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The Battle of California’s Top Colleges: Stanford vs UCLA vs USC

22 APR 2022

Investing in your education is an investment in your future. When choosing a university, it is important to look at its reputation, resources, and how you can contribute as a learner and leader. This blog will do a deep dive into California’s best colleges: Stanford, UCLA, and USC to find out which college is best for you!


The United States is among the top destinations for students seeking a quality education. While the US is home to the Ivy League, an elite group of eight of the most prestigious universities in the world, numerous world-class universities are on par with the Ivy League in terms of academics and resources.

With different locations, sizes, academic focuses, and research opportunities to consider, you may find your best-fit university is one you hadn’t previously considered.

USC, UCLA, and Stanford are among the most prestigious universities outside the Ivy League. These top universities have challenging classes, distinguished professors, competitive acceptance rates, and distinguished alumni networks like their Ivy League counterparts.

Each university has its own unique academic and extracurricular programs, and some students may prefer one over the other.

  • What makes each university unique, and how do you decide which university is right for you?
  • What is Stanford known for, and is UCLA better?
  • Is USC better for international students than UCLA?

Let’s compare these Stanford, UCLA, and USC and see which one might be perfect for you!

Stanford vs UCLA vs USC Overview

StanfordUCLAUSC
LocationPalo Alto, CALos Angeles, CALos Angeles, CA
QS World University Ranking 2022340112
Class of 2025 Acceptance Rate ~3.95%11%12.5%
Average GPA3.7-4.03.9-4.03.83-4.00
Average SAT/ACT ScoresSAT: 1460-1580 ACT: 32-35SAT: 1370 - 1540 ACT: 30 - 35SAT: 1350 - 1530 ACT: 30 - 34
Tuition 2022/23$57,693$31,026$63,468
Median Starting Salary for Graduates$93,000 $49,600$60,000

Stanford University

Stanford is the 2nd best non Ivy League school in the world

Stanford University is one of the largest college campuses in the United States, sitting on a sprawling 8,180 acres in Palo Alto, California. The private, 4-year liberal arts university is nestled in the heart of Silicon Valley. It has a reputation for producing entrepreneurial students who invent, develop and champion globally significant initiatives.

Stanford is home to 18 interdisciplinary research institutes and seven schools on its single campus. It was founded in 1885 by California senator Leland Stanford and his wife, Jane, who sought advice from the presidents of Harvard, Cornell, and MIT on their vision to open a university to “promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization.”

Did you know? Stanford is the alma mater of 30 living billionaires and 17 current astronauts!

University of California, Los Angeles

UC schools break admissions records

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is a ​​large, 4-year public university and part of the UC system. This prestigious university is located in a vibrant city, offering a primarily residential campus. The university provides opportunities for inquiry, discovery, and education and yet is a close community that offers a sense of belonging.

UCLA is home to world-renowned faculty who teach in 230 undergraduate and graduate majors, with more than two dozen academic programs ranked among the top 20 in their disciplines. Founded in 1919 as the “Southern Branch”, UCLA initially served the purpose to train teachers through a two-year undergraduate program.

Did you know? UCLA hosts more than 1,000 visual and performing arts events annually and attracts more than 500,000 visitors!

University of Southern California

USC has the largest international student body on the west coast

The University of Southern California (USC) is one of the world’s leading private research universities located in Los Angeles, California. USC was founded in 1880 with the goal of creating a place in which liberal arts, science, and engineering could thrive together.

It is home to a large student body, incredible research advancements, and a large football stadium and culture and is ranked one of the best public universities in the US. It boasts a competitive admissions process with an acceptance rate of just 11%, meaning only about 1 in 9 students gets accepted.

Did you know? USC is the only university to have produced a gold medalist in every Summer Olympiad since 1912.

Location

The three universities are located on the west coast, with Stanford in Northern California, and USC and UCLA in Southern California. Which university has a better location? Is Stanford better than USC or UCLA? It all depends on your personal preference. Check out the differences between Stanford, UCLA, and USC below!

StanfordUCLA & USC
SettingSuburbanUrban
CityPalo Alto, nicknamed the "Birthplace of Silicon Valley," is a global leader in cutting-edge technological development — perfect for students looking to immerse themselves in the tech world. Palo Alto is also a great place for outdoor enthusiasts, with hiking, outdoor movies, and many other fun activities.UCLA and USC are located in Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the country and the world's entertainment capital. This multicultural city offers a vibrant urban environment that is ideal for students to live and study in, and many beaches and hiking trails are nearby for students to enjoy.
WeatherSummers at Stanford are long, warm, and comfortable while the winters are short, rainy, and partly cloudy. The temperature varies from 6°C to 25°C throughout the year and rarely drops below 3°C or rises above 30°C.Most days in the city are sunny, and compared to Palo Alto, it has slightly less rain and more sunshine, with an average high of 21°C and an average low of 13°C.

A Day in the Life: Stanford Student

Size & Student Body

StanfordUCLAUSC
Student-Faculty ratio5:118:19:1
Total student population16,93746,00049,500
Undergraduate size7,64531,63621,000
Percentage of international students in the Class of 202512%10%23.8%

Academics

Here are some of the most popular academic subjects at Stanford, UCLA, and USC.

