USC vs. UCLA: Which College Is the Right One for You?
Students interested in attending college in Los Angeles often prioritize two schools: the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). While they are both located in the same geographic area, they differ in a few significant ways that may impact which school you choose. If you’re considering both schools, it’s helpful to take a deeper dive into their similarities and differences.
USC is a private research university that is particularly renowned for its academic programs in technology, business, and arts. UCLA is a public research university with high-ranking programs in engineering, business, medicine, and law. Both schools are known for their athletics and share an intense rivalry. Read on to learn how these schools compare so you can decide which institution is right for you.
What Are the Most Significant Differences Between USC and UCLA?
The most significant difference between the two institutions is that USC is private and UCLA is public. There are pros and cons for both private and public universities, and it’s up to each student to decide which type is right for them. Let’s look at some of the important factors that differentiate USC and UCLA.
- Tuition cost: The cost to attend USC is significantly higher than UCLA, even if you are admitted to UCLA as an out-of-state student at a higher tuition rate. Keep in mind, however, that students rarely pay the sticker price for tuition — the final cost of attendance largely depends on how much need- and merit-based financial aid the student receives.
- Type of application: USC uses the Common Application. Like all the other schools in the University of California system, UCLA also uses the UC Application. As you might expect, there are some differences in what you are required to submit for each application.
- Residency Status: As part of the state-funded University of California system, UCLA prioritizes in-state students when making admissions decisions. The university does accept out-of-state and international students, but in much smaller numbers. As a private institution, USC is not required to give preference to California residents. USC’s Class of 2026 profile shows that more students were admitted from outside of California than in-state.
- Student body: USC has a much smaller student body than UCLA. Total undergraduate enrollment at USC is approximately 21,000 — it’s worth noting that the number of grad students is more than 27,000. UCLA, on the other hand, has 32,000 undergraduates, a number that far exceeds the graduate student population. The student-to-faculty ratio at USC is 8:1, whereas UCLA’s is 18:1. USC’s class sizes are much smaller, too, with an average of 26 students compared to UCLA’s lecture halls with hundreds of students.
- Student housing: Undergraduate students at UCLA are allowed to live in campus housing all four years, provided incoming first-year students submit their housing applications by the deadline. USC prioritizes student housing for first-year students. The cost of living in Los Angeles is high, which can be a challenge for students living off-campus.
- Campus size: USC’s University Park campus is 229 acres. UCLA is a much larger campus at 419 acres.
- Academic calendar: USC operates on a semester schedule, while UCLA uses a quarter-based schedule.
USC vs. UCLA: Which College Is Better?
Each student should decide which school is better in terms of meeting their academic interests and personal needs. Both schools match up in many ways. They are both highly ranked — USC is 25th and UCLA is 20th in the U.S. News & World Report national rankings, respectively.
Both schools have renowned academic programs, but they each shine in different disciplines. USC offers more than 150 undergraduate majors and minors across 17 schools and is particularly known for its film and television production program within the School of Cinematic Arts. Other strong programs include game design and interactive media, business administration, communication and journalism, engineering, biomedical sciences, and architecture.
UCLA is one of the top public research universities in the U.S., offering more than 125 undergraduate majors and 90 minors through the College and seven professional schools. Most UCLA undergrads enroll in programs at the College. However, several professional schools and programs are highly ranked nationally including the School of Education and Information Studies; the undergraduate nursing program at the School of Nursing; the Luskin School of Public Affairs; and the School of Theater, Film and Television.
Both schools are highly competitive and attract high-achieving students from across the U.S. and the world. It helps to understand how to get into USC and UCLA , so you can see how you compare holistically to the students they admit. Like many U.S. institutions, USC has extended their test-optional policy for the Class of 2024. UCLA, on the other hand, is permanently test-blind, along with all the other schools in the UC system.
At USC, 73% of students from the Class of 2026 graduated in the top 10% of their high school class, whether they benefited from private school admissions or attended a public school. The middle 50% score range for the Class of 2026 was 1460-1540 for the SAT and 32-35 for the ACT. Admitted students also pursued the most rigorous courses available in English, social studies, science, the arts, and foreign language. Applicants are required to have three years of high school mathematics, including advanced algebra. USC also considers personal qualities — typically revealed in a student’s extracurriculars and achievements — and strives to admit a diverse class of students with a “vast array of perspectives and passions.”
