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Which UCs Do You See?


By Ethan Stan

To my students’ dismay, I like to start discussing College Lists™ with my Juniors just as the Spring semester is winding down. Since I work with students primarily in California, the University of California (UC) schools are usually first on my to-do list.

The conversation usually goes like this:

Ethan: “So, you’ve mentioned before you want to apply to the UCs. No-brainer! But which campuses?”

Student: “Uh…well, I guess Berkeley and UCLA, but I don’t think I’ll get in. I think Santa Barbara sounds, cool, but Davis is probably better for bio. Oh, and my friends said UCSD is awesome, so there too.”

Ethan: “Ok, cool – we’ll get into the ‘why’ for each campus later. How about UC Santa Cruz?”

Student: “Nah, I don’t want to live in the forest. It’s so far away from anything! I was thinking that would be my safety school.”

Ethan: “…and I noticed you didn’t mention UC Riverside or UC Merced?”

Student: “No.” [they say with finality]

This, shall we say, gets me going.

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I’m a proud graduate of UC Berkeley. Yes, that UC Berkeley – the “#1 public university,” “we have an element on the periodic table named after us,” “we have parking spots for our Nobel Prize winners” UC Berkeley. But despite its outsized reputation across the state, country, and even world, I’m consistently frustrated by how large it (and UCLA) looms in the minds of my students.

The truth is, I love the entire UC system more every year. It’s a world-class public research institution and each campus is an expression of that “brand.” Whether you attend Merced or Berkeley, Santa Cruz or San Diego, the quality of education you will receive is far more equivalent that most parents and students realize.

Without a clearer, more objective view of the UC system, I fear my students are setting themselves up for at least disappointment, and at worst missed opportunities in their pursuit of higher education.

So, what would I say to my above Example Student? The following:

1.     Yes, UC Berkeley and UCLA are ridiculously difficult to get into – their admit rates were 17.5% and 18% respectively in Fall 2016, with high GPA and SAT/ACT averages to match. However, potential applicants need to keep in mind how these campuses select their applicants. As a 2010 admit with below-average SAT scores but far more interesting extracurriculars, you’d be amazed by what weirdos they might let in! See UC Berkeley and UCLA’s applicant review policies for a bit of hope.

2.     I heard you mention “bio.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard “bio,” my student loan debt would be paid off. This is usually the start of a conversation about why my student wants to pursue the field of biology and what makes any one UC campus “better” for it. The fact of the matter is, as a research university, each UC campus offers a standard biology major with all the labs and equipment to match. At the undergraduate level, I am highly skeptical of any single campus being “better” at teaching the fundamentals of it or any scientific field. Better to select a campus based on other factors. Remember: you aren’t applying to med school!

3.     UC Santa Cruz is awesome. I nearly chose it over Berkeley. It’s less “lonely hippies in the forest” and more “Santa Barbara without the constant parties.” Also, swap out palm trees for redwoods. But seriously, Santa Cruz is a fantastic campus with strong sciences, fascinating humanities programs, and a great social scene. Furthermore, Santa Cruz isn’t anyone’s “safety school” anymore. Just check out that average GPA.

4.     UC Riverside and UC Merced are Universities of California. They are expressions of the same university system that produced my alma mater. They are not third-rate universities for UC Davis rejects; they are some of the best universities in the country, with the faculty, facilities, and resources to match. Give them more than 10 minutes of your time and I bet you’ll be surprised.

At this point, Example Student would likely be stunned into silence by my extremely passionate and nerdy opinions about college. Such is the life of a high school counselor…

Kidding aside, my main point is this: we all need to imagine higher education more complexly and think about it more critically. For California students, that means utilizing the internet and the convenience of campus visits to check out some of the best public universities in the country right in your backyard – and I mean all of them. Don’t sell them – or yourself! – short.

Ethan is a senior counselor at LionRock Education. He graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Conservation and Resource Studies.

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