Everything You Need to Know About the University of California (UC)

With 150 years of academic history behind it, the University of California (UC) system has established itself as an educational and research institution known for its academic excellence and diverse student profile. Founded in 1868 with 10 faculty members and 38 students, the UC network currently includes 2,80,000 students, 2,27,000 faculty/staff members and over 2 million alumni across the globe. It spans 10 unique scenic campuses across the state, from the Bay Area to San Diego, offering over 800 degree majors. Today, around 3 million students apply to UC schools every year for their undergraduate education.

Before you apply, it is important to know more about California’s three-tiered higher public education system and what each represents before reviewing their resources to find the one that best fits your needs.

California’s Three-Tier Public Education System

The State of California’s Higher Education System has three primary public segments – the University of California (UC), the California State University (CSU) and the California Community Colleges (CCCs). The UCs, 10 in all, make up the most selective tier of public colleges in the state and are extremely competitive. Nine of the UCs grant degrees from Bachelor’s to PhD, while one offers only graduate and doctoral degrees. The second tier comprises 31 Cal State Schools or CSUs offering around over 4,100 different master’s and bachelor’s degree programmes (no PhDs are granted by CSUs). And finally, there are the Community Colleges where high school students can get an associate degree before either moving directly into the workforce or matriculating to the UCs or CSUs to complete their final two years of a bachelor’s degree programme.

Why Choose a UC College?

Picking the right college from a network of public research universities that rank amongst the finest in the world isn’t easy. While each UC campus has its own unique elements, the common thread that binds them all is intellectual thirst, innovation and expert faculty. All UCs offer students the best of both worlds, giving them access to a wealth of public-university research resources while incorporating general education based on the liberal arts.

California residents can enrol for undergraduate study at any UC campus at a subsidised cost. International and out-of-state students pay a premium to attend these world-class public institutions. Majors offered cover the entire spectrum from natural, social sciences and computer sciences to arts and humanities, supported by vibrant research libraries and varied extracurricular activities. Over and above this, each one of these schools has created a niche that differentiates it from the others and its own personality. Read on to learn more about the unique aspects of each campus.

UC Application Tips

All UC campuses have a common online application portal. The undergraduate programmes in nine UC schools share the same application format, while the University of California, San Francisco, which offers only graduate programmes, has a different application format. The UC application deadlines are relatively early compared to many US colleges. Applications are accepted from November 1 through November 30, but they open as early as August 1, so make sure to track the timelines closely.

Due to the large student body, the UCs follow a policy of restricted majors. With several thousand enrolments in every course, the university is forced to put a cap on certain majors. So if you plan to apply to the UCs, do check for closed majors or additional requirements for your preferred major.

UC Berkeley

The University of Berkeley, also known as Cal, is UC’s flagship school and was established in 1868. The birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, Berkeley, was founded on a vision “to contribute even more than California’s gold to the glory and happiness of advancing generations.” Today, it’s referred to as the Harvard of the West Coast, an academic powerhouse and the premier public university in the world. While the university is known for its close association with USA’s three leading national laboratories and breakthrough advances in genomics and computer sciences, it has acquired an equally formidable reputation in the humanities, sports and social justice. It offers students over 350 degree programmes to choose from. The alumni roster includes 32 Nobel Prize winners, 4 Pulitzer winners, 200 Olympic athletes and 98 national championship-winning athletes. Consistently ranked among the top 5 research universities globally, UC Berkeley’s funding for sponsored research topped $1 billion in 2021. 35,000 students from diverse backgrounds and nationalities call Berkeley home, ensuring that the campus transforms into a dynamic community buzzing with activity. A perfect amalgamation of academics, sports and a progressive community, Berkeley heads most university ranking lists.

Why Choose Berkeley?

If you have an outstanding academic profile and are looking to fuel your love of learning as well as your social life, Berkeley is the right place for you. You could go from an intense research study to a political rally to a football game and end the day with a frat party.

UC Los Angeles (UCLA)

Based in Los Angeles, the cultural capital of the US, UCLA is globally renowned for its prestigious theatre, film and television programmes. Its prime location in Southern California and geographic proximity to Hollywood are just two of the many reasons that draw 33,000 undergraduate students to campus every year. The school is also known for its quality pre-med and dentistry programmes and offers hands-on learning or research opportunities through its many on-campus teaching and research hospitals. With an offering of 130 undergraduate majors, the most popular ones after film and television and pre-med/dentistry are biology, business economics, psychology and political science.

Like every UC college, this one also carries a rich legacy of driving political reform in America, including gender diversity in sports and academia, as far back as 1973. Having won 129 National Sports Championships, UCLA is second only to Stanford University. The school is set to host two sports in the 2028 Olympic Games and will be the location of the Olympic Village. Over 1,000 student clubs and activities and a string of celebrity-studded Alumni Association gatherings ensure that UCLA students have ways to build their networks and achieve meaningful work-life balance.

