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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.

The applicant’s GPA calculation 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 off 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 fit. It’s all about more Californians having a bachelor’s degree.

So if your student is looking to get into Berkeley or UCSB and they haven’t got the numbers to be even remotely competitive as a freshman candidate, their best bet is to enroll in their 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 community college applications over any app from any four-year school anywhere else in the country. Those seem like pretty great odds to me.

University of California, Los Angeles

University of California, Berkeley

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 to the UCs without earning at least 60 credit hours at a community college by the time they will enroll at a UC. So, your student is looking at two years at the local CC, during which time they’ll need to earn solid grades, make connections with their teachers and peers, and start to develop their community impact. As with traditional freshman admissions, the UCs will be interested in the kind of student and community member an applicant is, and that will need to be demonstrated through your engagement at community college.

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

Tell an Authentic Story

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

Of course, there’s little story to tell if a student doesn’t invest 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.”

About Bright Horizons College Coach

Bright Horizons College Coach® is the nation’s leader in educational advising. We help students and families across the country navigate the path to college, with a team of experts—all former admissions and financial aid decision-makers at top schools—who know the process from the inside. Collectively, we’ve helped more than 32,000 families successfully manage every aspect of college admissions, from choosing schools, to creating stand-out applications, to economically saving, and financing it all. Visit the Bright Horizons website.