As college counselors, we are frequently asked how we stay up-to-date on all of the changing pieces in the college admission landscape. Families are often surprised to hear that a huge portion of our professional development involves visiting colleges, attending their information sessions, and participating in official campus tours. Unfortunately, we don’t get VIP passes to secret admission meetings. Still, we do get a thorough understanding of schools by participating in the same tours families and students have access to.
So while our students were focused on finalizing last-minute applications and studying for midterms, Sawyer and I were preparing several presentations for the Independent Educational Consultant Association fall conference in San Diego (my hometown!). And while we love sharing knowledge, supporting colleagues, and networking at conferences, one of the best parts is being able to tour colleges in cities we don’t typically visit for work. This fall, we toured a handful of colleges in San Diego and Los Angeles.
Disclaimer: The highlights of our college visits below are by no means exhaustive or all-encompassing. These are just some thoughts and notes about our experiences on the particular day of our visit and some facts we feel make each institution stand out.
Table of Contents:
University of California San Diego (UCSD)
Since our conference was held in San Diego, we had limited time to visit colleges between presentations and networking. We chose to visit UCSD because we wanted to learn more about its unique college structure. Like most UCs, UCSD is on the quarter system. Most large state universities are divided into colleges that are specific to certain subjects (for example, the College of Engineering, or the College of Arts and Sciences). UCSD, however, is comprised of seven different themed colleges that are more akin to Hogwarts houses. In fact, the community of small colleges was designed after the concepts utilized by Cambridge and Oxford (which were also the inspiration for the Hogwarts house delineation). Students can study anything at any of the colleges, and when they apply, they rank each college in order of interest.
If this sounds confusing, you’re not alone. The most important thing to know about the seven colleges is that each one has different general education requirements, regardless of major. When students are exploring these colleges, we highly recommend exploring those requirements in addition to the themes each college embodies (you can read more about the colleges here).
As with most large state institutions, especially those with the R1 research designation, UCSD has incredible resources available to its students. The location in La Jolla provides easy access to downtown San Diego and the rest of San Diego county, which means ample opportunity for internships and professional experiences, in addition to fun things to do on weekends.
UCSD is a highly selective institution, especially for out-of-state students. The UCs utilize their own application system and it’s important for students to have met the A-G requirements to be eligible and competitive for admission to any of the UC campuses. Students who are successful in rigorous coursework (AP and IB courses, for example) would do well at UCSD. It would also be a good fit for students who can handle large class sizes (some lectures are over 200 students), a sprawling campus, and who seek an intentional community-driven college experience. If you’re curious to learn more about the University of California admissions process, you can read our blog about the topic.
Occidental College (Oxy)
Occidental College, known colloquially as Oxy, is a small liberal arts school in Pasadena, CA (a town east of Los Angeles). It’s a very suburban environment, with easy access to the greater Los Angeles area for internships and activities. The campus is small and very easy to navigate, and the diverse student body is particularly engaged in advocacy, politics, and interdisciplinary learning. I would describe the students as hard-working, curious, and very aware of current events affecting the world and their communities.
Students describe the classroom environment as collaborative and discussion-based, and Oxy makes it easy for students who had 504 plans or IEPs in high school to automatically receive the accommodations they need to be successful in the classroom. There are some unique opportunities for students, like the Campaign Semester and faculty mentorship for research engagement.
Students who are excited about small class sizes with rich, compelling, and challenging discussions will likely thrive at Oxy, as would students who are interested in collaborative and experiential learning.
University of Southern California (USC)
The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of USC is the Spirit of Troy marching band [see my interview with Jacob Vogel, the band director, here]. It would be an incredibly long and difficult journey through college to attend USC and not contribute to the school spirit on campus. Sawyer and I attended a football game against our CU Boulder Buffs and, coming from two people who couldn’t care less about sports, it was one of the most exciting sporting experiences we’ve had.
While many know of USC because of its impressive D1 athletics (which we think have become more ethical after Operation Varsity Blues), it is also highly regarded for engineering, business, film, and journalism. USC is the second largest private university in the USA (after NYU), but all courses are taught by professors (not TAs and graduate students) and class sizes are typically under 30 students, even for general education requirements. And while USC might occasionally be referred to as the University of Spoiled Children, they have made significant efforts and strides in promoting diversity of all kinds on campus, including socio-economic. As a result, 24% of the student body is pell-eligible, 1/5th of students identify as first generation to attend college, and they purportedly have the highest percentage of African-American-identifying students at any private research university in the USA.
Like most other highly selective (or rejective) universities in the USA, USC continues to see incredible increases in applications. As a result, their admission rate dropped into the single digits for the first time for the class of 2027. It’s an expensive institution, boasting a hefty $85,648 price tag, but they have many full and half-tuition scholarships for the top candidates for admission. In fact, National Merit Finalists who rank USC as their top choice and are subsequently admitted are automatically awarded a full tuition scholarship.
Students who are looking for impressive school spirit and resources, but easy access to on and off-campus opportunities and small class sizes would likely do well exploring USC. Students who are admitted and choose to enroll will find themselves sharing a classroom with some of the brightest minds of their generation, with a vast and beneficial alumni community. And with a pretty centralized location in Los Angeles, students can take advantage of all of the recreational and pre-professional opportunities the city has to offer.
