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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Navigating California's Colleges: CSU's vs. UC's

Hey, everyone! ( : This week I've decided to make a blog geared more towards high school students, but it would also be super helpful if you're looking to transfer to a university in California.

*This is a guide specific to public universities, and does not contain information regarding private ones.

Because I live here in California, this was pretty much drilled into my head my entire high school career, but if you are from out of state (or maybe your guidance counselor wasn't as clear) it might be difficult to figure out the difference between a CSU and a UC. So here's a quick crash course injected with my personal experiences and opinions plus those of my friends.

CSU: California State University. 23 campuses,

UC: University of California. 10 campuses,

Basically, California has organized our colleges into two distinct systems (three, counting community colleges, find them here The basic, kind of general thing you'll hear from counselors, teachers, and other students is "UC's are harder to get into than CSU's." Yes, this is pretty much true but it would be a mistake to apply to Californian colleges with only this in mind. There are more key differences you should be aware before making any decisions.

Application Format

Because California's universities are organized into these two systems, come application time it is easy to apply to multiple schools (think Common App for public schools). You can apply to all CSU's through a website called CSU Mentor and all UC's through an application page available at the main UC system website. Although these two websites are set up differently, you'll find they have a common goal: to allow students to apply to multiple campuses in their system at one website.
The UC website will give you the application, and then prompt you to select the campuses you'd like to apply to once you complete it. After you've selected the campuses you're applying to it will prompt you to answer any unique requirements (like UC San Diego asks you to rank its in-house colleges in order of preference).
The CSU website is a little different in that you select the campus you wish to apply to and then you are redirected to that campus' application. The information that all CSU's require (like your grades, and classes you've taken) only has to be filled out once, after your first application at CSU Mentor it will automatically fill-in based on your responses. You then will be asked to fill out any questions that are unique to that campus.

Application Content

Content-wise, what separates these two types of schools are the "Personal Statements" that UC's require. A personal statement is basically just an essay, told from your unique point of view and the UC's ask you write two for them. I'm not certain, but I'm pretty sure they have the same prompts every year. Basically, I wrote about where I "come from" (specifically the family I come from, but it can be on your hometown or ethnic background, anything along those lines) and also a personal experience and what that experience says about the person you are. This is the official UC Personal Statement info website [], it has the prompts and also some of their tips.
In my experience writing my own personal statements, it worked best for me to essentially keep my essays a secret. Usually I jump at opportunities for extra, individualized attention but when my English teacher held a personal statement workshop, I didn't go to have her edit my paper, instead I stopped by after it was over to collect the hand-outs she'd created containing tips and sample student responses. What I had written was so incredibly personal and truthful and pure that I didn't want just anyone reading my essays, only upon their completion did I e-mail them to my best friend so she could proofread my work. This strategy might not work for everyone, in fact it is more commonly suggested that students ask multiple people to edit their personal statements, but this is ultimately up to you. For me, having one third-party editor was more than sufficient, and to this day I couldn't be more proud of the personal statements I created.
In contrast, CSU's don't require an essay of any kind. For some, this may be a relief but I, personally, found it to be more intimidating because your grades and activities are left standing alone, to speak for themselves. If I found some of my marks to be less competitive than others or maybe I had a hole in my extracurricular, I could explain an extenuating circumstance at length or gloss over what I lacked with my dazzling personality in an essay. Personal statements give you a chance to inject your voice into your application, instead of just having a line of monotonous letter grades. They allow admissions officers see a little more of who you actually are, and since I have a big personality this was a chance for me to shine.


This is just generally speaking, but it is usually thought that UC's have a more difficult curriculum overall. Last week, I talked to some friends of mine who attend CSU's and they said that the various AP courses they had taken at our high school had been more challenging than what they are now faced with at college. UC's are also more known for being research universities, although some CSU's boast comparable or perhaps arguably better research programs.

Social Atmosphere

Maybe directly correlating to the perception that CSU's are "easier" than UC's, they also have a bigger reputation for being party schools. If you watch Campus PD on G4 (I love this show) you are already familiar with Cal State Chico, but other major party schools of the CSU system include San Jose and Sac State. If you are looking for social atmosphere you might find more options among the CSU's although the UC system is not entirely void of fun (UCSB, and the neighboring community of Isla Vista is known for the best Halloween on the west coast).


Because there are significantly fewer UC campuses it is inherent that being accepted into one is more difficult. UC's also have more requirements of what classes you need to take (called A-G's, and you can find out more about them at the UC website). Competition can get heated within the CSU system, however, depending on what campuses you want to apply to. Ones with more desirable locations, like beachfront CSU Long Beach, will have more overall applicants and thus be harder to get in to.

Hopefully you found this blog, helpful and good luck on being accepted into one of California's amazing universities.

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