Why Choose Los Angeles?

UCLA operates a vast number of teaching and research hospitals, with several of them located directly on campus. This makes it a great pick for students who seek experiences in biomedical fields or would like to explore medicine before committing to medicine as a career path. Overall, we recommend UCLA if you have a strong academic profile and a desire to take advantage of living in Los Angeles.

UC San Diego (UCSD)

Amongst the top five public universities in the world, UCSD is a huge research university sprawling across 761 buildings spread over a thousand acres of natural reserves. To keep the students tightly knit, the college has been modelled on University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford, where students are segregated into smaller interconnected residential and educational communities. UCSD is organised into seven undergraduate residential colleges with five academic divisions that span the arts and humanities, biological sciences, engineering, physical sciences and social sciences. Besides, UCSD also has five graduate and professional schools specialising in management, medicine, pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences, oceanography and global policy and strategy.

Originally named the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the world’s largest geological and marine science institute, UCSD continues to pioneer research in marine biology and climate studies. Its marine biology research initiatives and location in the spectacular woodland Pacific coastal region called La Jolla have resulted in a strong community outreach programme. The school offers 140+ undergraduate majors, the most popular being economics, computer science, molecular biology and biochemistry and is also home to the country’s first cognitive science department as well as a top surfing team.

Why Choose San Diego?

You can pick from seven colleges at UCSD while applying to only 1. It is both vast yet connected due to its Oxford/Cambridge-like communities-within-communities concept and is a perfect combination of social and academic life. The fantastic outreach and marine preservation programmes are also a huge magnet for students who like to engage with and contribute to their local environment as well as the planet.

UC Santa Barbara (UCSB)

UCSB is the third oldest graduate campus after Berkeley and UCLA and is located on Isla Vista beach. Although sometimes called a “party school,” it offers students a comprehensive liberal arts learning experience alongside some of the world’s leading research labs. The acceptance rate at UCSB is 36% and it gets even more selective when reviewing applicants for the prestigious undergraduate College of Creative Studies (CCS), which requires an additional essay as part of the application process. CCS is a small intellectual community with tailor-made programmes based on specialised interests in the arts and sciences. The College of Letters and Science pushes an interdisciplinary agenda across 90 majors in the humanities, fine arts, sciences and social sciences, with one mandatory course in each. UCSB’s College of Engineering ranks globally and offers five undergraduate majors, i.e. chemical, computer, electrical and mechanical engineering and computer science. More STEM excellence is represented by the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics, a global research powerhouse funded by the National Science Foundation. The campus sprawls across a picturesque edge of the Pacific Ocean and is buzzing with intellectual, cultural and recreational activity.

Why Choose Santa Barbara?

This school is a great pick if you desire world-class education and interaction with top scholars from various fields while remaining secluded from urban life within a supportive community that cares about your academic well-being.

UC Irvine (UCI)

UCI ranks 4th on the list of USA’s best public universities and is the first-choice campus for many of its 2,00,000 alumni across the globe. With over 85 undergraduate degree programmes, the school is respected for its excellent academic programmes and groundbreaking work conducted by internationally-renowned faculty. Popular majors include aerospace engineering, business administration, health sciences and pharmaceutical science. Double majors and dual degrees are offered. It should also be noted that the Honours Program at UCI is among the most difficult in the entire UC system.

Located in Southern California’s suburban Orange County, UCI boasts a vibrant student community and a modern, well-planned campus with a ring of buildings situated around a large central park; the design was intended to create a collaborative, accessible environment. Only five miles away is Southern California’s famous Newport Beach, which offers a refuge for relaxation and recreation.

Why Choose Irvine?

UCI offers the only literary journalism major in the country and is home to one of the only e-sports arenas on a college campus. These are but two of the niche experiences to explore at UCI, a campus that is unafraid of experimentation and encourages its students to dive into the unknown. If being taught by global subject experts is important to you, UCI will not disappoint. Plus, the nearby community of Irvine is home to an impressive roster of Fortune 500 companies where you can scout for several internship opportunities.

University of California, Davis

UC Davis is the northernmost of the ten UC campuses, enrolling nearly 39,000 students every year. Originally conceived as an agricultural school, UC Davis still offers opportunities for immersive experiences in sustainable living through its student-driven initiatives. While areas of study include the entire spectrum of fine arts, humanities, social sciences and physical sciences, its engineering, agricultural, environmental, biological and animal sciences programmes are acclaimed worldwide. The campus has 65 fraternity and sorority chapters, over 800 student clubs and every recreation option imaginable to ensure a lively community. The natural landscape presents various outdoor extracurricular options and a beautiful backdrop to college life.

Why Choose Davis?

