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Best UC Schools in California

Picture of Ana Boskovic
By Ana Boskovic on April, 19 2024 | 12 minute read

Is your family interested in applying to one (or all!) of the 9 UC campuses? Find out which of the UCs should make your college shortlist.

Table of Contents:

An Overview of the University of California System

The University of California (UC) system was formed in 1868 and has gained the reputation of being some of the most renowned public universities in the nation. Their widely recognized campuses have gained tremendous popularity in recent years, with a reported number of 206,874 applicants in 2023

The centralized admissions system allows students to apply to the 9 UC campuses across California. These campuses include:

  • UC Berkeley
  • UC Davis
  • UC Irvine
  • UCLA (Los Angeles)
  • UC Merced
  • UC Riverside
  • UC San Diego
  • UC Santa Barbara
  • UC Santa Cruz

The UC's reputation is upheld for its high-caliber academics and diverse campus culture. However, each campus is also unique from the next, leaving many students wondering which UC to consider.

At Collegewise, we always remind families that no two students are alike, and no two colleges are either. By the end of this blog, you’ll better understand how to determine which UC school is the best fit for you. 

Related: The Ultimate Guide to the UC Application Process

What Makes a UC School the Best Fit

When researching specific colleges, the best approach is to identify your “non-negotiables” and “nice-to-haves.” This is an extremely important and personal component when preparing for college applications. Every list will differ for each individual, so spend time brainstorming what matters most to you

A few examples of factors that fall under the two categories are:



  • Cost of attendance and tuition fees
  • Location
  • Academic majors 
  • Campus and class sizes
  • Political or religious affiliations
  • Proximity to specific restaurants and entertainment
  • Unique extracurricular opportunities or student organizations
  • Food options
  • Shopping centers and stores

Once you’ve created a list that best reflects your wants and needs, you can jump straight into determining which of the UC campuses is the best. 

But what makes a UC school attractive to thousands of students? Despite this being a personal process, there are universally recognized “pros” about the UCs. 

Cost of Tuition

The UCs are public institutions that receive government funding and private donations. Typically, families can expect lower tuition rates at colleges that receive private and public funding than their private counterparts. Because the UCs receive financial support beyond tuition, alum donations, and private endowments, they can afford to charge students lower tuition fees. 

The UCs are particularly appealing to families as they start to compare costs, especially for those families seeking to receive high-quality education at a more affordable price point.


Attending college near the beach? Count us in! And count thousands of other students in, too. Many students find the locations of the UCs particularly eye-catching. Each UC campus is located in a unique setting and offers a different experience depending on the student's interest. Thinking of hitting the waves over the weekend? UC San Diego may be for you. Looking to find yourself in the bustling city? UCLA could be a top choice. 

We’ll dive deeper into what makes each UC campus unique, but the UCs remain one of the most popular systems that offers such rich diversity to students depending on which campus they choose.

Academic Opportunities

Oh, right, academics! We almost forgot that academics are a big part of the college experience. Students are introduced to robust academic programs depending on the UC campus. The UCs report that UC Berkeley alone has 184 academic programs available. 

For students who already know what they hope to study, the UCs offer a wide range of majors to choose from. 

Top UC Schools in California

1. University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

UCLA, the most applied-to and selective UC, is praised for its city setting, diverse campus culture, athletics, and renowned academic opportunities.

Beyond its offerings to students, it holds a high reputation for its history of exceptional alums. UCLA reports having “16 Nobel Laureates, 15 MacArthur Fellows, 120 NCAA championships, and more Olympic medals than most nations.”

Fast facts:

Location: Los Angeles

Admit rate: 9%

Number of admits: 12,736

Most popular majors: Social Sciences, Psychology, Engineering, and Mathematics and Statistics

Tuition (California residents): $33,759 - $43,161/year

Tuition (non-California residents): $67,959 - $77,361/year


2. University of California, Berkeley

UC Berkeley is located in the urban city of Berkeley, California. UC Berkeley is one of the more popular campuses, with 125,910 applicants in 2023. Tied for the top spot with UCLA in the Best Public Schools report by US News, UC Berkeley is also featured as a top college choice alongside Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and other selective colleges. 

This UC alone has over 300 academic programs and recognized internationally for its groundbreaking research institutions, Nobel Prize winners, and extracurricular opportunities. 

Fast facts:

Location: Berkeley

Admit rate: 12%

Number of admits: 14,677

Most popular majors: Social Sciences, Computer Science, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Engineering

Tuition (California residents): $46,008/year

Tuition (non-California residents): $78,582/year

Related: UC Berkeley Acceptance Rate


3. University of California, San Diego (UCSD)

Craving sandy beaches and warm weather? UCSD may be for you! UCSD is known for its renowned research facilities, acclaimed programs, and award-winning faculty. In fact, UCSD received a whopping 1.76 billion dollar donation toward the UCSD research portfolio and advancement.

