USC vs. UCLA: The Definitive Guide

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If you’d love to go to college in sunny and star-studded Los Angeles, California, you might find yourself torn between two famous rivals: the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Both have solid college rankings (#20 for UCLA and #24 for USC), both are known for sunshine and school spirit, and they both boast a boatload of athletic achievements and notable alumni. So, how do you know which L.A.-based school is right for you? What’s the difference?

Keep reading to see how the two schools differ on everything from cost to academics to campus life and beyond.

LOCATION

Where is USC located?

Both USC and UCLA are located in Los Angeles, the United State’s second-largest city. The city is home to more than four million people and is considered the entertainment capital of the world. It’s also known for its excellent weather and 300-plus days of sunshine annually.

More specifically, USC’s University Park campus is centered in the heart of L.A. The Health Sciences campus can be found northeast of downtown Los Angeles. Both campuses are in close proximity to clubs, bars, hip restaurants, and some of the world’s best shopping.

Where is UCLA located?

Although UCLA is also in Los Angeles, it’s situated in a neighborhood called Westwood in the western part of L.A. It’s close to more well-known neighborhoods like Bel Air and Beverly Hills. UCLA students, too, have easy access to a wealth of popular restaurants, shopping, and entertainment. They’re also just a five-minute drive from the Pacific Ocean!

COST
How much does USC cost?

USC is a private school, making it pricier than its public counterpart, UCLA. Tuition for one year (two semesters) at USC costs $59,260. Unlike state schools, USC does not offer a discounted rate to in-state students. Both California residents and non-California residents pay the same amount for tuition.

How much does UCLA cost?

At UCLA, which is public, in-state students pay about $13,240 in tuition annually, while out-of-state students pay $42,994. Whether you live in California or outside the state, UCLA is the less expensive option. In fact, it was ranked by Forbes as one of the nation’s top five Best Value universities.

USC vs. UCLA: How does financial aid differ?

Both USC and UCLA have need-blind admissions. They do not consider an applicant’s ability to pay when evaluating college applications, and they work with families to fully meet the demonstrated financial need of admitted students.

Financial aid packages from both schools include need-based and non-need-based funding sources, such as grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and loans. The money comes from federal, state, and university sources.

According to USC’s website, 75% of aid awarded by the school is in the form of “gift aid,” or money that does not need to be repaid. Two-thirds of incoming freshmen in Fall 2020 received some form of aid, and 21% received a merit-based scholarship from the school.

UCLA’s website states that 45% of its undergraduate students receive grants and scholarships, and 55% of undergraduates receive some form of financial aid. The average gift award is $18,808.

SIZE

How large is USC?

USC’s total student population is 46,000. This includes 19,500 undergraduates and 26,500 graduate and professional students.

How large is UCLA?

UCLA’s total student population is 45,742. This includes 31,543 undergraduates and 14,199 graduate and professional students.

When it comes to total student population, UCLA and USC are extremely close in size. The difference is that UCLA has a significantly larger undergraduate population, while USC enrolls more graduate and professional students.

ACADEMICS

How many majors does USC offer?

USC offers a total of 126 distinct undergraduate degrees. Its most popular majors are Business/Management/Marketing, Communications/Journalism, Engineering, Social Sciences, and Visual and Performing Arts.

Academically, the school is most highly ranked for its graduate programs in Public Affairs, Physical Therapy, Engineering, Education, Business, Law, Health Care Management, Computer Science, and Nursing. Its Occupational Therapy program is ranked #1 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. USC is also extremely well-known for its film program, with graduates including George Lucas and Will Ferrell.

How many majors does UCLA offer?

UCLA offers more than 125 majors. The most popular choices are Biology, Business Economics, Political Science, Psychology, Psychobiology, and Economics.

Graduate programs ranked in the Top 20 by U.S News include Psychology, Business, Education, Engineering, Law, Medicine, Nursing, Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Computer Sciences, Earth Sciences, Economics, English, History, Mathematics, Physics, Political Science, Public Affairs, Public Health, and Sociology. It’s ranked #1 in the nation in Clinical Psychology and Fine Arts.

