USC Vs. UCLA: Which College to Choose?

USC and UCLA: Which college to choose
May 28, 2024
8 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

Not sure whether to choose between USC or UCLA? Read on to figure out which school is best for you!

Many students compare institutions against each other, such as the UC schools, including the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). However, whether you want to attend USC or UCLA, you should be aware that both universities have stellar reputations as top-rated institutions. 

While USC is a private research university known for its arts, technology, and business programs, UCLA is a famous public university with extensive athletics achievements. UCLA’s schools of business, engineering, law, and medicine are also well-known and highly ranked.

So, which school is best for you? In this article, we’ll consider the admissions requirements, academics, tuition costs, and other key differences between both schools to help you make an informed decision.

USC vs. UCLA: Overview

Whether you want to attend USC or UCLA, understand that both schools are highly reputable in the United States. However, they boast distinct values and have unique missions toward higher education.

USC supports the development of humanity and society through the “human mind and spirit.” USC’s mission involves the following pillars:

  • Teaching
  • Research
  • Creation
  • Practice of profession
  • Specific forms of public service

Meanwhile, UCLA’s mission stems from knowledge, including its creation, understanding, preservation, and applicability. As a public research university, UCLA prides itself as a champion of academic freedom, including open access to information and debates. The university functions with three values in mind:

  • Education
  • Research
  • Public service

USC and UCLA are top-tier schools in the country, despite some differences in their statistics and admission rates. For example, UCLA receives more applicants than USC, albeit with a lower acceptance rate of 9%. In contrast, USC has a lower acceptance rate of 9.2%, despite receiving fewer freshmen applications. 

Admissions Category USC UCLA
Location Los Angeles, California Los Angeles, California
US News Ranking #28 #15
Undergraduate Enrollment 7,550 32,423
Percent of International Students 13% 9%
Student-to-Faculty Ratio 9:1 19:1
No. of Applicants (Freshmen) 82,000 145,904
Acceptance Rate 9.2% 9%
SAT/ACT Score Range SAT: 1290-1510
ACT: 27-34
SAT: 1360-1550
ACT: 29-32
Average Tuition (Undergraduate studies) $69,904 In-State: $42,127
Out-of-State: $76,327

Source: USC, US News, UCLA, US News

This table highlights that there are minor differences between USC and UCLA. However, they share one common trait: they are both highly selective and seek students who possess certain characteristics that help them stand out in their applications.

USC seeks worldly, curious risk-takers who want to change the world or their communities. UCLA, on the other hand, looks for applicants with strong leadership skills, creativity, drive, and a need to help others. As they are quite competitive, both schools seek students who thrive academically and engage with their communities through extracurriculars and volunteer opportunities.


USC has an enrollment of 47,000 students, giving it a smaller campus feel with a student-to-faculty ratio of 9:1. 

UCLA has an enrollment of 37,670 students, making it a larger campus with more undergraduates and a student-to-faculty ratio of 19:1.


USC has an urban campus located in downtown Los Angeles, providing a central location with easy access to internships and jobs, though it is a more expensive area to live in. 

UCLA has a suburban campus in Westwood Village, offering closer proximity to beaches and hiking trails as well as more affordable housing options nearby.


USC has an acceptance rate of 9.2% with a middle 50% SAT range of 1290-1510 and popular majors in business, communications, and engineering. 

UCLA has an acceptance rate of 9% with an average SAT range of 1360-1550 and popular majors in biology, economics, and psychology.

The decision between USC and UCLA depends on your priorities - whether you prefer smaller classes or a larger campus, an urban or suburban setting, as well as considering the academic strengths of each school, so weigh the pros and cons carefully as you decide between these two excellent LA schools.

Since USC and UCLA alumni have become award-winning researchers, actors, politicians, and artists, these competitive schools attract ambitious students worldwide.

