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Opening the Backdoor to America’s Best Public Universities

Photo by Charles DeLoye on Unsplash

Last updated on November 15, 2022

In the 2020-2021 academic year, the elimination of standardized testing mixed with pandemic-related GPA inflation created the most competitive admissions cycles ever.

According to UCLA’s admissions database, their acceptance rate in Fall 2000 was a relatively high 29% with 37,791 applicants. Like most colleges, UCLA’s acceptance rate decreased for the following two decades. In 2020, their acceptance rate was 14% with 108,877 applicants, which was comparable to the previous two years. However, when the high school class of 2022 applied after a year of COVID-19, the acceptance rate dropped to 9%, and the number of applicants skyrocketed to 149,815, making UCLA one of the most competitive universities in the world.

Furthermore, UCLA was not alone in its record applications and acceptance rates. In 2021, Harvard’s acceptance rate dropped to 3.19% from 61,220 applicants. Yale, Brown, and the rest of the Ivies saw similar figures. In the public school arena, the University of Michigan and Virginia also saw record-shattering admissions.

By the time my siblings graduate high school in 2028 and 2029, I would not be surprised if the acceptance rate for UCLA dropped below 5%.

All of this culminates in a rigorous, pain-staking process replete with emotional heartache and nauseating feelings of inadequacy: receiving college letters.

For most high school seniors, barring any unusual tragedy, the most unsettling and gut-wrenching news is a college rejection letter. The expected rejection letters from prestigious universities are a disappointing but surmountable blow, but the rejection letters from mid-tier schools are especially disparaging.

Eventually, most high school seniors have to settle for their backup in the face of rejection from their beloved schools. Harvard hopefuls settle for Cornell. Stanford hopefuls settle for UC Berkeley. And UC Berkeley hopefuls settle for UCLA. (I’m kidding. Kinda. Your most famous non-athlete alumni are John Williams and the voice actress for Meg in Family Guy.)

However, instead of settling, try community college.

As the UC application and college admissions start once again this year, high school seniors should consider enrolling in community college even if they are accepted in their safeties. There are numerous reasons for choosing the community college route, and after transferring to UC Berkeley from Santa Monica College, I wanted to provide a list of pros and cons for high school students who are worried about their college prospects this upcoming spring.

Disclaimer: This is general advice for prospective California community college students transferring within the Univerity of California system. However, some of this advice may be applied to students trying to transfer to their state’s public schools.


It’s easier to get in as a transfer than as a freshman.

On a purely statistical basis, a California community college student has a better chance of getting accepted as a junior transfer than a high school student does.

In comparison to the daunting 9% freshman admittance rate to UCLA, the top public school reported a 24% transfer admittance rate for that same admission cycle. Similarly, Berkeley’s transfer rate was 27%, which was much higher than the freshman admittance rate of 11.4%. A similar trend is seen across the board throughout all the campuses of the UC system.

In my opinion, this is because transfer students with two years of community college under their belt already completed their general education requirements and graduated with an AA degree in their intended major. Also, there are fewer general transfer applicants than freshman applicants.

Now, 24% and 27% admit rates are still competitive, but they are relatively better than the seemingly more competitive freshman pool of applicants. Also, with two years of community college, applicants have more time to demonstrate their passion in their field of study or intended major.

During my time at the community college, I worked at my hometown’s city hall and local newspaper, building on top of my high school extracurriculars to show colleges a stronger passion for political science.

Community College is a fresh start.

The clearest advantage transfer students have over high school students is their GPA.

For most colleges, an applicant’s GPA from grades 9-12 or 10-12 plays a major factor in admission. Community college students are usually studying after high school for two years, which means their community college GPA is determined by fewer semesters than high school students. Depending on the transfer student’s work ethic, this could be an advantage or disadvantage. However, it does mean that they would have to maintain a 4.0 GPA for about half the time as high school students.

Additionally, UCs do not consider high school GPAs. A transfer applicant’s GPA is essentially reset, and they are granted a fresh start. Most community colleges are not as competitive or difficult as UC schools, so a humanities major can take a required science course in community college and end up with the same credit as if they took it at a UC school.

It’s so much cheaper.

Depending on your household income or overall financial status, a community college in California may be free for you. However, even if you do not qualify for a community college grant, the cost of admission to community college is significantly less than for UC schools.

For me, the cost to attend Santa Monica College was around $4,000, including textbooks and other academic-related expenses. Comparatively, the in-state tuition for all UC schools is around $14,000. If you transferred out of community college after one year by supplementing two years of undergraduate credit, you save around $24,000 in admission alone. Even if you transferred after two years, you still save $20,000.

If you factor in the cost of Berkeley or Los Angeles housing, you save a lot more money in terms of rent, food, and transportation costs, assuming you attend community college while still living with your parents.


Transfers fall behind the freshman admits.

The clearest advantage for freshman admits over transfers is that they have more time in their university to make a name for themselves.

Every student organization, government, and club grants higher-level positions to students who have stuck with them since the beginning of their time in college. For example, I have a couple of friends who work in the Berkeley student government as staffers in a student senator’s office. Even though they are both juniors, they work for a senator who is a sophomore and has more experience than both of them because this is his second year at the university.

This problem for transfers does not really have a coherent remedy. Naturally, organizations will give higher positions to an employee who has more experience and that typically means transfers fall behind.

As colleges become more and more competitive, students should begin looking at unconventional routes to their desired colleges. High school students should still apply as freshmen initially, but instead of settling for their backups, they should consider community college.

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