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What is the student-to-faculty ratio for USC?

The student-faculty ratio at USC is 8:1, and 61.1% of the university’s classes contain fewer than 20 students.

What is the student-to-faculty ratio for UCLA?

UCLA’s student-faculty ratio is 18:1, and 50% of the university’s classes contain fewer than 20 students.

If smaller class sizes and personal relationships with your professors are important to you, you may feel more comfortable at USC. Keeping in mind that USC is private and UCLA is public, however, this difference isn’t surprising.

How do academics differ between USC and UCLA?

USC is divided into 23 schools (including undergraduate, graduate, and professional). General Education requirements include eight courses total in the Arts, Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Humanistic Inquiry, Quantitative Reasoning, and Social Analysis.

Meanwhile, UCLA has seven main academic divisions:

  • School of the Arts and Architecture
  • Samueli School of Engineering
  • College of Letters and Science
  • School of Nursing
  • Herb Alpert School of Music
  • Luskin School of Public Affairs
  • School of Theater, Film, and Television

General education requirements differ by college, but all students take 8-10 general education courses. Everyone is required to declare a major by junior year, but some colleges or departments have earlier deadlines.

Overall, both schools are considered academically excellent. USC has slightly more of a “party school” reputation than UCLA, possibly due to the large presence of Greek life. Based on rankings, UCLA gets the slight edge academically. However, USC offers smaller class sizes, which generally means more personalized attention and assistance from professors.

CAMPUS LIFE

What type of campus is USC?

Undergraduates at USC spend most of their time on the University Park campus, a 226-acre campus just minutes away from downtown Los Angeles. It’s an urban campus and largely self-contained, with more centralized campus buildings.

What type of campus is UCLA?

UCLA has a 419-acre campus in the neighborhood of Westwood. On this larger campus, buildings are a bit more sprawling and less contained. Like USC, however, UCLA is of course an urban campus. It borders a major shopping district and notorious neighborhoods like Beverly Hills.

What is the UC system?

You may wonder why UCLA is called “University of California, Los Angeles.” It’s one of 10 schools in the University of California system. Other UC schools include Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Merced, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz. Each school has its own separate campus and distinct academics and culture.

In total, the UC system is responsible for graduating more than 2 million students, 37% of them from low-income families. The universities have also brought thousands of jobs, billions in revenue, and numerous innovations to California and the world.

USC vs. UCLA: Diversity in the student body

USC’s most recent freshman class was both the largest and the most diverse so far in the university’s history. Of the 3,460 freshmen, 22.5% are the first in their family to attend college. Students are 31% white, 27% Asian, 17% Latino, and 6% Black. The university enrolls a large population of international students, comprising 12% of the student population.

About 79% of UCLA students come from California, so it’s not a very diverse school geographically. However, undergraduates represent a total of 47 states and 84 countries. Among the most recent freshman class, students are 26% white, 30% Asian, 20% Hispanic, and 4% Black. 9% are international students.

Both UCLA and USC are committed to diversity and have made strides to become increasingly inclusive in recent years. The student population at both schools is relatively diverse, and many students are first-generation, low-income, and/or international. A large percentage of students at both schools hail from California, but California is one of the nation’s most diverse states.

How does the social life differ at USC vs. UCLA?

Both USC and UCLA offer a wide variety of campus activities, extracurriculars, and events. Over 1000 student organizations are active on both campuses. Additionally, both are located in close proximity to plenty of nightlife, shopping, and dining. They are both known for having strong athletic teams (especially USC) and spirited students.

One difference is that USC has a more active Greek life. While about 13% of UCLA undergraduates join a sorority or fraternity, closer to 25% of USC students participate in Greek life. As a result, USC is generally known for having more of a “party school” atmosphere than UCLA.

Still, the difference in social life between the two schools is not significant. No matter what you like to do for fun, you’re likely to find it at USC and UCLA. You’ll probably discover some new hobbies and interests too!

