university of california application

Part One of a Three Part Series

I never hear from juniors in May – they’re way too busy with finals and tests. But after they settle into summer, many of these rising seniors start thinking about their college applications. And since most of my students here in California will be applying to at least a handful of UC campuses, I get a lot of the same questions from all of them. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about the University of California application process, from seniors and underclassmen alike.

Developing Credentials

1. Do 9th and 12th grades matter?

Yes and no. When evaluating your academic performance, the UCs recalculate your GPA using only your grades from sophomore and junior year. But the person reading your application will evaluate your growth holistically, looking not only at your performance in 9th grade but also your course selection for 12th grade. Because of the application deadline, they will not see your grades for 12th until you confirm your enrollment in the summer after graduating.

2. A few kids in my school are taking extra math classes over the summer. Should I be doing that?

Sure – if you want to. Some kids simply love math (or history or Spanish or whatever class they take in the summer) and are taking extra courses for fun. Others are taking required classes to make more room in their schedule for something they love more, like dance or double science labs or leadership class. Still others are taking classes over the summer to replace a disappointing final grade from the previous year. Unfortunately, some kids take summer classes under the mistaken impression that the UCs recommend or prefer this course of action.

It is important to know that your course selection during the school year will be evaluated in the context of your local high school. If your school doesn’t offer specific courses, you are not expected to take them elsewhere in the summer. If you are taking four years of math (or history or Spanish or whatever class you might take in the summer) during the school year, the UCs will think very highly of your schedule choices.

The only reason you should take additional classes in the summer is because you want to for personal reasons.

3. How many community service hours do you recommend?

Whenever students ask me this, I respond that they’re asking the wrong question. The UC application evaluates students based on their achievement in special projects, leadership, and unique talents. They do not evaluate students based on how many community service hours they complete.

Some kids love volunteering and develop long-term connections to one or two organizations in their community. Others love the camaraderie of service organizations like Key Club or NHS, and devote their organizational energy to creating service opportunities for their peers. But in both cases, those are specific commitments: the first reflects a deep commitment to a particular cause and the development of meaningful relationships with those in need; the second reflects leadership and practical skills acquired through motivating and managing events and large groups of people. These are indicators of individual achievement, leadership, and talent.

Some students make the error of simply recording “xx hours of community service” on their résumés. That sort of general description – especially if it is representative of a lack of investment or interest on the student’s part – is much less compelling to admissions officers in general. Think of it like saying you spent 15 hours a week playing sports…a committed athlete would likely have a specific sport they participate in, year after year. For the purposes of the UC application, “xx hours of community service” does not suggest any particular individual achievement, leadership or talent.

4. Do I need to take SAT Subject Tests?

The UCs require all students to submit the SAT or the ACT; Subject Tests are not required. But specific programs at specific campuses recommend additional testing, so make sure to check the website for the programs you’re considering.

5. I don’t play any sports. Will this look bad on my application?

Colleges are looking for a diverse student body, made up of students with very different interests and talents. They certainly want some high-level athletes for their varsity teams in addition to many student-athletes who have learned teamwork, persistence, communication, and other lifelong skills demanded by athletics. But they also want some musicians, some dancers, some environmentalists, some debaters, some mathletes, some researchers, some babysitters, some kids who have worked retail, some kids who have worked in customer service…do you see where I’m going with this? The UCs – and colleges in general – don’t care if you’re not an athlete. They care about what you choose to do instead.

6. I just found out that I have “eligibility in the local context (ELC)” through my high school. What does this mean?

Congrats! That means you are ranked in the top 9% of your graduating class either within your high school or across the entire state. It guarantees you admission to the UC System, though not to any particular campus. When final admissions decisions are reached, any student who qualifies for the UC system through ELC but has not been accepted to any of the campuses to which they have applied will be offered a spot wherever there is room. In previous years, this has meant being offered a spot at UC Merced.

Please note that admissions officers at individual UC campuses do not consider ELC when evaluating applications; ELC admission happens at the system level.

Stay tuned for Part Two of our UC application advice!

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Written by Becky Leichtling
Becky Leichtling is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Becky is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Education; prior to joining College Coach, Becky was a senior admissions officer at Tufts University. Visit our website to learn more about Becky Leichtling.