USC vs. UCLA: Admissions Requirements

Whether students are interested in USC or UCLA, the admissions requirements for both schools are pretty straightforward. However, that doesn’t make their application process easy. With high selectivity and a holistic approach, it's important students understand the specific requirements needed to apply to both institutions.

USC Admission Requirements

Students interested in applying to USC should be well aware of the requirements needed for their application. From GPA requirements to letters of recommendation, here’s a breakdown of the admissions requirements you’ll need to get into USC.

USC campus

GPA and Completed Courses

USC favors applicants who are at the top of their class with stellar grades. Many of their freshmen intakes are in the top 10% of their class and have an average unweighted GPA of 3.79–4.0.

Students applying to USC are encouraged to take advanced courses, such as those in the IB or AP programs. Specifically, USC is looking for students who earned a grade of “C” or higher in at least three years of high school mathematics.

Submitting SAT or ACT scores is optional for applicants. If you choose to submit your scores, the admissions committee will review your highest. Keep in mind that the writing section of the SAT or ACT is not required for USC admissions.

Essay And Short Answers

Depending on their major of interest, students applying to USC must submit two or three essays, plus short answers to specific questions on the application. 

All applicants are required to answer the following prompts:

“Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests and why you want to explore them at USC specifically. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections (250 words)”

“(Optional): Starting with the beginning of high school/secondary school, if you have had a gap where you were not enrolled in school during a fall or spring term, please address this gap in your educational history. You do not need to address a summer break (250 words).”

Short Answer Prompts

Applicants are also required to respond to all of the prompts below (100 characters unless otherwise specified):

  • Describe yourself in three words (25 characters each)
  • What is your favorite snack?
  • Best movie of all time
  • Dream job
  • If your life had a theme song, what would it be?
  • Dream trip
  • What TV show will you binge-watch next?
  • Which well-known person or fictional character would be your ideal roommate?
  • Favorite Book
  • If you could teach a class on any topic, what would it be?

The essays and short answer questions are an alternative to personal interviews. In other words, the point of these responses is for the admissions committee to understand the person behind the application.

This section is not an opportunity to retell cliché anecdotes. Instead, it is a chance for you to demonstrate what sets you apart from other candidates! Your essays and short answers should adequately reflect who you are as a student and a young professional. 

Therefore, it’s important to remain genuine and clearly identify why you want to attend USC. In your responses, explain your motivations behind applying to a specific program, drawing examples from your personal life to support your choice. 

Letter of Recommendations

USC does not conduct interviews for freshman admissions, but there are other items required to complete the application, including one letter of recommendation from a school counselor or teacher and submission of fall (“mid-year”) grades. Meanwhile, applicants who are applying to the School of Cinematic Arts require two letters of recommendation.

Additional Application Items

Specific freshman programs also ask students to prepare additional items for their applications, including a resume, writing sample, or portfolio. It’s important to review a program’s admission requirements well in advance, so you have ample time to collect the required documents. 

UCLA Admission Requirements

UCLA wants students with extraordinary leadership qualities, alongside other benevolent traits like creativity, initiative, and the desire to help others and their community. The school also wants students who excel both academically and outside the classroom.

UCLA campus

GPA and Completed Courses

For freshman applications, UCLA does NOT consider SAT or ACT scores. Instead, these scores are used as an alternative evaluation method to fulfill any missing eligibility requirements or for future course placement after enrollment. Instead, applicants are highly encouraged to pursue AP-level (or equivalent) courses during their high school tenure.

Competitive applicants should also have a minimum GPA of 3.0 (for California residents) or 3.4 (for non-California residents) to be considered for acceptance. However, to remain competitive, students should exceed the minimum GPA. In recent years, the average unweighted GPA for freshmen was 3.9-4.00

Applicants should also complete 15 college preparatory (A-G) courses, with at least 11 of these courses completed before starting the final year of high school studies. Applicants must have achieved a grade of C or higher in the following courses:

Subject Course Length (Years)
History 2
English 4
Mathematics 3
Science 2
Alternative Languages 2
Visual and Performing Arts 1
College-Preparatory Elective 1

Keep in mind that the college-preparatory elective can pertain to the above subjects or an alternative elective approved by UCLA

Personal Insight Questions

Stellar grades are not the only thing UCLA is looking for in applicants. Behind the competitive GPA and course completions, the admission committee wants to know who you are as a person. To achieve this, applicants must answer four of eight personal insight questions. Each essay must be answered within 350 words. 

