USC vs. UCLA: Which College to Choose?

Frustrated student pulling his hair deciding between USC vs UCLA
August 28, 2023


Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 01/27/23

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

Many students often pit institutions against each other, such as the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). It can be difficult for ambitious students to choose between USC vs. 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 slightly higher acceptance rate of 9.9%, despite receiving fewer first-year applications.

Location Los Angeles, California Los Angeles, California
US News Ranking #25 #20
Undergraduate Enrollment 21,000 31,600
No. of International Students 5,586 5,400
Student-to-Faculty Ratio 8:1 18:1
No. of Applicants (Freshmen) 80,790 > 169,800
Acceptance Rate 9.9% 9%
Mid-50% SAT/ACT Scores of admitted students SAT: 1410 to 1540
ACT: 32 to 35
SAT: 1290 to 1520
ACT: 27 to 34
Average Tuition (Undergraduate studies) $66,640 In-State: $14,478
Out-of-State: $47,052

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.

Since USC and UCLA alumni have become award-winning researchers, actors, politicians, and artists, these competitive schools attract ambitious students worldwide. If you're keen on applying, it’s essential to understand their unique admission requirements.

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.

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 between 3.82 and 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. 

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 application section is important, depending on how you respond, it can answer questions like:

  • How can you contribute to the USC community?
  • Do you genuinely align with the values at USC?
  • What unique qualities about yourself can you offer to the community at USC?

These are the USC supplemental essay prompts: 

1. 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). 
2. 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, optional).” 
3. Respond to all 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?

If you’re applying to Dornsife College of Arts, Letters, and Sciences, you’re also required to answer this prompt: 

“Many of us have at least one issue or passion that we care deeply about — a topic on which we would love to share our opinions and insights in hopes of sparking intense interest and continued conversation. If you had ten minutes and the attention of a million people, what would your talk be about? (250 words)”

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, which includes 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.

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. The average unweighted GPA range for freshmen is 3.95-4.00.

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

Source: UCLA

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 out of the eight personal insight questions. Each response must be answered within 350 words. 

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. These are the personal insight questions

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?

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 4,600 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 8:1. This is an impressive feat, considering in one year, 3,420 freshmen enrolled at USC.

The freshman class at USC is also diverse; approximately 23% of its students identified as first-generation students. 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. UCLA is also proud of its class diversity, with 63 countries represented in its most recent freshman class. Additionally, 27% of the freshmen population identified as first-generation students.


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 $66,640. 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 $38,517 if they are from California or $71,091 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 22% of the fall’s first-year class received a USC Merit Scholarship, and about two-thirds received financial assistance from the school through grants, scholarships, and loans.

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.

Choosing Between USC and UCLA: How to Decide

The million-dollar question remains for many prospective students: is it better to go USC vs. UCLA? It’s not an easy question to answer, 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.


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, USC comes in at number 25 in US News’ list of the Best National Universities. UCLA sits a bit higher at number 20. However, it’s important to note that both schools are prestigious and excellent choices for stellar students and high achievers.

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

Both schools are highly selective, though UCLA has a slightly lower acceptance rate. However, this doesn’t mean that USC is easier to get into! Both universities are vocal about what they look for in their prospective students: high-achieving students who are passionate, unafraid of taking risks, leaders, and eager to make the world (or their community) a better place.

3. Is USC Considered an Elite School?

USC is a private learning institution ranked 25 out of 443 national universities. It is also a member of the Association of American Universities, which highlights its excellence in academics and innovative research.

4. Why Is UCLA So Popular?

Though nestled in the heart of the city of angels, UCLA is not only famous for its proximity to LA’s famous attractions. Instead, it 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.

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!

Subscribe to Our Newsletter
Thanks ! You're now subscribed!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Get A Free Consultation

Speak to a college admissions expert about how we can help you get into your dream school
Schedule a Call

You May Also Like

Before you go, here are a few facts about us!
The Quad Factor: Working with us can increase your chances of admission by 7x!

The Best of the Best: Our team comprises of only 99th percentile tutors and admissions counselors from top-ranking universities, meaning you work with only the most experienced, talented experts.

The Free Consultation: Our experts would love to get to know you, your background, goals, and needs. From there, they match you with a best-fit consultant who will create a detailed project plan and application strategy focused on your success.