The University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) is a place where students can take in stunning coastal views and even go for a surf between classes. Nestled between the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Santa Ynez Mountains to the north, UCSB is a beautiful place to live, study, and work.
UCSB is a large, highly ranked public university within the prestigious University of California system. In fact, it is considered a “Public Ivy” for its intense research focus and academic rigor. The engineering, computer science, physics, and psychology departments are especially renowned for their excellence. Furthermore, UCSB is one of the only universities in the country to offer an undergraduate major in aquatic biology. There are also 90+ other undergraduate majors and over 50 graduate programs.
Located 10 miles from downtown Santa Barbara, the campus is located in the suburb of Goleta. The school is adjacent to the student community of Isla Vista, where the beach meets the college town.
Historically UCSB’s acceptance rate has lingered above 30% but recently dipped below. As more applicants from around the country and the globe set their sights on “the world’s best-kept secret,” the school has become increasingly selective. The average enrolled GPA has gone from 4.02 in 2015 to 4.18 in 2019.
Relative to other UCs, it is not as selective as UCLA (12%) or Berkeley (17%). However, it is similar to the admission rates of UC Irvine (27%), San Diego (32%), and Davis (39%). All UCs have seen a jump in applicants over the past few years, a credit to the system’s growing reputation and academic excellence.
Sometimes acceptance rates may vary depending on the major you select. For example, applying to an impacted major like economics can make admissions slightly more difficult because so many students are competing for a limited number of spots. For a less popular major, like philosophy, you may face less competition from other applicants going into the same field. Nonetheless, your entire application needs to reflect your interest in the major you’ve selected (if not undecided) and allow admissions officials to envision your future contribution to student life at UCSB.
Requirements & Admission Tips
Students can apply to all nine UCs with one application, called the UC Application. There is a $70 fee to apply to each campus, but students with demonstrated financial need can obtain fee waivers for up to four schools.
Each school decides independently whether to accept you. In other words, getting into UC Irvine doesn’t influence whether you’ll get into UCSB, and vice versa. This also means that each campus values slightly different application factors. UCSB prefers well-rounded students with a solid academic record and proven involvement in their school, community, and/or athletic team. At the same time, it’s better to show your consistency and commitment to fewer activities rather than diluting your focus throughout ten different extracurriculars.
Regarding test scores, aim for an SAT score between 1280-1520 (630-730 in reading and writing, 650-790 in math). An excellent composite ACT score falls between 26-31.
The middle 25-75% of accepted students have a high school GPA of 4.04-4.28. That’s pretty competitive, but keep in mind that students with lower GPAs or test scores still have a good shot of getting in, as long as the rest of their application stands out.
This includes the Personal Insight Questions. Applicants must answer four of the eight prompts, which assess leadership and creative skills as well as personality, background, and achievements.
The most famous alumni from UCSB include award-winning actor Michael Douglas ‘68, singer-songwriter Jack Johnson ‘97, producer Steve Aoki ‘00, and TMZ founder Harvey Levin ‘72. Gwyneth Paltrow also attended briefly before pursuing her acting career.
UCSB also produces influential trailblazers in their fields. Robert Ballard ‘65 was the underwater archaeologist who discovered the Titanic shipwreck as well as the battleship Bismarck and John F. Kennedy’s Navy torpedo boat PT-109. Katy Tur ‘05 is an author, NBC news correspondent, and host of MSNBC Live. Leroy Chiao is a retired NASA astronaut who flew on three Space Shuttle flights and lived on the International Space Station after earning his M.S. in 1985 and Ph.D. in 1987.
Many influential scholars have also come from UCSB. Carol W. Greider ‘83 shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology for co-discovering how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase. Greider is now a Distinguished Professor in the department of molecular, cell, and developmental biology at UC Santa Cruz.
Nine UCSB faculty have won Nobel Prizes, five of which are still current faculty: David Gross, who won for Physics in 2004; Alan Heeger, winner of the 2000 Chemistry award; Herbert Kroemer, who won the 2000 Physics prize; Finn Kydland, winner of the Economics award in 2004; and Shuji Nakamura, winner of the 2014 prize in Physics. Nakamura is considered the inventor of blue LED, a game-changer in lighting technology.
Jeffrey C. Stewart has been a professor of Black Studies at UCSB since 2007 and won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for his comprehensive book on the life of Alain Locke. In 2015, he founded Jeffrey’s Jazz Coffeehouse, a pop-up live music series in Isla Vista.
Anthropology professor John Tooby and his wife, psychology professor Leda Cosmides, helped pioneer the field of evolutionary psychology. They also founded and co-direct UCSB’s Center for Evolutionary Psychology. They work alongside Michael Gazzaniga, leading cognitive neuroscientist in split-brain research and director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind.
Similar Schools & Ranking
Compared to fellow UCs, UCSB is most similar to Irvine, San Diego, and Davis in terms of acceptance rate, academics, student life, and overall ranking.
Outside of the UC system, a few California State Universities (CSUs) are similar to UCSB: California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, CSU Long Beach, and San Diego State University. These are all large public schools with competitive academics and a beachside vibe.
If you’re interested in UCSB but want to look at options outside of California, consider the University of Texas at Dallas, Coastal Carolina University, and Monmouth University.
Washington Monthly, which ranks national universities based on their service to the country, ranks UCSB #20.
Niche.com bases its rankings on data from the U.S. Department of Education as well as student and alumni reviews. UCSB ranks #19 among public universities, but it takes the top spot in serving Hispanic communities.
Yearly tuition for in-state students is $36,765, but after financial aid and scholarships, the cost comes down to about $16,236. All incoming freshmen are considered for the Regents Scholarship, which awards $5,000 per year for four years, based on their UC Application. The Middle Class Scholarship covers 10-40% of the remaining fees for eligible UC or CSU incoming freshmen whose households make up to $184,000 per year.
The total cost can come down even more if you have further demonstrated financial need or receive more grants and scholarships after matriculation.
Some freshmen can receive special grants and awards in their second, third, and fourth years if they demonstrate outstanding academic achievement. These typically do not require an application. Students can also apply for prestigious national scholarships.
For external, third-party scholarships, currently enrolled students can log in to ScholarshipUniverse, to filter and browse scholarship opportunities related to their background.
Is UCSB Right For You?
UCSB is perfect for students who prefer a laid-back environment where they can be challenged academically. It’s a big college that can offer in-depth technical training as well as a rigorous liberal arts education. World-class faculty, state-of-the-art facilities, abundant research opportunities, and beautiful weather year-round are just some of the compelling reasons to choose UCSB.
However, if you prefer a dynamic urban setting, look for a school in the heart of a big city; UCSB is not in Downtown Santa Barbara. Also, if you’re planning to go into business, journalism, or nursing, the closest significant offerings to these fields at UCSB are economics, communications, and biology.
Overall, UCSB is best suited for people who love nature and a slower pace of life.
That isn’t to say that student life at UCSB is dull. It’s the #2 best party school in California, famous for its annual music festival Extravaganza — which alumni Jack Johnson played in 2001 — and Halloween parties in Isla Vista. Deltopia, named for the beachside street Del Playa in IV, happens around Spring Break and draws droves of out-of-town partygoers.
Even if you’re not into the party scene, UCSB is a fun, intellectually stimulating place to live, learn, and form lifelong friendships.
At UCSB, the college experience is what you make of it. The interests represented by the school’s clubs and organizations are as diverse as the student population. Whether it’s through Greek life, the anime club, Pops Orchestra, or the poets’ club, you’re sure to find your people.