Unpacking UC Admissions – What you need to know

Getting to know the University of California system

The UC system is made up of 9 undergraduate campuses

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

Fun fact, there is one campus dedicated to graduate studies – the University of California, San Francisco – so don’t apply to that one, at least for now!!

Want a tour? Click here for links to ALL UC campus virtual tours

It can be easy to be interested in UC’s, know some campuses that you’re familiar with, and consider applying without REALLY diving into the campuses. Why does that matter? Well, while they all operate under the same system and have similar priorities (for example, value in research) each will have a little different feel, location, size, overall campus vibe, and some varying academic programs.

So regardless if you’re a junior getting ready to realistically think about where you want to apply, or if you’re a younger student just starting to explore, it’s worth getting to know the campuses to see which ones fit your preferences and make it on the list.


I’m going to say it right here, right now. It is OKAY if you don’t know what you want to major in, and it is OKAY if you change your mind along the way. I’ll show you how to research campuses regardless of how sure you are in your major (and you can apply this to any college you research outside of the UC system).

If you know what you want to major in

So you have a clear idea of what you want to major in. Now it’s time to get specific. The pickier you are, the more helpful it can be to differentiate a university that will launch you into the area that you want, versus the ones that may just be okay. The UC’s have a major list, a PDF of the majors from every university*.
You can search a major, and even find an area of emphasis within the major.

For example, let’s say you’re interested in business. You find the following programs:
UC Berkeley – business, global management, entrepreneurship, economics
UC Davis – economics, business emphasis within the sociology major
UC Irvine – business information management, business, business economics
UCLA – business economics
UC Merced – economics, management and business,
UC Riverside – business economics, business, business administration
UCSD – business psychology, economics, international studies, real estate & development
UCSC – business management, economics, global economics

You might get really excited that UCSD has real estate & development. Or what if you’re really interested in an international focus, and note the campuses that have a global focus.

  • Make a list of campuses and majors you’re interested in
  • Go directly to the college’s website, search the major, and find more about the program. You can see what professors are researching, what student experiences are happening, what classes you’ll be required to take, what student organizations are associated with the major, specialized programs within the major like an honors program, and more. The goal is to get a real sense of what it’d be like to study in that major at the university. 
  • You might find a major is not necessarily what you thought, or find something unique that now drives your college search. 
  • Take notes! As you research, write down what you liked and what you didn’t. Really. It’s easy to forget and get lost in a sea of tabs. 

If you have a larger area of interest, but just not a specific major

It’s okay to recognize subject areas you know you’re strong in and interested in studying and still not know a specific major. Typically you won’t need to declare a major until your second year in college, and even then, there can be flexibility to change if needed. But knowing the larger subject area, can at least drive how you research and choose a campus. Take a look at the following disciplines. Which one or ones appeal to you?

Engineering & Computer Science
Health professions
Physical Sciences
Social Sciences
Business and Management
Art (fine art, art history, performing arts)
Architectural and Environmental Design and Planning
Biological and Life Sciences
Foreign Language & Literature
Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Studies

Again, look at the campus major list that shows examples of majors within the larger disciplines to give you an idea of the possibilities. Within the UC system you often have an option to choose undecided within the area. For example, within Humanities you can find:

  • English
  • Philosophy
  • Art History
  • History
  • Linguistics
  • Religious Studies
  • Creative writing
  • Literature

You’ll be able to take general education and some pre-requisite classes in different subjects within the first year, so you can explore courses within Humanities for example, before declaring a specific major.

If you have absolutely no idea and are completely undecided

That’s okay! A lot of students, really, a lot, have no idea what they want to study. You can apply undecided and have the opportunity to explore once you’re there. If you’re really interested in applying as an engineering, nursing, film, or performing arts major, for example, and worried it’s competitive so you end up applying undecided, keep in mind it’s best not to try and back door the admissions process. Apply to what you truly want to and you’re application more times than not will read more authentically. So if you’re looking at a competitive major, you can always see if there’s an opportunity to apply as a second choice major in another area or undeclared, but be confident in your choices!

