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I speak with a lot of students and families in Singapore and around the world who are interested in the UCs. Most often, they inquire about UC Berkeley and UCLA, and I’ve noticed over the years we run into common issues which they are often not aware of.
1. Deferred enrollment may not be possible
UC Berkeley and UCLA generally do not allow candidates to apply and then defer enrollment for another year or two. This often comes up when I am chatting with students who will soon be heading into National Service. They want to apply to universities as they are finishing up 12th grade (JC year 2, IB year 2, etc.).
Applying early and deferring is generally not a bad idea, but you need to make sure your target schools permit this. To get the latest updates from the UCs, always be sure to contact the schools directly, as each UC campus can have its own policy around this.
2. Relatively high grades are a must, across the UCs.
Applicants often think that other aspects of their profile can compensate for lower grades, and for many US universities, this is certainly true. It is one of the things that makes US universities attractive to candidates in the first place.
However, for the UCs, grades need to be strong. And this is not just the case for the campuses that are notoriously competitive; the expectations for the less competitive UCs, such as Santa Cruz and Merced, are also relatively high when it comes to grades.
Even though the UCs formally require a 3.4 out of 4 for international applicants (or 3.0 out of 4 for domestic applicants), meeting minimum requirements will not be enough to be competitive for admission. I would usually discourage international applicants with less than a 3.7 out of 4 to apply to any UC campus, unless there are some truly exceptional circumstances.
3. Transfer applicants should usually look elsewhere
Every year I hear from at least a couple of university students who are interested in transferring to a UC school. Generally, transferring from a great school like Boston University, Rice University, or NYU would be a swell idea, if your grades in the first semester are strong.
However, the UCs have a different purpose for their transfer program, and they prefer to accept transfer applicants from California community colleges. This means the UCs are not a great destination if you are a university student looking to transfer to another university (unless you are attending a California community college). The UCs are fairly transparent about this on their website, but people often miss this detail.
(Please note that if you are a polytechnic student in Singapore hoping to apply to the UCs, you may be considered a transfer applicant rather than a regular freshman applicant.)
4. Pick your major when you apply.
Usually in the US, you can apply “undecided” and eventually choose whatever major you want. Or, you can apply with a declared major in one subject, and switch to another major quite easily. There are, of course, exceptions to this (Stern for business, Cornell for engineering, etc.).
The UCs are one such exception. If you are interested in Computer Science but you apply for Literature, it will not be easy to switch from Literature to Computer Science once you get admitted, as popular majors fill up quickly.
5. SAT and ACT scores are still helpful.
When the Covid pandemic started in 2020, the UCs were among the first universities to say they would not consider SAT or ACT scores when making admissions decisions, at least for some time.
However, you still may want to have standardized test scores for the UCs. They can serve as an alternative method of fulfilling minimum requirements for eligibility, or for course placement after you’ve enrolled.
Be sure to keep checking their website for the latest, as it remains to be seen whether these standardized tests (or new tests) will be required for admission in the future.