How does the dorm life differ at USC vs. UCLA?

At USC, freshmen students are required to live on campus. Fortunately, there are plenty of options, including freshman residence halls, suites, and apartments.

There are also special interest communities, such as the Asian, Pacific Islander, Desi American Leadership Community; Latinx Sol y La Luna Floors; Women in Science and Engineering Floor; Rainbow LGBTQ+ Community; and Somerville Place, which aims to foster an understanding and respect for Black culture while building a sense of family and community.

After freshman year, students may choose to live in undergraduate apartments on campus or move off-campus. About 70% opt for off-campus housing after freshman year.

UCLA offers guaranteed housing on campus for the first three years. Freshmen are not required to live on campus, but almost all of them choose to do so anyway. About half of all undergraduates continue to live on campus after freshman year. The school offers various setups: classics, deluxes, plazas, and suites. Students can live in triples, doubles, or singles.

Like USC, UCLA offers special interest housing floors calling living and learning communities. Special interest housing at UCLA includes Creative Collective, Sustainability, Global Health, First to Go (for first-generation college students), Afrikan Diaspora, and Gender, Sexuality, and Society.

In comparison to other schools, USC and UCLA both have good dorms and offer a wide range of options, including special interest housing. The biggest difference is that USC freshmen are required to live on campus, while UCLA freshmen are not. Most USC students go off campus after freshman year, while about half of UCLA students remain on campus, where housing is guaranteed through junior year.

How do sports differ at USC vs. UCLA?

Sports are a huge part of campus life at both USC and UCLA. The two rival schools compete in the Division 1 Pac-12 Conference. Students are extremely spirited and love cheering on the Bruins (UCLA) and the Trojans (USC).

If you’re wondering which school is more dominant athletically, it’s USC. The football team has won 11 national championships, produced seven Heisman Trophy winners, and counts 288 alumni as Olympic medal winners. That’s more than any other college!

Still, UCLA is no slouch when it comes to athletics. Like the USC football team, the UCLA men’s basketball team has 11 national championships, which is the most among all colleges. Both the men’s and women’s water polo teams are also dominant, with 11 and seven national championships, respectively.

So, if a school with strong athletic programs and school spirit appeals to you, both USC and UCLA fit the bill.

ADMISSION AND ACCEPTANCE RATES

What is the acceptance rate for USC?

The 2020 acceptance rate for USC was 16%, but that’s the highest it’s been since 2017. It was 11% the previous academic year.

What is the acceptance rate for UCLA?

The 2020 acceptance rate for UCLA was 14%.

For the most recent freshman class, UCLA was more selective than USC. In general, USC tends to be slightly more selective. When it comes to prestige and selectivity, the two schools are on nearly equal footing overall.

You should also keep in mind that since UCLA is a state school, it’s slightly more competitive for out-of-state students. If you live outside of California, you may get into USC more easily than UCLA. Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply to UCLA. Out-of-state students get in too.

What application does USC use?

USC uses the Common Application, or Common App. The Common App is the most widely used application platform, and it’s accepted by 900 colleges and universities, including all of the Ivy League universities.

What application does UCLA use?

As part of the UC system, UCLA uses the UC application. The UC application can be used to apply to multiple schools in the UC system simultaneously. However, you will need to pay a $70 application fee for each UC school you choose to apply to.

What SAT score do I need for USC?

The average SAT score for students admitted to USC is a 1440.

What SAT score do I need for UCLA?

The average SAT score for students admitted to UCLA is a 1405.

What GPA do I need for USC?

The average GPA for students admitted to USC is 3.79.

What GPA do I need for UCLA?

The average GPA for students admitted to UCLA is 3.9.

What are the college essay requirements for USC?

USC uses the Common App, and they also ask supplemental essay questions. These questions consist of two essays of up to 250 words and two short-answer lists.

First, applicants choose to answer ONE of the following three questions in 250 words or fewer:

  • USC believes that one learns best when interacting with people of different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. Tell us about a time you were exposed to a new idea or when your beliefs were challenged by another point of view.
  • USC faculty place an emphasis on interdisciplinary academic opportunities. Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning.
  • What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?

