California Colleges: UC vs CSU

College student studies at UC BerkeleyBy: Susanna de Chenonceau, M.Ed.

I often hear students say: “Palm trees and movie stars, beaches, convertibles and suntans–for college? Sign me up!”  If you dream of In-n-Out burger and the Sunset Strip almost as much as you dream of getting a stellar college diploma, consider one of the highly-regarded California colleges.  To apply to be a California college student in a California state college, you need to understand the difference between the three-tiered public education systems in Cali: the UC system, the Cal State system, and the California Community Colleges.

University of California system
The UC system consists of 10 campuses enrolling 191,000 students:
Los Angeles
San Diego
San Francisco
Santa Barbara
Santa Cruz

Cal State University system
The Cal State system consists of  23 campuses enrolling 414,000 students.
Because of increased applications from qualified applicants, the following 16 have implemented higher admissions standards:

  • Chico State
  • Fresno State
  • Cal State Fullerton
  • Humboldt State (for freshman only, popular with out-of-state students, too)
  • Cal State Los Angeles
  • Cal State Long Beach
  • Cal State Northridge (for freshman only)
  • Cal Poly Pomona
  • Sacramento State
  • Cal State San Bernardino
  • San Diego State (very popular with out-of-state students, too)
  • San Francisco State
  • San Jose State
  • Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (very popular with out-of-state students, too)
  • Cal State San Marcos
  • Sonoma State

The currently un-impacted campuses include: Bakersfield, Channel Islands, Dominguez Hills, East Bay, Maritime, Monterey, Stanislaus.

Notes on the two systems
In the 3 tiered state public education system, the UC schools and CSU schools give admissions preference to students transferring from California Community Colleges.  Because of the 3 tiered system, the UC schools are considered the research universities, awarding BA, MA, and PhDs; the CSU system focuses on teaching, awarding BA and MA degrees, and the Community Colleges award two-year degrees as a stepping-stone to either the UC or CSU system. The UC schools attempt to admit California students in the top 1/8th of their graduating classes; the CSU schools attempt to enroll students in the top 1/3rd of their classes. All students can attend Community College.

Special Considerations with UC/CSU applications
Something that out-of-state applicants need to be aware of is that both systems have very small windows for applying: the applications open on October 1 and close on November 30.  There are no exceptions and no late applications are accepted.

Out-of-state students who are interested in applying to the UC and CSU schools should also be aware that both systems require a full year of a visual or performing art (VPA) in the SAME art.  You do not need to take the two semesters of art in the same year, as long as they are in the same discipline.  For example Beginning Photo and Advanced Photo, Beginning and Advanced Ceramics, Choir, Band, Drama, etc–you need one, full, total year.  Yearbook and Journalism do not count as a VPA.  Check the requirements on the UC admissions page.

The UC schools require four essays that you can choose from eight prompts, and each essay has a 350 word limit. These are called the Personal Insight Questions and can be found here on the UC website.

CSU schools do not require essays.

UC and CSU schools do not require transcripts be sent until June, after acceptance, to verify each application.

No rec letters are required.

You can do one application for all UC schools–and you only need to send your test scores to one school because they all share scores in their system.

You can do one application for all CSU schools.

Eligibility Index and Applying for for CSU schools
On the main CSU website you can run the Eligibility Index to see if your grades and test score make you eligible for admissions.  Do this before you apply.  CSU undergraduate admissions are based on applicants’ GPAs and test scores and course rigor, and generally do not consider items such as personal statements, SAT Subject Test scores, interviews, or recommendation letters.

Does 9th Grade Count?
For both the UC system and the CSU system only “a-g” courses taken in sophomore and junior year are used for preliminary GPA.  You cannot include freshman year classes. However, 9th grade will be calculated in class rank.  This is important for the UC system because if you are a California state citizen and you rank in the top 9% of the state OR in the top 9% of your high school you are guaranteed admission to a UC.  Also, remember that when you send your transcript, your freshman year grades will be visible to the colleges although they will not be taken into consideration.

