by Tyler Kusunoki
Every year, competition for admissions into UCLA’s undergraduate program has increased dramatically. Just this past cycle, the university received 145,882 applications, the most of any University of California campus. With a historical acceptance rate of around 11%, and ongoing discussions to limit out-of-state/international acceptances to around 10% of total admissions, getting into one of the top research universities in the world is only going to become harder. I’m here to help. While there is no such thing as a guaranteed strategy for gaining admissions to a university (short of buying them a new library or donating very generously), throughout my 15 years of admissions consulting experience, I have had students get into UCLA every single year, including this one. I have gone back and reviewed many of my students’ application profiles, and gleaned some patterns and strategies that I believe helped contribute to their successful admissions. I will be sharing some of those strategies with you here today, and it will focus primarily on how to make sure your application profile resonates and aligns with UCLA’s stated priorities when it comes to its education: education, research, and service.
Academic rigor is the primary measure for any applicant to UCLA, so it is important to first make sure that you more than clear the bar of what is expected in that regard. For non-residents (which is most of you), the minimum GPA for applying to any University of California school is 3.4. For UCLA, the minimum is probably closer to 3.85-3.9, which is around the average of all the successful students who I have worked with. But please keep in mind that rigor is not just based on your GPA, the UC application system is unique in that they are upfront about the bonuses that they award to students who are taking higher-level classes. According to the UC Application website, Every AP, IBHL or equivalent course can receive a full bonus point on your GPA calculations, up to a total of eight points. This means that receiving a B in AP English Language will result in a 3.0 + 1 = 4.0 GPA value, which is higher than an A- (3.67) in a regular English class. So you are actively and significantly rewarded for taking challenging courses, even if those may seem like they come at a risk to your total GPA. So find ways to do so. I am normally not a huge proponent of “take as many APs as possible”, but for the purposes of UCLA, I think it is absolutely an important strategy as it raises the ceiling for what your final GPA could be. If you are in the IB system, check and see if you can take 4 HLs, or confirm with your school and look on the UC course equivalence search to see which SL courses count. You will know they count because they will show a yellow star with “UC Honors” underneath the course name:
Check your school curriculum and plan ahead to ensure you are doing your best to push up against the limits of what your school has on offer in terms of academic rigor. It is an essential part of not only meeting the high academic requirements of UCLA, but also for demonstrating that you have the capacity and capability to take on the hardest challenges that an institution can offer.
Academic rigor is the primary measure for any applicant to UCLA, so it is important to first make sure that you more than clear the bar of what is expected in that regard. For non-residents (which is most of you), the minimum GPA for applying to any University of California school is 3.4. For UCLA, the minimum is probably closer to 3.85-3.9, which is around the average of all the successful students who I have worked with. But please keep in mind that rigor is not just based on your GPA, the UC application system is unique in that they are upfront about the bonuses that they award to students who are taking higher level classes. According to the UC Application website, Every AP, IBHL or equivalent course can receive a full bonus point on your GPA calculations, up to a total of eight points. This means that receiving a B in AP English Language will result in a 3.0 + 1 = 4.0 GPA value, which is higher than an A- (3.67) in a regular English class. So you are actively and significantly rewarded for taking challenging courses, even if those may seem like they come at risk to your total GPA. So find ways to do so. I am normally not a huge proponent of “take as many APs as possible”, but for the purposes of UCLA, I think it is absolutely an important strategy as it raises the ceiling for what your final GPA could be. If you are in the IB system, check and see if you can take 4 HLs, or confirm with your school and look on the UC course equivalence search to see which SL courses count. You will know they count because they will show a yellow star with “UC Honors” underneath the course name:
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That advice might seem flippant, but the existence of the internet combined with an increasing number of programs that offer high school students the chance to engage in high quality, published research means that there is very little excuse to not pursue an independent research project of some kind. This has been particularly true recently, as every single one of my students who was accepted to UCLA in the past 3 cycles has demonstrated evidence of both in school and extracurricular research on their application profile. In school research is easy to demonstrate, especially if you are an IB Diploma student and will be producing an Extended Essay by the time you graduate. Extracurricular independent research requires a bit more planning and strategy, but is far more valuable, especially if you can identify a research project or question that is of personal interest to you. Take some time early on to identify a topic, narrow it down into a focus that is more specific, and then seek out a mentor and get started. I cannot stress the last part enough. Even my most capable high school students need to learn how to properly engage in college-level academic research and writing. A mentor not only provides the guidance necessary, but also serves as a point of accountability, as pursuing independent research throughout an already hectic high school career can be hard to prioritize. I have personally helped students connect with mentors by developing a resume, cover letter, and cold emailing university professors and specialists, but there are many other ways of identifying a mentor. Whether it be through leveraging parental or teacher networks or through specialized services that have their own in-house mentors, or specific summer programs (including UCLA’s own summer institute) there are plenty of options available for students and families to connect with resources and opportunities to pursue independent research.