UCSD is also the second most applied to campus, with over 130,000 applications received in 2023. While the sunny beaches and superb location are definitely a swaying factor for many high schoolers, students love UCSD for its 600-student organizations and diverse student body.

Fast facts:

Location: La Jolla

Admit rate: 25%

Number of admits: 32,061

Most popular majors: Social Sciences, Engineering, Biology, Physical Sciences, and Arts and Humanities

Tuition (California residents): $31,830 - $39,591/year

Tuition (non-California residents): $64,404 - $72,165/year


4. University of California, Davis

If you’re a student looking to study Veterinary Medicine or Agriculture, then UC Davis is for you! UC Davis is located in the college town of Davis, California, and is noted for its charming campus culture, student diversity, and dedication to socio-economics. UC Davis holds the top spot for campus sustainability and recognized by Forbes as the top college for women in STEM.

Fast facts:

Location: Davis

Admit rate: 42%

Number of admits: 39,398

Most popular majors: Psychology, Biological Sciences, Neurobiology, Animal Science, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Tuition (California residents): $32,624 - $44,645/year

Tuition (non-California residents): $65,198 - $77,219/year


5. University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB)

Looking for a beach, but UCSD isn’t for you? Think UC Santa Barbara! If you didn’t know, UC Santa Barbara’s slogan is “where land meets the sea,” due to it’s ideal location and personal beach boarding its campus! UC Santa Barbara blends research with liberal arts and provides students with over 200 programs and majors. UC Santa Barbara is also an excellent option for students looking to attend a smaller-sized campus.

Fast facts:

Location: Santa Barbara

Admit rate: 28%

Number of admits: 30,803

Most popular majors: Sociology, Economics, Communications, Biology, Environmental Sciences

Tuition (California residents): $32,256  - $41,289/year

Tuition (non-California residents): $60,828 - $69,861/year


UC Admissions Requirements

For a deeper look at UC admissions requirements and how students can successfully apply to a UC campus, click here

But for more of a high-level overview of what you can expect if you’re aiming to gain admission to the UCs, here are the top need-to-knows:

Exceed Academic Expectations

The majority of the students applying to the UCs meet the minimum requirements to attend. After all, you wouldn’t apply anywhere you could not get accepted, right? This complicates things for applicants, as the applicant pool can become much more competitive. That’s why we recommend not just meeting the GPA requirements outlined but exceeding them. 

Make a checklist and track your progress throughout high school to ensure that you meet the UC’s A-G academic requirements. 

Conduct Thorough Research

This blog aims to help students identify which UC campus is the best fit for them. While there is nothing against applying to every UC campus, it can become expensive if you’re a student applying to the 9 UCs and other colleges on the Common App. 

You’ll learn more about how to tailor your application to your selected campus by conducting thorough research. Not only will this help when tracking your academic progress, but it will also support major selection decisions and Personal Insight Question (PIQ) responses. 

Knowing where you hope to attend early will let you think more deeply about why that campus is your top choice, why they should accept you, and what you hope to gain from your experience on campus. All things the UCs ask applicants!

Brainstorming and Reviewing PIQ Responses

How often do we get things right on the first try? Rarely. That’s why students must take their time to review the PIQ prompts of that year, brainstorm their responses, and revise. 

The UCs don’t ask for responses just to sift through thousands of surface-level answers. Like the importance of identifying colleges that are right for you, colleges want to know if you’re right for them. Look at it as a dating experience. Are you two a match made in heaven? The PIQs help UCs answer that fundamental question. 

Final Thoughts

With 9 different UCs to choose from, each vastly different from the next, you may have your hands full when determining fit. But if you follow our helpful tips on creating a list of your non-negotiables, you’re already several steps ahead.

Frequently Asked UC Questions

What are the easiest UC schools to get into?

While the answer would be different depending on what ranking criteria you use and what sites you are referencing, traditionally, the UC school rankings are as follows:

  • UC Berkeley
  • UCLA
  • UC Davis
  • UC San Diego
  • UC Santa Barbara

Which are the best UC medical schools?

UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine is recognized as one of the best UC medical schools within the UC system and nationwide. 

What are the best UC schools for pre-med?

UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Davis are the best UCs for pre-med students. Given all we’ve mentioned about the research and academic opportunities at each campus, that should come as no surprise. 

Related: Best Colleges for the Pre-Med Scholar

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 family. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for your student to be their best self - whether in the classroom, the applications, or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, lead to 4x higher than average admissions rates. 


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