Jun 07

A Comprehensive Guide to The University of California Schools

By Michael Freeman

The Complete Prep Guide For College Application

A Comprehensive Guide to The University of California Schools

If you’re an international school student planning to apply to a large public university in the United States, chances are that UC Berkeley and UCLA are two schools that have already made your list. But the University of California (or “UC”) system includes several other top-ranked schools that are equally deserving of attention, especially from those planning to study abroad. 

This comprehensive guide explores all nine UC schools that offer an undergraduate program, keeping a consistent focus on three key factors:

  1. Rankings and Reputation: Every one of the nine UC schools lands in the top 100 national universities as ranked by U.S. News. In fact, six of the top 35 universities in the country are UC schools!
  2. Location: California possesses incredible geographic diversity, from easy going coastal settings to bustling city centers, the UC system has it all. When considering which individual schools to apply to, though, it’s essential to be aware of these differences.
  3. Academic Opportunities: UC schools have a huge variety of world-class academic programs that cater to specific student interests. From physics to agriculture to creative writing, students are virtually guaranteed to find a top-ranked department in which to thrive — this holds true for internships and research opportunities as well.

With these three factors in mind, even international school students who don’t have a chance to visit campuses in person can make a more informed decision about which UC school is best for them.

UC Berkeley

The crown jewel of the UC system, UC Berkeley is frequently ranked as the best public university in the country. It is also recognized as a top research institution globally, with a long history of attracting distinguished faculty from around the world.

The campus is located in the San Francisco Bay Area, making it one of the most urban UC campuses. The area is known for everything from tech startups to counterculture, and the beautiful campus views of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge certainly don’t hurt either.

Berkeley’s chemistry, computer science, and electrical engineering departments are standouts, but the humanities are no less well-represented: the English and history departments are ranked best in the nation in their respective fields.

UC Los Angeles (UCLA)

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is known for its research excellence. As of 2024, It is ranked 15th in the U.S. News National University rankings, tied with UC Berkeley among public universities in the country.

Situated in the heart of Southern California (in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles), it’s no mystery why UCLA is particularly popular with international school students and receives more undergraduate applications than any university in the world: the campus is close to beaches, the entertainment industry, and a seemingly endless amount of other cultural and recreational activities.

Film, medicine, and law are just a few fields which boast world-class programs here, and the prestigious Anderson School of Management is a popular choice for aspiring business leaders. UCLA’s programs in psychology, engineering, and the fine arts are also highly respected.

UC Davis

While UC Davis doesn’t enjoy the same name recognition with international school students as its cousin campuses in Berkeley and Los Angeles, it is nonetheless a highly respected school, coming in at 28th in the 2024 U.S. News national rankings.

The campus itself lies in Northern California’s agricultural region, which has a long tradition of sustainability and environmental stewardship. Contrary to what some prospective students might assume, the campus is hardly remote; you can drive to the state’s capital, Sacramento, in less than twenty minutes.

The school’s veterinary and agricultural science programs are far and away the best in the country, but other departments such as political science and plant sciences make it an unusually well-rounded school when it comes to research and academics.

UC San Diego (UCSD)

UC San Diego is tied with UC Davis for the 28th spot in the 2024 U.S. News national rankings, making it the highest-ranked school in Southern California outside of UCLA.

On the long list of reasons to consider studying abroad at UCSD, the school’s location is at or near the very top. The campus is comfortably nestled in La Jolla, an upscale suburb of San Diego, making it perfect for students who want a more relaxed campus atmosphere that also happens to be right on the sunny Pacific coast.

UCSD’s STEM programs are so famously strong across the board that it’s not uncommon to meet students who have chosen to attend the school over UCLA or UC Berkeley. That’s because students who know they want to focus on medicine, cognitive science, or biology – to take just a few examples – may find more labs open to undergraduates and more research-specific opportunities here.

UC Irvine (UCI)

Ranked as the 33rd best national university by U.S. News (putting it two spots ahead of New York University), UC Irvine is yet another example of a top research university within the UC system.

The campus’ immediate surroundings give it a much more suburban feel than perhaps any other UC school, and its proximity to attractions like Disneyland only contributes further to this. But UCI remains the premier university in Orange County — a county home to more than 3 million people — and students studying abroad here have easy access to everything that California has to offer.

The school’s criminology, education, and creative writing programs are all among the best in the country, but students in every major can expect rigorous courses that prepare them to succeed at the top of their given fields.

UC Santa Barbara (UCSB)

UC Santa Barbara has quickly moved up the rankings in recent years and now sits at 35th in the U.S. News national university rankings, ahead of schools such as Boston College, Rutgers, and Purdue.

The university’s surrounding environs have a lot in common with UCSD, minus a major city that’s right next door. (Los Angeles is about a two-hour drive south.) The central Californian coast is sometimes described as a blend of the state’s northern and southern regions, but with its own unique flair; surfers and serious academics alike are right at home here.

While it may not have the sheer number of internship and research opportunities of some other UCs, UCSB is famous for its world-class marine science program, and its College of Engineering is highly touted too.

UC Merced

Because UC Merced was founded in 2005, it is often treated as the baby of the UC family. Even so, it has rapidly climbed national university rankings to reach 60th overall in 2024.

The UC Merced campus is far from any busy, urban center, but it’s precisely that quality that draws many students to the area. Those who want to study abroad at an excellent school that has Yosemite National Park as its backyard would do well to consider Merced.

Merced has the smallest enrollment of all UC schools, and the scale of academic opportunities reflect that. On the other hand, what opportunities students do take advantage of can result in fruitful mentorships with dedicated professors.

UC Riverside (UCR)

UC Riverside is ranked 76th nationally in U.S. News 2024 rankings, and really shines when it comes to factors such as social mobility and financial aid: in both categories, it often sits at or near the top of nationwide rankings.

What UC Irvine is to Orange County, UC Riverside is to the Inland Empire. The “IE” is an enormous region to the east of the Los Angeles metropolitan area that is home to more than 4.5 million people, and Riverside is its biggest city. While it may be too suburban for some students studying abroad, UCR’s location is undeniably convenient.

Prospective students tend to underestimate the number of opportunities at UCR, which are actually on par with many other schools in the UC system. For STEM-focused students, especially those considering statistics, chemistry, or computer science, there is no shortage of ways to get more involved academically.

UC Santa Cruz (UCSC)

UC Santa Cruz is ranked 82nd nationally in U.S. News 2024 rankings, putting it firmly in the top quartile of US universities. It is ranked much higher in other, more specific lists: for example, U.S. News ranked UCSC in the Top 20 schools nationwide for excellence in public university undergraduate teaching.

The Santa Cruz campus is surrounded by redwood forests and ocean views, both of which help make the case that UCSC students enjoy the single most picturesque campus in the entire UC system. San Francisco is only a two-hour drive north, though, so the campus isn’t particularly remote, either.

UCSC has tons of opportunities for students in all departments, but a few niche fields enjoy incredible prestige here: the bioinformatics, astrophysics, and game design programs are all world leaders.


Choosing the right university is a significant decision, especially for international students looking to study abroad. The University of California system offers a diverse array of options, each with its unique strengths and opportunities. Whether you’re drawn to the urban vibrancy of UC Berkeley and UCLA, the relaxed coastal vibes of UCSD and UCSB, or the cutting-edge research at UCI and UC Davis, there’s a UC school that can cater to your academic and personal preferences.

What should international school students do next?

For international school students aiming to study in California, Tokyo Academics has over 10 years of experience helping students get the grades, test scores, essays, and other factors needed to gain admission to the top schools in California and beyond. Connect with us today to see how we can help you reach the same goal!

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