Next, all applicants respond to the following question in 250 words or fewer:

  • Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests at USC. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections.

In 25 characters or fewer, you’re then asked to describe yourself in three words.

And finally, you answer the following questions in 100 characters or fewer:

  • 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?

What are the college essay requirements for UCLA?

On the UC application, applicants are provided with eight personal insight questions. You’re asked to answer FOUR of the eight in 350 words are fewer.

The questions are:

  • Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.
  • 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.
  • What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
  • Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
  • 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?
  • Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
  • What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
  • Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

For advice on how to respond to UC’s personal insight questions, check out our guide on How to Write Every UC Essay.

GRADUATION AND FRESHMAN RETENTION RATES

What is the graduation rate for USC?

The four-year graduation rate at USC is 77%. The six-year graduation rate at USC is 92%. Graduation rates are considered an indicator of the outcomes you can expect from attending a university.

What is the graduation rate for UCLA?

The four-year graduation rate at UCLA is 79%. The six year graduation rate is 91%.

What is the freshman retention rate for USC?

USC’s freshman retention rate is 96%. Freshman retention rates are considered an indicator of student satisfaction.

What is the freshman retention rate for UCLA?

UCLA’s freshman retention rate is 97%.

When it comes to graduation and retention rates, USC and UCLA are once again extremely similar. While four-year graduation rates are slightly higher at UCLA, six-year graduation rates are slightly higher at USC. The freshman retention rate is higher at UCLA by one percentage point. These differences are not significant.

BEST FIT

What kinds of students thrive at USC?

Students interested in interdisciplinary, student-centered learning thrive at USC. It’s also a great choice if you want the classic Greek experience and dominant sports team to cheer for on the weekends.

Out-of-state students may have a better chance of getting into USC, since it’s not a state school and offers no discount to California residents.

What kinds of students thrive at UCLA?

UCLA students are generally considered hard-working and passionate about their community and the world around them. Like UCLA, USC exemplifies diversity and inclusion, so students who are open-minded and interested in learning about other perspectives and experiences thrive.

If you’re in California and looking for the more affordable option, UCLA is for you. It’s also known for having a beautiful and safe campus.

For both schools, students who can thrive in a busy, buzzing college atmosphere are more likely to succeed. If you’re looking for a small, close-knit community, you may find that USC and UCLA are larger than you’d prefer.

Final Thoughts: USC vs. UCLA

Ultimately, USC and UCLA are similar schools offering similar benefits. They’re both in Los Angeles, excel academically and athletically, and offer a diverse and highly engaging campus life. They are similarly selective, with almost identical graduation and freshman retention rates.

If you’re faced with deciding between the two, some key differences include:

  • USC is private, while UCLA is public. UCLA is significantly more affordable for in-state students than USC.
  • USC is located in the heart of Los Angeles, while UCLA is closer to wealthy L.A. neighborhoods. Some students feel that UCLA’s campus is safer, but USC does have a 24-hour security patrol.
  • While both schools have a total student population around 46,000, USC enrolls 19,500 undergraduates in comparison to an undergraduate enrollment of 31,543 at UCLA.
  • The student-faculty ratio at USC is 8:1, in comparison to a student-faculty ratio of 18:1 at UCLA.
  • Freshman students are required to live on campus at USC, but not at UCLA. UCLA offers guaranteed campus housing for the first three years.
  • USC has a more active Greek life than UCLA, with about a quarter of students involved in sororities or fraternities.
  • USC uses the Common App, while UCLA uses the UC app.

As always, we highly recommend that you visit the two schools. Since they have so many similarities on paper, the best way to decide is to visit in person and see where you feel most at home. Where can you picture yourself thriving academically, socially, and professionally? Which campus makes you feel most comfortable and excited to be there?

Between the academics, athletics, and sunny days, both of these L.A.-based rivals have a lot to offer. Whether you choose USC or UCLA, you can’t go wrong!

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