UCLA has long held the distinction of being the most applied-to university in the U.S. Students applying to UCLA must demonstrate high academic achievement in increasingly rigorous courses that include two years of history, four years of English, three years of math, two years of science, two years of foreign language, one year of visual and performing arts, and a college-preparatory elective. The admissions committee also evaluates personal qualities and other factors that are revealed in the application and supplementary materials. The average high school GPA for the UCLA Class of 2026 was 3.93.
Sarika, IvyWise Medical School Admissions Counselor, is a former Director of Admissions at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. She advises UCLA applicants to “highlight who they are, not only what they’ve done. What is it about them? What motivates them? What are they passionate about?” Read more about Sarika.
USC vs. UCLA Acceptance Rates
Both schools have extremely low acceptance rates, but don’t let this deter you. USC and UCLA are both invested in admitting a diverse class of accomplished, intellectually curious individuals who bring their unique strengths and experiences to campus. The acceptance rate at USC for the Class of 2027 was 9.9% — 5.9% were admitted Early Action and 13% Regular Decision. This is a lower acceptance rate than the typical 13% in recent years.
The overall UCLA acceptance rate was 8.8% for the Class of 2027 and 8.56% for the Class of 2026. Compare these numbers to the Class of 2025, when the acceptance rate was just under 11%. But applications can get even more competitive depending on residency, especially considering the more than 145,000 applications in fall 2023, alone. The majority of students admitted to UCLA are California residents — 8,586 first-year students out of the 12,779 admitted for fall 2023 are California residents. The in-state acceptance rate for the Class of 2027 was 9.46%, whereas it was only 8.62% for out-of-state applicants and 6.09% for international applicants.
Student Experience and Campus Life
Both schools offer a vibrant Greek life, especially USC, as well as a variety of clubs and organizations that enrich the campus experience. There are endless opportunities to meet other students and get involved in the campus and wider community.
Students who thrive at USC are “bold, driven, curious and creative,” according to the Office of Undergraduate Admission, “they strive to make an impact, both in and out of the classroom.” Perhaps this is why USC has over 1,000 student organizations that bring conferences, concerts, spirit rallies, lectures, and cultural and social events to campus. The student-run Volunteer Center serves USC, Los Angeles, and the global community through service projects.
Because UCLA uses a quarter-based calendar, students who thrive there tend to be self-motivated, self-directed, and do well in a fast-paced environment. They are serious about academics, but they like to have fun and get involved — in fact, 74% of students participate in UCLA’s 1,300+ student clubs and organizations.
USC’s University Park campus is part of the Arts and Education Corridor just three miles from Downtown Los Angeles. Students at this campus enjoy a variety of parks and green spaces as well as a mix of architectural styles. The Health Sciences campus is located northeast of downtown. USC also has satellite locations and programs all over Southern California, as well as in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
UCLA is situated at the base of the Santa Monica mountains on the northwest side of Los Angeles. It is considered one of the most beautiful college campuses in the U.S., with a mix of modern and traditional architecture and a “college in a garden” landscape. Surrounding neighborhoods include Westwood, Santa Monica, Culver City, Venice, Silverlake, West L.A., and Brentwood.
As previously mentioned, the cost of attendance at USC is much higher than UCLA. The estimated cost for the 2023-24 school year at USC is $90,921, while UCLA is $34,667 for California residents and $63,669 for non-residents. At both USC and UCLA, in-state students with a household income of less than $80,000 pay no tuition.
USC fully meets the determined financial need for each domestic undergraduate who satisfies the eligibility requirements and meets all the deadlines. Nearly two-thirds of the undergraduate student body receive aid in the form of grants, work-study programs, merit scholarships, loans, and more.
UCLA does not meet 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need; however, 63% of undergrads receive need- and/or merit-based financial aid. Even better, 68% of UCLA undergraduates have no college loan debt upon graduation.
USC offers separate undergraduate housing for first-year students. Known as residential colleges, they are designed to be communities where students can form strong bonds, interact with faculty in residence, and attend events. Each residential college offers a different culture and ambience, and features at least one faculty member in residence. Students from each residential college compete in a series of competitions each year known as the Residential College Cup.
UCLA’s residential community, known as “the Hill,” is a short distance from the main campus and contains a variety of undergraduate student housing as well as award-winning dining halls and numerous amenities. Students have access to 16 sports facilities, six swimming pools, study and meeting spaces, cafes, a student union, a health and wellness center, and numerous activities. UCLA offers Living Learning Communities that allow students to live amongst students with similar identities and cultures. Learning centers and a faculty-in-residence program present opportunities for students to receive mentoring, peer advising, and writing assistance.