So undecided is OKAY! If you’re undecided, look at specialized programs or classes that help freshmen explore majors. Look at the quality of academic advising, the career center, see what resources are at the university that will help you make a decision. UC San Diego for example has the six college system, where undergraduates can be a part of a smaller institution within the larger university. Some UCs even offer interdisciplinary degrees, like interdisciplinary studies within the college of letters and sciences at UC Berkeley, so there’s a lot to explore and you do have time.

Click to view the Campus Major list* for all UC campuses
*Keep in mind it’s always best to double check directly with a university’s college website. There may be new majors/changes that take time to reflect on the master list.

UC Admissions

Alright, the good stuff. I know you’ve been waiting for all the tricks, tips, and advantages to getting into a UC. Part of preparing a strong application, is gaining a better understanding of how your application will be read, and how you can maximize space on the college application by sharing aspects of your academic history and your personal life that help admissions give a fair review.

Disclaimer: Before we get into admissions. Remember, when it comes time to apply to colleges, it is important to apply to a BALANCED list of universities. Essentially, you want to apply to anywhere from 8 – 10 universities that include at least a few likely schools. Schools you’re likely to get into! Schools you’re likely to get into, but also can really see yourself attending. These are universities that have all the qualities you’re looking for – academically, personally, and socially. Apply broadly with the UC system, and also consider private and out-of-state universities as well as the UC system is widely competitive. View freshman admission data here

What admissions will look for in your application


  • Completion of A-G courses with minimum of grade C or higher
    • UC A-G Course List this is for Beverly Hills High School, but if you’re an outside reader and attend a high school in California, you can search for your school on the same site. Out of state student? Check out their website HERE.
  • How you have not only met, but exceeded minimum requirements 
    • You don’t have to excel in EVERYTHING. If you love foreign language and choose to take it all throughout high school, but have a tough time with science, maybe you take three years of science, continue foreign language, and add some honors/AP work in subject areas you know you’re stronger in
  • How you have progressed academically 
    • Have you added honors/advanced/AP coursework in areas of strength? Have you added academic coursework, progressed in grades, stayed consistent in grades, etc.? 
    • If you had something personal going on that has affected your grades, there are spaces on the application to list that! Colleges will review you within the context of what’s available to you and the context of any external challenges out of your control that have affected your ability to achieve academically. 
  • Your senior year schedule counts
    • While you won’t have your actual senior grades yet when you apply, you will be able to input your classes, so remember, rigor counts, having an academic schedule and still taking some challenging coursework, in addition to some electives that showcase your areas of strength, is still helpful.
  • Your UC GPA consists of A-G classes from 10 – 11 grade (YES they still will look at ninth grade, just won’t count it in the GPA) but you’re not solely being admitted by a GPA. They have to peel back the curtain and explore your overall grades, class choices, etc.
  • UCs have ruled NOT to review SAT/ACT for Class of 2021 (it looks like they will hold the decision for Class of 2022) Current juniors, do NOT panic over SAT/ACT, you have plenty of time to take an SAT/ACT well into fall semester of your senior year, and you might not even need to! Private/out-of-state universities have consistently adopted test-optional policies, meaning you don’t have to post a score if you don’t have access to it. Prioritize your classes and grades and get creative in extracurricular activities while still at home!

Character/Personal Story/Experiences

  • Personal insight questions (a.k.a. College essay) 
    • Choose 4 short essay responses out of 8 prompts
  • Activities and Awards
    • List accomplishments, extracurricular commitments, committed responsibilities, volunteer work, job, internships, skills, etc.
  • Additional spaces to share what you need to 
    • You can explain a dip in grades due to something big that has affected you 
    • You can explain specialized programming, or things you’ve done that you can’t explain elsewhere
  • No letters of recommendation
    • UC Berkeley MAY ask for a letter of rec AFTER you apply. They ask a small percentage, don’t overthink it if they don’t ask you, they simply want more information

One application, apply online to multiple UC campuses (you send the SAME application to all campuses you choose to apply to – so don’t write an essay why you love UCSB! It’ll offend the other campuses).
Application open August 1 and due November 30

One regular decision deadline. No priority. Truly! It doesn’t matter if you send in your app on November 3 or November 18, just your sanity.

Phew! If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! Keep in mind there are hundreds upon hundreds of colleges accessible, so don’t be afraid to explore and apply!

Published by Casey Barneson

Author of The College Wellness Guide. Beverly Hills High School College Counselor.

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