The University of California application process has some limitations, in that they do not accept recommendation letters or any supplemental information beyond what is in the application itself. The result is that you need to leverage what is available in the application to actually vouch for your experiences. You can expand upon your research in the Personal Insight Questions, specifically question #6, which focuses on your pursuit of an academic interest. Question #8 is also a possibility, as it asks you to explain why you might be a perfect fit for the University of California system as a whole. This is the closest that UCLA has to a “why this school?” type of question, and can be the perfect place to discuss your research and emphasize why that independent, inquisitive pursuit of a unique topic is exactly what makes you a perfect candidate for UCLA’s competitive, research-driven academic environment.
The UC application also includes a space to include any additional information you feel would be helpful for your application, and you can go into greater detail in this space, especially if you have a link to your research that you can throw in here. Understanding the UC application itself is a critical part of strategizing around how to best ensure that you are going to be a good fit for UCLA.
When UCLA evaluates applications, they want to answer two questions: “Will this student fit within our classrooms?” and “Will this student fit within our community?” If you follow this guide, your academic rigor and independent research will answer the first question in the affirmative, but answering the second question with a strong “Yes!” requires starting early, and engaging in service opportunities that are local and meaningful to you. Colleges want to know that from the moment you land on campus, you will start making a difference. Avoid voluntourism (traveling to another country for 2-3 weeks to build half a bathroom and “have your eyes opened” to the reality of poverty) and focus on the needs in your immediate community. Take a walk around your school, your neighborhood. Do some research online. What needs are present? What needs are present that you can contribute towards solving? Identify them, brainstorm how to help, talk with the relevant adults and stakeholders, and get started. This is an opportunity to show initiative, leadership, but also demonstrate a service mindset that aligns with UCLA’s philosophy of community. Try to do so outside the limits of school-driven service activities as well, as most of those will limit your involvement to fund-raising and leadership will likely not be possible until senior year.
I worked with all of my students to identify and develop service activities that tied their interests to local needs, and I believe that narrative piece is essential as well. For the student who was passionate about sustainable agriculture, we identified independent blueberry farmers in the neighborhood, contacted them, and collaborated to form a local blueberry co-op to better market and sell their produce. For the computer science student who was a vocal advocate for victims of domestic abuse, we reached out to local shelters for single mothers to pilot an early afternoon coding class for kids that came with a prepared lunch, freeing up time and mental space for the mothers to focus on finding work and providing for their family long term while equipping the children with basic coding skills. Get started early. Keep your efforts local. Tie your cause to your passion and narrative.
Much like with the independent research, articulating your heart for service and community is not going to come from teacher recommendations or anything else, especially if you engage in service and volunteer work outside the confines of your school. Fortunately, the UC Personal Insight questions include a prompt that specifically asks you to share how you’ve made your community better:
7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
Things to consider: Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place — like your high school, hometown or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community?
Why were you inspired to act? What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community?
If you haven’t identified how you want to serve, work backwards from this prompt. What do you want to be able to say? Which “community” do you want to make better? If you already have a committed service activity, make sure to answer this prompt to highlight this dedication and impact. And make sure to illustrate your impact in measurable ways. Whether it be funds raised, meals served, people helped or even social media followers gained in service of a cause, set goals that are tangible and achieve them so that you can articulate them in this essay. When you are applying to UCLA, you will be selecting four out of the eight total personal insight questions to answer. The only prompt that I require my students to answer is this one, because it is an essential element that UCLA is looking for.
In conclusion, the competition for UCLA is tough and only getting tougher. Whether it be the flood of highly qualified international applicants seeking a spot at a world renowned university, or the legal proceedings that may reduce the number of seats available for international students to begin with, the reality is that getting into UCLA is an increasingly challenging fight for a decreasing number of available spots. Following this above guide is a start to shifting the odds in your favor. Improving those odds further will require personalized, strategic support. Click the button below to schedule a free consultation and see how we can help you chart a path for entry into UCLA.
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