9 Strategies in Increasing Your Chance at Acceptance to UCLA, UC Berkeley, and USC

From someone who got into all of them as a transfer student

I intentionally picked these three schools. I like to think of them as the trifecta.

These are the three you want. These are the three that most people want.

My little sister, my younger cousin, and I all attended UC Berkeley. That wasn’t an accident, and there are definitely items that admissions committees look at when accepting students into the new class.

As a native of Los Angeles, this was the dream trifecta. People see UCLA and UC Berkeley as the two best public universities in the entire world. Each year, UCLA and UC Berkeley take turns de-throning each other from the top spot. Students see USC as an amazing private school in its own right.

Out of high school, I didn’t go to any of these schools. Instead, I went to community college.

Out of community college, I was admitted to all three. When I was admitted as a transfer, my sister was admitted as a four-year (out of high school).

Unlike other places, there is no general ‘frequently asked questions’ page about admissions. Each school directs you to either a phone number or an e-mail to direct your questions. Those answers are almost always different at each school.

Many students are left confused in the process.

Making matters worse, a community college or high school counselor will be ill-equipped to inform you on any matters relating to the transfer experience; or, what it takes to get in.

I’ve found that my years in community college and high school were great, but the counselors and general guidance was always substantially lacking.

Here are the things I strongly believe influence or help in the admissions game:

Get assisted with assist.org.

I never see this resource, and it pains me. Assist is a website that tells you every single course you need to matriculate to a four-year UC or CSU school. It’s not a perfect resource, but no resource is.

For things related to the engineering disciplines, assist can be a little off. You might need to use a school’s specific matriculation page.

Outside of that, it’s a fairly straightforward and painless resource.

Source: Assist.org homepage.

You get the college you are currently at, the college you want to transfer to, and the year you are transferring.

If the current year’s transfer agreements don’t exist, it will use the previous years’. After you find the two schools in the drop-down menu, you’ll be given a list of majors to choose from.

That’s right. It will give you courses for any major that you want. Some of them will be empty, since the schools won’t offer the classes that are necessary, or the only requirement will be to follow the IGETC or the destination college’s guidelines.

If I choose mathematics, and choose to transfer to Berkeley out of a community college in Los Angeles, it will post this information up:

Source: Assist transfer information.

This is in addition to regular courses you need to transfer, which they also go over:

Source: Assist IGETC transfer information.

Having this information as early as possible gives you the ability to pause and think things over about how to best attack the transfer approach.

As my European history teacher used to say in high school:

“Never forget the 6 Ps: Prior proper preparedness prevents poor performance.”

The honors system.

At my community college, they had a set of courses designated as “honors” courses. Most of the time, these courses were the same courses you would regularly take, but they would add on a few more assignments.

The purpose of the honors system is a bit ambiguous. It is designed to yield a bit more depth into the coursework, but most students end up ignoring it altogether.

This gives serious students a leg-up. You don’t need a perfect grade point average, you need to hold a 3.5 or above with the honors stamp, meeting all of their requirements, and your odds of getting into the trifecta are greatly increased.

I think that, for my year, approximately 90% of the students who applied under the honors program got into UCLA.

It’s dramatic and underused.

Space out the difficult coursework.

Everybody knows that classes aren’t built with the same intensity. As classes grow vertically and higher in-depth or horizontally and begin to span more topics, you find yourself with some classes that are much harder than the rest.

These are the classes that can destroy a transcript.

Specifically, these are courses that way down the entire semester as a whole.

In semesters where you find yourself taking two of these classes, you’ll discover that you’ll perform worse on easier courses, too. This is something to consider, as you would want to isolate the courses you anticipate you won’t do as well in so you can balance the rest of your transcript as neatly as possible.

I feel strange attempting to gamify and calculate points on a page, but, at the end of the day, college acceptance is a numbers game, and the ones that look the nicest tend to win.

Practice min-maxing as frequently as possible.

Look up professors before you take their class.

Professors are notoriously bad in community college.

No, not all of them.

Places like RateMyProfessors are great supplements to give students a background for what’s to be expected in a class. Sometimes, you won’t mind if the professor teaches very little but also expects very little from the students for a great grade.

Other times, if you’re determined to major in mathematics, you really need a professor to teach you lower-division linear algebra — and to teach it well.

I should emphasize that websites like these have an inordinate bias, as the ones that review are usually the ones that did extremely poorly in the class. It’s always something to keep in mind — due diligence is always of the utmost importance.

