“If I don’t get into an Ivy League School, I’ll just go to a UC…”

by | May 8, 2021

Written by: Jonathan Piliser

This seems like a logical approach. The best UC campuses are ranked among the very best universities in the world, particularly in fields like science, engineering, and computer technology. So it’s reasonable that so many families would be reluctant to shell out $60,000+ a year for a middling private school when they can attend a world-class school for a fraction of the cost. 

15 years ago, this would have been a very logical approach. Students would choose a “less selective” campus like Santa Cruz, Irvine, or Santa Barbara as their “safety school” and then roll the dice on UCLA and UC Berkeley. 

But this past year, we’ve seen a surge in applications across the UC system. UCLA saw a surge of 28% from 2020, with 139,500 students competing for about 15,000 openings. UC Berkeley also saw a 28% increase in new applicants, leading to an all-time record high of new applications. 

For more competitive majors — especially engineering, nursing, business, and computer science — the numbers can be even more discouraging with admissions rates plummeting to single digits in many cases. 

When a federal judge in California ruled that UC schools would be prohibited from considering any test data, many students with very low SAT scores (or who never took the test in the first place) decided they might as well take a chance on applying. Admissions readers were almost certainly overwhelmed by the surge in applications and struggled to devote significant time to reading them. 

The result: a process that has become even more arbitrary and unpredictable. In our office, we see students get admitted to UCLA and then rejected at a “less selective” campus like UC Davis. It’s not uncommon to even see someone be admitted to an Ivy League university like Cornell only to get waitlisted at UC Irvine or rejected from UC Santa Barbara.  

How should you respond to these new trends? First, make sure to establish as many strengths as possible across your application. Take challenging courses in school and earn strong grades in those classes. Spend time making sure your personal statements are as strong as possible. Do meaningful work outside of school that you can share with the colleges you apply to. 

But most importantly, we need to rethink how UC schools fit into a balanced college list. UCLA, UC Berkeley, and UCSD should be considered “reach” colleges for even the strongest students. And even the least selective UC campuses should not be relied upon as true safety schools. Without scores and other numbers, it is simply too challenging to project exactly how you’ll be perceived when compared with (literally) over 100,000 other students. 

If you want to make the UCs a priority, consider applying to more campuses than you were planning — it’s no longer a good strategy to simply pick your favorite among the less selective campuses given the numbers that we’re seeing. 

So start your college exploration early, and identify other backup schools that may be more reliable than the UC campuses: private or Cal state schools that have an acceptance rate above 50% or where your grades and other achievements put you head and shoulders above their average incoming class.