Nazarene University is a Christian college in San Diego’s Point Loma neighborhood, in a spectacular spot for surfing, hiking, and sightseeing. The college itself takes its Christian nature very seriously, and students must abide by a community living agreement that prohibits such things as alcohol and drugs, and affirms community life and spiritual growth. Although that can seem daunting, students who are willing to grow in a Christian faith can find the support system and values-driven education very valuable.

Founded on a mission to educate through dialogue rather than memorization, Soka University continues to promote academic exploration through its open curriculum. The small population of just over 400 students means that students get to know others in their classrooms. Soka’s emphasis on a global curriculum also makes sense in the context of the requirement to study a language for two years and then study abroad in a country of that language. But more than openness to experience and global learning, the Buddhist foundations of Soka lead to open dialogue, personal growth, and an appreciation for the close-knit community that has developed there.

How to Stand Out to California Colleges

Students applying to the University of California or California State University campuses will need to familiarize themselves with the A-G course guidelines required for admission to California’s public universities. For those applying to selective universities like UCLA, Berkeley, or San Diego State, it’s best to surpass the “required” elements by taking and making sure to take additional years of subjects, where possible.

UCs evaluate applicants on a list of 13 factors, from course rigor to academic performance to extracurriculars to geographic characteristics. One element of the application that can often shed light on those factors is the Personal Insight Questions, UC’s unique application essays. When you write those essays, make sure to discuss something not already addressed elsewhere in your application - this is your opportunity to add something new! As with any college essay, be as descriptive as possible.

California’s private colleges have application processes as diverse as the colleges themselves are, but some general points will help any student applying. First, apply to only the colleges that fit you as an applicant. Someone who wants a focused, pre-professional education may not do well with Loyola Marymount University’s core curriculum requirements, while that same student might thrive at Cal Poly Pomona. Second, start early on the application, so that you have as much time as possible to answer the essay questions, pull together any paperwork you need, and allow teachers to write and submit their letters of recommendation. Last, advocate for yourself in your application: allow your admission officer to see you attending that campus. Of course, this means you’ll need lots of detail in your essays and relevant activities listed in your application.

California has an incredible diversity of colleges for every student, from the most highly selective, famous universities to ones boasting spectacular career outcomes, to supportive, community-focused colleges emphasizing inquiry and personal development. If you’re interested in a California university, there are many options - enjoy your search! (And the weather doesn’t hurt, either)


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About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates. 


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