University of California system

California residents have long been aware that the University of California system plays by a different set of rules than many other colleges and universities. Your GPA is based only on grades earned in 10th and 11th grade. You must take a fine arts class in order to be minimally qualified for admission. And application readers are much more interested in the story you tell in your essay than the language or style you use to tell it.

But perhaps the most striking reality is this: if you want to transfer to a University of California (UC) or California State University (CSU) campus, you’re much better applying from a community college than from Stanford.

The Master Plan

The stated goal for the system of higher education in California is to provide access to four-year degrees for as many California residents as possible. The UCs and CSUs must therefore “provide transfer opportunities to the upper division for Community College students, and eligible California Community College transfer students are to be given priority in the admissions process.” For The Regents and the State Board of Education, transferring between schools isn’t a matter of preferring a different major, wanting to move to a different location, or even being frustrated with your fit. It’s all about more Californians having a bachelor’s degree.

So if you’re looking to get into Berkeley or UCSB and you haven’t got the numbers to be even remotely competitive as a freshman candidate, your best bet is to enroll in your local community college and start blazing a path to the University of California system from there. You can be sure that when admissions officers review applications from the pool of transfer candidates, they will give preferential treatment to your community college application over any app from any four-year school anywhere else in the country. Those seem like pretty great odds to me.

Stay Patient, Stay Focused

There is, of course, a catch to this deal. And that catch comes with time. No student may apply as a transfer applicant without earning at least 60 credit hours at a community college. So you’re looking at two years at your local CC, during which time you’ll need to earn solid grades, make connections with your teachers and peers, and start to develop your community impact. As with traditional freshman admissions, the UCs will be interested in the kind of student and community member you are, and you’ll need to demonstrate that through your engagement at community college.

It is also critical that you meet with a transfer adviser in your first days on campus, preferably before registering for classes. Using your adviser and online resources like assist.org, plan out your two years of study, making sure that you take classes that will transfer to your preferred UC in your major. Being behind on this kind of planning can cost you an extra term of enrollment and may mean enrolling at your four-year school a year later than intended. Keep your eye on the ball.

Tell Your Story

The University of California system has a much earlier transfer application deadline than most schools: November 30th compared to the more common March 1st deadline. This means when it’s time to put pen to paper and talk about what you’ll bring to your future campus as a new transfer student, you’ll be looking nearly a year into the future. So focus on yourself. Choose questions that share what you’ve achieved and learned in the last two years, with special emphasis on learning experiences that have shaped your perspective since graduating high school.

Of course, there’s little story to tell if you don’t invest yourself in living it first. As with most successful applications, the advice I’d give to aspiring transfer candidates is simple: live the life you’re most proud of living. Make the most of your community college experience, engaging with integrity, honesty, and curiosity. The habits you form in your first two years at college will carry you through your last two years, and set you on the right course for the rest of your life.

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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College.