1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.

2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.

3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.

7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

8. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

Just as there are no right or wrong answers, there are also no “right” questions in this section. There is no advantage or disadvantage to choosing particular questions in the application. You are free to choose any questions as long as they adequately highlight who you are and what you will bring to UCLA.

While reading your responses, the admissions committee can gain insight into your strengths outside of academics, traits like creativity, leadership, and perseverance. Essentially, the personal insight responses are a window into your genuine personality and your motivations behind attending UCLA.

Letter of Recommendations

Applicants applying as freshmen are not required to submit letters of recommendation for their UCLA applications. Their academic profile and responses to the personal insight questions are the only items of interest to the UCLA admissions committee.

Additional Application Items

Certain faculties, such as those in the School of Arts and Architecture, may also require you to submit additional items, such as a supplemental application or portfolio. It’s important to ensure all documents (including supplemental items) are included in your application before submission.

USC or UCLA? Factors to Consider

As an ambitious student, it’s natural to pit USC against UCLA. After all, many students have both schools at the top of their college lists. To decide which school is best for you, consider USC and UCLA academic programs, class profiles, costs (including financial aid), and extracurricular activities. 


USC boasts over 150 majors, and students can pursue a range of double majors and unique minors. USC, for example, is well-known for the School of Cinematic Arts, a prestigious school known for birthing talented alumni like Judd Apatow or Macy Gray

The institution also has 23 libraries for students to use at their leisure, alongside a world-class faculty made up of 4,000 professionals, dozens of whom are Nobel Laureates and winners of prestigious national awards. Moreover, students can also study abroad in over 50 cities across five continents!

UCLA is equally impressive. Offering several highly-regarded schools like the UCLA School of Theater, it also houses one of the top hospitals in the country, the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Many UCLA students also pursue undergraduate biology, political science, and psychobiology majors.

Moreover, UCLA presents over 125 majors and 90 minors for their students. Undergraduate students can also enroll in seminars known as Fiat Lux (“Let There Be Light”). These pass/fail seminars allow students to discuss specific topics in small classroom settings. Many of UCLA’s faculty have also earned awards like the National Medal of Science and the Pulitzer Prize.

Class Profile 

As a private research institute, USC typically offers small class sizes of around 26 students, with a manageable student-to-faculty ratio of eight students to one faculty member.

The freshman class at USC is also diverse. USC also boasts a culturally diverse student body population, with many international students coming from China, India, Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Iran, Indonesia, and other countries!

UCLA offers lectures and seminars of varying sizes. Though some courses consist of lectures with large class sizes, two out of three classes have less than 30 students. Furthermore, UCLA takes pride in its diverse student body, with a freshman class representing a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.

Culture and Inclusivity

USC and UCLA are both prestigious institutions that strive to create welcoming and diverse environments. Both boast of having diverse campuses and programs, resources, and student organizations dedicated to supporting underrepresented groups. Both are located in Los Angeles, with a similar culture and networking opportunities. 


The truth is that post-secondary education is expensive. Though many students and their families value reputable education, they also value its financial return over an institution’s prestige.

The average tuition cost for undergraduate students at USC was approximately $69,904. This value does not include additional fees related to housing, books, dining, transportation, and personal costs. 

Students wanting to attend UCLA can expect to pay $42,127 if they are from California or $76,327 if they live outside of California. This cost includes the fees for tuition, room/meals, books and supplies, health insurance, and transportation.