California is a state that offers two world-class public school systems, so spend some time researching the different personalities and vibes of these esteemed public institutions of higher learning. No matter what your major and learning style, there is certainly a great school for you in sunny California!


  1. Please update this to include the personal insight questions, 350 word limit. Your previously accurate but now incorrect information pops up as an answer to the required writing for UC applications. Time to update.

    1. Author

      Dear Patti, Many thanks and it should all be up-to-date now. Let us know if you see anything else, of course! All the best, Susanna

  2. My daughter earned a D+ in freshman algebra 1. Her counselor said she didn’t need to take summer school to improve the grade because it was a freshman class. However, the CSU website says she has to have a grade of C- or better in the required A-G classes. Does she need to repeat Algebra 1 prior to graduating?

    1. Author

      Hello! CSU counts classes in grades 10-11, so the counselor is correct. That said, it would be good for your daughter to redo the course so that she does not have gaps in her knowledge moving forward. Hope this helps. Best, Susanna

  3. hi is it true that all CSUs don’t require letters of recommendation? Because when I googled “sacramento state university freshman deadlines”, I saw the important dates and deadlines and one thing that caught my eye was that it said Deadline to Submit two Letters of Recommendation is on Jan 31. But I thought all CSUs don’t require them.

    1. Author

      Hi Chris! It is correct that CSUs do not require rec letters, so go back to that page where you read that and make sure:

      A. That you were ONLY reading the college’s actual website. NEVER trust third party websites on college info. 🙂
      B. That you were not maybe reading about a scholarship or Honor. 🙂

      Hope this helps! Yay, college!

  4. Hi, although the CSU platform does not require essays nor recommendation letters, are there Cal State schools that allow this as an optional asset to the application? More specifically, do you know if SDSU does?

    1. Author

      Hi John! No, SDSU and the CSU schools do not allow rec letters or essays or any supplemental info for their apps. You can always call the office and ask what to do if you feel you have an exceptional situation or bit of info to convey. Yay, college! Susanna

  5. I have a few questions:

    1. Just to double check, CSUs do not have any supplement essays on their application right?
    2. For the application fee of a CSU, is it $70 per school or $70 flat for your whole application (including all schools you choose to apply to)?


    1. Author

      Hi Vanessa! That’s correct. No rec letters or essays for CSU schools, and it’s $70 per school on that one application. You can, though, send your SAT or ACT test scores just to one school and they share them in their system. The UC schools also share SAT/ACT scores. 🙂

  6. So neither systems ask for letters of recommendation? Or are they just optional?

  7. Does Cal state schools share information with UC schools. For instance if I sent 2 SAT scores through college board to a Cal state, but only one of those two to UC, will that UC receive the other SAT that I sent to Cal state but not to them

    1. Author

      Hi Liam! Nope, the CSU and UC systems are separate. 🙂 You need to send everything to each system separately. Yay college! Susanna

    1. Author

      Just the 4 Personal Insight Questions, and the a SLEW of activities which are tedious to do well!!

  8. Just a heads up for kids applying to UC schools: I’m not sure that the following statement is true:

    “This is important for the UC system because if you are a California state citizen and you rank in the top 9% of the state OR in the top 9% of your high school you are guaranteed admission to a UC.”

    My older daughter graduated from a CA school in 2018. She was ranked #3 in her class (350 students), had an unweighted GPA of 4.0 and got a 1400 on her SAT. Waitlisted at all 3 schools she applied. Was never contacted about choosing another campus. Luckily, she was accepted early and got a great merit scholarship at her first choice school (Clemson University).

    Not sure how the whole “guaranted admission” is supposed to work, but it didn’t work out for us.

    1. Author

      Dear Cathy, Thank you SO much for posting this! I haven’t checked this post in years so you are absolutely correct that these things can change. I would counsel ALL students to check data like this freshly every year. 🙂
      Thanks again, Cathy!

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