Most popular majors at Stanford

  1. Engineering
  2. Computer Science
  3. Human Biology
  4. Economics
  5. Mathematics and Statistics

Most popular majors at UCLA

  1. Life Sciences
  2. Economics
  3. Psychology
  4. Engineering
  5. Mathematics

Most popular majors at USC

  1. Business Management
  2. Social Sciences
  3. Visual and Performing Arts
  4. Communications and Journalism
  5. Engineering

A Day in the Life: UCLA Student

Tuition

While many elite universities in the United States charge high tuition rates, they also offer generous financial aid packages. Additional costs include fees, accommodation, travel, and personal expenses. The annual cost to attend these top universities is $51,252 - $85,648.

Tuition & Living Expenses 2022/23
StanfordUCLAUSC
Tuition$57,693California residents: $13,804 Out-of-state and international students: $31,026$63,468
Room (Housing) and Board (Meal Plan)$18,619$17,231$17,436
Total estimated cost of attendance$82,162$51,252 -$68,474$85,648

Financial Aid & Scholarships Overview

It's no secret that the sticker price of attending a top university can be quite high. No matter your reasons for pursuing an education, the cost of tuition shouldn't stop you from achieving your goals.

The figures mentioned above may seem out of reach for many, but there are often financial aid opportunities at all three universities!

Stanford’s Financial Aid & Scholarships

Stanford offers need-based financial aid for all admitted undergraduate students, emphasizing that they do not expect students to take loans to meet their needs. Nearly half of Stanford undergraduates receive need-based financial aid, and families that earn less than $75,000 pay no tuition nor room and board.

USC’s Financial Aid & Scholarships

USC has a need-blind admissions process, which means a student's ability to pay or interest in receiving financial aid has no bearing on admission. Around two-thirds of the fall 2021 first-year class received financial assistance, with approximately 20% receiving a merit-based scholarship.

Learn more about Need-Blind and Need-Aware Policies

UCLA’s Financial Aid & Scholarships

The tuition at UCLA is considerably lower for California residents compared to out-of-state students and international students. To help students afford an education, the university provides links and resources for scholarships, grants, student loans, and part-time jobs. Parents are also given strategies for funding their child's education.

Crimson's admissions experts have provided this free resource on How Financial Aid Works & How To Apply For Financial Aid if you'd like to learn more.

A Day In The Life: USC Student

Extracurriculars

Stanford Extracurriculars

With more than 625 student groups on campus, Stanford boasts a thriving campus with a vibrant community of creative and ambitious students worldwide. Stanford's campus has an abundance of arts and culture, athletics and fitness organizations and provides excellent opportunities for its graduate students.

USC Extracurriculars

USC is home to over 850 student organizations responsible for most of the events and programs held on campus, including concerts, lectures, special events, spirit rallies, cultural and social programs, and conferences. See this complete list of student organizations at USC if you're interested in learning more.

UCLA Extracurriculars

Wander along the Bruin Walk at UCLA, and you'll see students enthusiastically promoting their clubs and organizations. The options at the university are endless: from politics and social awareness to arts, science, fitness, and Greek life. With over 1,000 clubs and organizations to choose from, students are encouraged to follow their passions and pursue their interests. 

Whatever your extracurricular interests are, there will be a club that suits you. You can also create your own student organization if one doesn't exist at the universities! All three universities offer support and encouragement to carve your own path.

Applications

All three of these prestigious universities in California are highly competitive academic institutions, and applicants must meet minimum GPA requirements. While grades and accolades are important at these top universities, they all consider applicants holistically, beyond academics.

Stanford's Admissions Approach

Stanford takes a holistic approach in its selection process, examining every aspect of the application as part of an overall assessment of the individual. Stanford's admissions officers evaluate prospective students based on academic excellence, intellectual vitality, and extracurricular activities. They pay close attention to each student's unique circumstances to determine how you would thrive on Stanford's campus and how you would make an impact on their community.

UCLA's Admissions Approach

UCLA has an admission review process that looks for students who demonstrate intellectual curiosity, leadership, initiative, and tenacity — ones who would actively contribute to the learning environment on campus. In addition to examining the applicant's personal characteristics, they consider their academic achievement, their record of engaging in college preparatory work in high school, and the opportunities and challenges they have faced along the way.

Check out our guide on How to get into UCLA!

USC's Admissions Approach

Admissions officers at USC select students they believe will thrive on campus; the holistic and comprehensive application process aims to help the admissions officers understand how you would take advantage of the opportunities offered by the school. During the assessment process, they analyze the applicant's academic performance, program rigour, writing abilities, and test scores. Personal qualities are assessed through the community involvement, leadership, and achievements in a student's application.

If you want to learn how to boost your overall application to top universities and make sure your application stands out, download our free eBook on How to Crush Your US College Application!

Which is easier to get into - Stanford, UCLA, or USC?

Stanford, UCLA, and USC have incredibly competitive admissions processes. According to the acceptance rates for the Class of 2025, Stanford is relatively hard to get into, while UCLA is easier than USC by a margin. Nevertheless, whether you choose to apply to Stanford, UCLA, or USC, you need to be a top student and submit a holistic application that highlights why you deserve a place at their universities.

You can use our US University Admissions Calculator to determine your chances of attending Stanford, UCLA, and USC based on your current grades!

Which is better - Stanford, UCLA, or USC?

Quality education is guaranteed regardless of which top US university you attend. When narrowing down your university options, remember to prioritize the academics — examine the course descriptions of each university thoroughly and consider attending open days to get a feel for them. It's also a good idea to reach out to alumni in your intended fields of study from Stanford, UCLA, and USC to hear their perspectives.

If you still have questions about which universities to apply to, please contact us! We can connect you with one of our academic advisors who can assist you with the admissions process.

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