No, the infamous “W” is not going to kill your chances at acceptance.

In fact, I know someone who got the Regents award with a “W” on her transcript.

A “W” is the mark you get when you have dropped a class after the deadline to drop classes has passed. This usually means the student was doing poorly in the course leading up to the drop.

To denote that, a mark in our school is placed. “W” is there to signify withdrawal.

However, even though most schools will say they look at them closely, the truth is that nobody is certain about this.

I’ve seen applications with multiple withdrawals get into the trifecta. I had a close friend get the highest scholarship award to Berkeley, the Regents.

So while it may hurt you slightly, there is a good chance that if you have the following, you’re fine:

  1. Good grades.
  2. Consistency in your performance.
  3. Decent personal statements.

Admissions committees are not throwing out students who have dropped a class by automation.

Join the student body.

Nobody runs for the student body president or any of the cabinet positions. These are deceivingly powerful positions that follow an intense structure and provide you leadership experience you didn’t know you wanted.

I joined my Associated Student Union’s cabinet the last year I was at community college. I got to travel to leadership conferences in New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, and Chicago. It was paid for, which was a plus for a poor college student. We would get to interact and meet with other student body representatives across many community colleges. It was also a great place to learn about the way the money flows through the bureaucratic process of our education system. You become a check on the system and a voice that helps the governing process.

We got to fly around the country, vote on things that clubs in the school wanted to do, and get a taste for leadership. We also got offices, which was never something to complain about.

In college applications, it definitely stands out. You’re representing tens of thousands of students. Your cabinet position is limited to only one person every academic year.

Our Student Union president didn’t have the best grades but he got into Berkeley’s business program, which is one of the greatest undergraduate business programs in the entire world.

Set yourself apart by doing something nobody else can do.

We can argue all day, but the best indicator of acceptance is the grade point average plus good personal statements.

I would place more emphasis on the former, too. While personal statements can wow a committee, banking on a stellar writing sample is a poor strategy for acceptance.

The first reason for this is obvious: If you’ve been struggling as a transfer to maintain good grades in community college, then you will truly begin to feel the pain at UCLA, Berkeley, or USC. These schools are hypercompetitive, especially in the sciences, and will not fail to neglect students that fall behind.

The quota system for grades is a great example of this. Here is an expected outcome for a mathematics course at Berkeley:

Source: Berkeleytime grades for Honors Abstract Algebra

You’ll be looking at upper-division courses with incredibly bright students where you can expect anywhere from 10–25% of the class to fail.

This won’t be a problem with all majors. Majors are generally not built equally and rigor is not reflected in the grade point average until you experience it yourself.

Source: dailycal GPA aggregation.

But, in other cases, you might want to know beforehand.

Source: dailycal GPA aggregation.

Your junior college is a scholarship oasis.

I’m not including this as a digression, I’m using this to quell rumors on college costs. Students often dissuade themselves from even applying because of the price tag they see for tuition and room and board.

These price tags aren’t real.

For most, that cost will dilute and simplify to a middle four-digit number that is completely subsidized, per year. That means you’ll have up until a year after you graduate to pay off that loan, interest-free.

You shouldn’t be shocked to know that, either. Most colleges will grant you aid on their behalf if they feel that your financial situation requires it.

Here’s an exaggerated example: It costs $75,000 a year to attend Princeton. 82% of graduates are debt-free.

Big schools have pretty deep pockets. Even your community college has deeper pockets than you realize. I was awarded about $10,000 in scholarships just before I transferred.

You need to ask and look around as to where the scholarship details can be found. A student services center might be a good start.

High School: You can start early.

Just because you find yourself in high school doesn’t mean you are bound to it. I took an art history class to fulfill a credit over a summer. I ended up taking math and statistics that were far more interesting than my high school courses.

I needed to take that art history class because I was in Track & Field and Cross Country. It took the place of a class I needed to graduate. I didn’t have a spot for an extra class, and I refused to take a 7 a.m. class because I used that time to get a warm-up run in before school started.

Community college enrollment is not bound to a particular age. If you wish to get ahead a bit earlier, you can choose to enroll in it as a sophomore or junior. That way, you can get a head start on your general breadth requirements. You could even find yourself applying to the trifecta a year earlier. Or, you could use that time to figure out what you really enjoy learning. Either way, you’ll be ahead and can plan accordingly.

UC Berkeley, mathematics. Los Angeles. Long-time runner. Top writer on Quora, 100M+ total content views. New to Medium. Inquiries: Moumj@berkeley.edu

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