Students who thrive in a small-town informal environment will feel at home in the agricultural backdrop of UC Davis while still within a few hours of the culturally rich San Francisco Bay Area and the world-class ski slopes of Lake Tahoe. UC Davis has also acquired a reputation for being the leading college in the ‘Women in Stem’ category, with female enrolments outnumbering their male counterparts.

University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC)

UC Santa Cruz was founded in 1965 to showcase progressive, cross-disciplinary undergraduate education, innovative teaching methods and contemporary architecture. Located on the northern edge of Monterey Bay, it is a top-tier research university with much to offer its students, including research opportunities, internships, honours and academic opportunities such as the College Scholars Program (CSP). The CSP provides a stimulating home for highly motivated students to live in a community with like-minded peers during their first and second years as they explore research opportunities. Each year, they recruit and support a diverse cohort of College Scholars across all five academic divisions and all ten colleges, showcasing the potential to cultivate academic and non-academic strengths in a learning community. The school also has two satellite locations in Silicon Valley and Santa Clara. With 66 undergraduate majors and 64 graduate programmes, the most popular majors at UCSC are computer science, electrical engineering, molecular and marine biology, astronomy and space sciences.

Why Choose Santa Cruz?

UCSC’s host of internships, undergraduate honours programmes, research opportunities and prestigious College Scholars Program makes it attractive to those who thrive on intellectual challenges and seek to solve big problems creatively.

UC Riverside (UCR)

UCR features among the Top 10 US university options for international students. The International Students Centre, 300 student organisations, 40 fraternities and sororities lend support and colour to the student community. The university also offers robust support and advising systems, unique first-year learning communities, eight ethnic and gender centers and a well-resourced career center. Plus, it invests in student well-being and impact, organising quarterly music festivals (featuring top artists like Kendrick Lamar and Post Malone) and opportunities for community service through programmes which put UCR alumni at the top of the rankings when it comes to doing good in the world. Academically, UCR offers a slew of graduate, undergraduate and professional degree programmes across three colleges and four professional schools. This includes the largest undergraduate business programme in the UC system as well as 80 other undergraduate majors, some of which provide options for 5-year bachelor’s + master’s programmes.

Why Choose Riverside?

UCR stands out as a choice for students interested in comprehensive undergraduate business education in California. Its commitment to student success ensures a coherent and well-structured college experience that helps individuals develop holistically.

UC Merced (UCM) Smallest and Newest With 7,000 Enrolled Undergrad Students

Located in the San Joaquin Valley, UC Merced is the newest addition to the UC liberal arts cum research learning system, founded less than 17 years ago. Despite being a relatively smaller community of students and faculty, UCM has three schools offering 23 undergraduate majors and 25 minors. It is by far the smallest UC school, providing a great environment for students looking for a close-knit community recognised for its quality, affordability and alumni outcome. Popular majors include biological and biomedical sciences, engineering, applied mathematics, social sciences, psychology and business management.

UCM students are engaged in cutting-edge research in areas like stem cell development, AI and renewable energy and the university itself is striving for triple net zero energy goals: “a set of goals for the campus to ultimately produce as much power as it uses, create zero landfill waste and achieve climate neutrality.” More than 30 clubs are in operation and students can start their own organisations while simultaneously shaping new extracurricular initiatives.

Interestingly, 849 of the school’s approximately 7,000 students are from outside the US. Its proximity to the Sierra Nevada Mountains allows faculty and students to conduct environmental research at the university’s facility in Yosemite National Park.

Why Choose Merced?

UCM’s small size, newer programmes and innovative faculty make it a great learning environment for those who want to look beyond the status quo and create new experiences. A chance to set up new clubs, activities and research groups in a school that is still growing gives students a terrific opportunity to build not only their CVs but also leave their footprint on the school’s cultural canvas and develop close, lasting relations with faculty and peers.

UC San Francisco (UCSF)

The only UC dedicated to graduate professional education, UCSF is one of the world’s premier medical and life sciences universities where research, education and patient care converge. The university encompasses renowned schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy with additional programmes in physical therapy, basic sciences and social and population sciences. UCSF is known for innovation in medical research, public service and patient care. The faculty comprises five Nobel Laureates, 31 members of the ‘Institute of Medicine’ and 30 members of the ‘Academy of Arts and Sciences’.

Why Choose San Francisco?

This health-sciences focused school is the Mecca for graduate and postgraduate research students, as it has research partnerships with mega pharma companies and medical institutions, as well as more research funding than any other public university. Postgraduate students who like the intimacy of small classes taught in an atmosphere of academic excellence, close to San Francisco’s hub of innovation, culture, internships and employment, will find UCSF tailor-made for them.


These are just a few factors that really make the University of California (UC) stand out from other universities in the US. Besides having exceptional grades and a passion for your subject, you will also need to stand out in your interview. For more information on applying to UC, get in touch with us.