Updated: Apr 16, 2022
When I was a senior at a competitive high school in Northern California, all I knew about college was that I should go to a good school. I had done the work to get into a good school; I got good grades, I volunteered here and there, and I was very active in performing arts. I saw people all around me discussing their dream schools and career goals on the daily. But at that point, I hardly knew what I truly wanted to do with my life. For the most part, I just wanted to escape my hometown. In hopes of finding myself and being successful, I haphazardly applied to UCLA, UCI, UCSC, and SFSU. But, unbeknownst to me, something major had changed in the year I applied.
For the first time, UCI—my top choice—had received over 100,000 applications for the upcoming year. But even after working so hard in high school, I was not one of the roughly 30,000 students who were admitted.
Getting into a “good school” just got harder
Just this year, the UC school system and colleges around the country received record-breaking levels of applications. That means that “good” schools just got a lot harder to get into. For instance, MIT went from a 7% acceptance rate, to a 4% acceptance rate in just one year, and that’s just the beginning. If you really do want to attend more “mainstream” or brand name schools, going to a community college and transferring remains one of the most viable ways to ensure that you (ultimately) get into your top choice college.
When I found out that I didn’t get into any of the colleges I applied to, I was devastated. I felt that I hadn't done nearly enough, but more importantly, I was left between choosing a safety school I wasn’t passionate about, or attending community college.
I chose the latter. While I initially felt disappointed, I looked at community college as an opportunity to boost my admission chances at a UC while saving some money. Thankfully, my parents, who never graduated from (let alone attended) college, were supportive of the decision. Now, as I near my last quarter at UCI, I realize how fulfilling—sometimes even more so—my experience was at community college.
Out of all my educational decisions, attending community college was easily the best decision I made; if you are faced with this same dilemma, I’d like to offer some words of wisdom:
College is getting really expensive.
If you or your parents are stressed about the financial aspect of attending a 4-year university, particularly if the school doesn’t provide significant financial aid for your income bracket, you will greatly benefit from attending community college first. Because you are fulfilling the same general education requirements at a community college as you would in the first 2 years of university, the higher sticker price of a university isn’t met with significantly greater benefits. The total estimated attendance for a UC is $36,700. Meanwhile, the total estimated attendance at Irvine Valley College—if you don’t have to pay rent or for most meals—is about $6,482. The estimates also include figures such as school supplies, which, unless you’re purchasing expensive electronics, will realistically be much lower. My middle-class family receives hardly any financial aid (even with great grades), so just attending community college for 2 years saved me around $60,000. With every year, that number will likely increase.
My parents made an agreement with me that they would cover my tuition at community college so long as I did well and transferred within a reasonable timeframe. I took advantage of that opportunity and would encourage anybody to discuss that option with their parents. I even got a scholarship my second year that covered half my total cost of attendance, so we only paid around $3,000 for the two years in total—and that’s taking the maximum units possible nearly every semester (plus summer classes)!
Having a social life at community college is much easier than you’d expect.
In fact, I ended up going to community college with most of my core friend group. We had few options, were worried financially, and needed time to breathe and explore ourselves and find what we really wanted to do.
While in community college, I was able to both deepen my relationships with my existing friends while making new friends from all walks of life. Seeing brilliant, ambitious minds around me constantly inspired and challenged me to be better. Although your community college may not offer a ton of campus organizations, it’s still a good idea to branch out and try something new. As a psychology major, I joined a social justice club just to see what it was like, and I ended up really liking it! It made me a more passionate about social issues and well-rounded as a person. Joining a club during community college is a great way to get an idea of what clubs you’d like to join at a university, as the university has an almost overwhelming amount of choices with only limited time.
My community college professors made it easy to pursue a mentorship and build stronger connections. Dr. Crawford, a psychology professor I had in community college, is my favorite teacher to this day because she was so present and involved in both the classroom and in offering me guidance when I showed up to her office hours. When I worried about making a move across the state to UCI, she reassured me it would be a great growing experience for me. And when I worried about the financial barriers to graduate school, she reassured me that wherever my ambitions took me, I could come out successful no matter the cost.
Dr. Crawford was not only an excellent professor who was deeply devoted to her teaching, but she was a nurturing mentor who believed in every student who walked into her office. And while you can certainly find those transformative relationships at a university, there are so many other students looking to do the same; it’s much easier to differentiate yourself at a community college and get the guidance you need than at a university, and you may receive a more holistic perspective than from a professor who has spent much of their life dedicated primarily to research.
Your hard work at community college WILL pay off.
I worked hard to get through community college in 2 years; I learned how to study effectively and maximized my time to make me a successful student. While applying to transfer, counselors pushed me to apply to prestigious universities that wouldn’t have batted an eye in my senior year. But I was fully set on UCI because it was best suited for my focus as a psychology major, and I was accepted stress-free after submitting my TAG application.
California community colleges make it significantly easier to get into a prestigious university and succeed once you’re in a 4-year, as you have a chance to try new things with little risk and learn to advocate for yourself and access powerful resources. If you’re debating whether community college will help you get into a 4-year, consider this: while the freshman admit rate at UCLA is currently 14.4%, the transfer admit rate is 24%. With a pool of transfer applicants only a quarter the size of the freshman applicants', your chances of getting into UCLA—or any 4-year, for that matter—is significantly higher as a transfer student!
As a senior at UCI, I now reflect on the past four years spent at the two colleges. I’ve made some remarkable friends and fond memories here, and I’ve gained a newfound sense of independence that makes me more confident about the next steps in life. Community college not only got me to UCI, but it fulfilled me in ways I had never expected. My professors were always there for me with open doors and warm smiles, I had a refreshing blend of familiar faces and new acquaintances, and I had all the resources I needed to be just as happy and successful as I am at UCI. And to be completely honest, my education at community college was often superior due to having professors who were more committed to teaching. Looking back, I would choose community college again, and I always encourage high school students to be open-minded about how fulfilling it can truly be.
The best practice to being successful at a university is to be creative, innovative, and bold at a community college.
Get creative in making community college a unique and fulfilling experience for you. You could group up with a few friends and live together, or you could start a club/join student government and make a real difference in the school community. There are so many resources available to you in community college that will help you discover your passions and work towards your success once you transfer for a 4-year university.