Financial Aid

For USC, over 20% of students typically receive the USC Merit Scholarship, and about two-thirds receive financial assistance through grants, scholarships, and loans.

Similarly, UCLA offers financial aid, manifested in a range of programs. UCLA’s Financial Handbook outlines that about 45% of students don’t pay for their tuition due to supplementation from various bursaries, scholarships, and grants. 

UCLA appeals to different financial situations through its flexible housing and meal plans. Recently, UCLA implemented the Tuition Stability Plan. This initiative keeps tuition flat for undergraduate classes during the duration of their enrollment, for up to six years, effectively reducing unexpected costs.

Sports and Extracurriculars

USC has over 1,000 organizations to appeal to a student’s unique hobbies and interests. The college also has dedicated, student-led volunteer initiatives that serve the greater Los Angeles area. USC also has an impressive athletic history that has led them to win 134 national championships over the years. At USC, students can enjoy sports like lacrosse, baseball, and water polo. 

Similarly, UCLA offers thousands of student-run organizations that cater to various interests. UCLA boasts the second most NCAA championship titles than any other college in the US, next to Stanford. The college also offers dozens of sports for prospective athletes, including basketball, beach volleyball, soccer, rugby, track and field, tennis, and more.

Student Housing

Housing expenses are essential to consider in your budget as well. On-campus housing at UCLA falls within the following price ranges:

Type of Housing Cost
Single Occupancy $21,133.32–$22,446.60
Double Occupancy $16,926.72–$17,818.20
Triple Occupancy $13,566.00–$14,847.36
University Apartments $18,561.48

Costs vary depending on how many occupants share the space and whether you have a private bathroom or not. Typically, the more occupants in the space, the cheaper the rent!

On the other hand, freshmen at USC pay more for on-campus housing. Rent for the more common suites and double room types costs $19,541 to $21,785 a year, and single-occupancy room rates are even higher.

Choosing Between USC and UCLA: How to Decide

Answering the question of USC vs UCLA proves quite difficult as the response will vary from person to person. Before committing to USC or UCLA, focus on your own academic and professional goals.

Undoubtedly, both schools are top-tier institutions praised for their reputable schools. USC is famous for its School of Cinematic Arts and the Marshall School of Business, while UCLA is popular for its prestigious law school and the David Geffen School of Medicine. Ultimately, you should choose a program based on factors like personal interests, values, finances, and career goals.

Take our quiz to find out which UC school is best for you!


Students keen on going to USC or UCLA are bound to have many questions. To make the best decision, check out the answers to these frequently asked questions!

1. Is UCLA or USC Better?

Regarding rankings, UCLA comes in at number 15 in US News’ list of the Best National Universities. USC sits higher at number 28. However, both schools are very prestigious and excellent choices for high achievers.

2. Is It Harder to Get Into USC or UCLA?

With a 14.4% acceptance rate, UCLA is the harder school to get into. Out of 173,400 students who apply each year, only 27,199 get accepted.

3. Is USC Considered an Elite School?

Yes, USC is a private learning institution ranked 28th out of 443 national universities. It is also a member of the Association of American Universities, highlighting its excellence in academics.

4. Why Is UCLA So Popular?

UCLA is renowned for its world-class research facilities, law school, and medical program. When compared to other top-ranking national universities, UCLA also offers affordable tuition costs.

5. Does UCLA Belong to the Ivy League?

No, UCLA is not an Ivy League school. However, it is often considered to be on par with the Ivys due to its reputation for offering high-quality education. 

6. Is USC a Member of the Ivy League?

No, USC is not considered an Ivy League school. But, it is still regarded to be one of the best schools in the nation.

Final Thoughts

Choosing a college is challenging, especially when it involves choosing between USC and UCLA. The truth is both schools are top-tier institutions that sit in the heart of Los Angeles, a world-class city in the sunny state of California. 

Despite their reputation for a challenging application process, ambitious students are guaranteed a quality education, regardless of which school they choose!

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