Students at both USC and UCLA have a lot of school spirit when it comes to sports, especially when it comes to each school’s football team. Both universities are NCAA Division 1 — the highest level of collegiate athletics — and will join the Big Ten Conference in 2024.
The men’s teams at USC are typically called the Trojans, while the women’s teams are called either the Trojans or Women of Troy. USC has nine varsity men’s programs and 12 for women, including their highly successful water polo teams, the men’s basketball team, and men’s baseball. Football is the most popular sport and an integral part of the school’s culture, including the archrivalry with UCLA.
The UCLA Bruins athletics program offers 11 varsity men’s programs and 14 for women. Overall, the Bruins have won 121 NCAA team championships in softball, men’s basketball, men’s water polo, and women’s gymnastics, among others. In fact, UCLA has one of the top collegiate athletics programs in the country. Football and basketball are the two most popular sports, and the men’s basketball team in particular has had a long history of success.
Culture and Diversity
Both schools value culture and diversity and make an effort to admit talented students from different backgrounds. One notable difference is that UCLA admits more California residents and USC admits more international students.
USC has worked over the past 20 years to increase diversity on campus. In fact, diversity, equity, and inclusion is one of USC’s six unifying values that support the university’s mission, guide their behavior, and create the Trojan culture. Information about student demographics at USC is published every year by the Office of Institutional Research and looks at diversity from three perspectives: race and ethnicity, familial circumstances (e.g., first-generation college student), and economic status. Also, USC undergrads must complete a global perspectives requirement as part of the general education curriculum — several of these classes focus on ethnicity, equity, and diversity.
Since UCLA is a much larger school, the student population is significantly higher than at USC — and admitting a diverse student body is a point of pride. One of UCLA’s greatest values is their “ability to positively impact society by bringing together diverse minds from around the world and celebrating different points of view.” The data on student diversity at UCLA provides a snapshot of the campus demographics and is broken down by ethnicity, residency, and gender, among other categories. Additionally, students at UCLA must complete a diversity course requirement as part of the curriculum.
USC vs. UCLA: How Do I Decide Which Is Right for Me?
What Is USC Best Known For?
USC is known for so many things besides the excellence of its academic, research, and athletic programs and sunny Los Angeles locale. Due largely to the School of Cinematic Arts, USC has more Emmy and Oscar winners among its alumni than any other school. Students also enjoy a vibrant campus life, a strong sense of school spirit, and unique traditions — including Traveler, the iconic white horse ridden by a Trojan that appears at all home football games. USC is also ranked first in the U.S. in terms of the number of student-athletes who have won Olympic medals.
What Is UCLA Best Known For?
As previously mentioned, UCLA receives more applications for admission than any other school in the U.S. Not only does UCLA attract students for its top-notch academic programs — it is considered a Public Ivy — the athletics program, location, campus life, research opportunities, and community impact are also big draws. UCLA also boasts a number of Oscar and Emmy winners among its alumni and is third in the nation in the number of student-athletes who are Olympic medalists.
Is USC as Good as the Ivy League Schools?
While the University of Southern California is not an Ivy League school, it is an excellent option for high-achieving students who may find USC a better fit. The quality of USC’s academic programs, cutting-edge research opportunities, and resources are comparable to Ivy League schools. USC also has a prestigious reputation that attracts students from around the world. Of course, USC’s differences — most notably, a larger student population, a warmer climate, and a legacy of athletic excellence — help it stand out from the Ivy Leagues.
Why Would Someone Choose USC Over UCLA?
Both universities are comparable in many ways, so their differences are often the deciding factor in choosing USC over UCLA. Because USC is smaller and has a better student-to-faculty ratio, students receive more individualized attention from their professors. Even though class sizes are smaller, students can get into the classes they want more easily. Financial aid is another factor — USC may be more accessible to many students due to their policy to meet 100% of demonstrated financial need. Additionally, students who love college athletics will find sports more integrated into the school spirit and culture at USC compared to UCLA. Of course, one of the best ways to know which school is the better choice for you is by visiting each campus!
Now that you know the major similarities and differences between USC and UCLA, you can determine which school is the right one for you. If you want to increase your chances of admission to USC or UCLA, schedule an Initial Consultation. Our experienced College Admissions Counselors can work with you on all aspects of your college application to ensure you submit a cohesive and compelling profile that stands out to admissions committees.