The first thing most people think of when they think of Pepperdine is its gorgeous setting in Malibu, CA. As someone who grew up in San Diego and bore witness to countless incredible sunsets, I can confidently say that some of the best sunset views in Southern California are from Pepperdine’s campus (which is less than 2 miles from beach access).
As with most schools, there are some important things to note about the Pepperdine education and student body. Pepperdine is a Christian university, with very deep Christian values that are discussed and upheld inside and outside of the classroom. As a result of this religious foundation, the student body tends to be more conservative with a heavy focus on service, leadership, and living a life of purpose.
Maybe not to the same degree as USC, Pepperdine is well known for its successful D1 athletics (and boasts a whopping 26 National Championships!). In fact, 8 gold medals have been won by Pepperdine students and alumni (a statistic you don’t see too often when looking at colleges). Another main topic of discussion around Pepperdine is its commitment to sustainability, including recycled water irrigation throughout campus, electric vehicle charging stations, and a focus on utilizing energy from renewable sources.
While Pepperdine does welcome students of all backgrounds and faiths, I think students who would feel most comfortable on campus are those who identify as more politically conservative and Christian. Any student who chooses to enroll should be prepared for deep self-reflection, dynamic discourse, and a strong sense of community on and off campus.
California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
Just a 10-minute drive from Oxy sits Caltech, the world-renowned science and engineering school. It is truly an institution of some of the brightest and most innovative students (colloquially known as “Techers”) and faculty. In fact, Caltech actually manages JPL (the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) for NASA, in addition to their own research facilities (like the Seismological Laboratory) and observatories (Palomar and W.M. Keck). Like Oxy, Caltech is a small residential campus–and that’s where most of the similarities end.
With fewer than 1000 undergraduate students, Caltech is a very small and close-knit community. Unlike most institutions, Caltech is actually home to more graduate students than undergraduates, and they encourage their students to attend graduate school elsewhere to experience other ways of learning. Even more surprising is the 3:1 student-faculty ratio and faculty boasting 46 Nobel Prizes. Furthermore, as one of the most selective institutions in the USA, Caltech has actually made efforts to garner fewer applications by implementing a Restricted Early Action application plan, while the rest of the selective institutions continue to make efforts to grow their applicant pool.
One of the primary things that stood out to me in speaking with the Director of Admissions was that students who are prepared to fail will be very successful at Caltech. On the surface, this sounds like a pretty silly and meaningless statement, but when you think about how ingrained research is to the Caltech experience, it actually makes a lot of sense. It’s tough to be innovative if you’re afraid to fail!
Here are some fun facts about Caltech:
There are no in-class timed exams.
Instead, students are typically given about a week to complete exams, and it will take them at least that long. They have a strict Honor Code, which creates a trustworthy environment on campus.
It’s a residential campus, with most students living in their campus houses all four years.
The houses are themed (more Harry Potter-esque than UCSD) learning environments that are also collaborative and close-knit.
Speaking of collaboration, it is essential in every piece of the Caltech experience.
Coursework/Problem sets are designed to be tackled collaboratively and some problem sets don’t have any known solutions (until a new batch of students comes up with one, of course!).
While Techers are incredibly academically gifted and the education there is rigorous, they are also well-known for their brilliant prank culture.
Not all students are STEM majors at Caltech, but all majors require a strong STEM foundation (yes, even the social sciences).
Chapman is nestled in a residential neighborhood called Old Town Orange, about 15 minutes from Disneyland. You’ve probably seen the campus if you’ve ever watched movies like Accepted or American Wedding, or perhaps you’ve heard the name in interviews with the Duffer brothers (the creators of Stranger Things), who graduated the year before I started there. The school has grown significantly in recent years, and they continue to update and build new and impressive facilities for psychology, film, housing, engineering, music, and athletics.
There are so many unique opportunities offered at Chapman: a very selective honors program (20-25 students per year); the design-your-own-major option; the ability for any student to participate in theater, art, and music; a very fun pep band (na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-chap-man! *to the Batman theme*); dorm-side beach volleyball and swimming pool; one of the largest rock walls in Southern California (51 feet); and a sushi station in the cafeteria, to name a few.
Fun fact: When I was a student at Chapman, there was a fun rivalry between Chapman and Loyola Marymount University about the pieces of the Berlin Wall each school has displayed on campus. Both schools like to tell prospective and current students that there is larger, and for a period of time, students would go to the other campus and chip off small chunks to bring back to their home campus (please don’t do this!).
Chapman has become well-known for its film school, Dodge College, which boasts a single-digit acceptance rate. For film, the application requires a significant amount of time and creativity, but if you’re interested in pursuing film or media arts (including animation, broadcast journalism, film and TV production, Public Relations and Advertising, and screenwriting), the opportunities available to film students are endless.
Outside of film, there is a nice blend of academics and creative endeavors on campus, and the library’s fourth floor is actually a Holocaust Memorial Library and museum. When I attended, I actually had the opportunity to take a course taught by Elie Weisel!
Chapman continues to make significant strides to be accessible to more racially and socio-economically diverse communities. The school is likely a good fit institution for students who are interested in exploring various subject areas and expressing themselves creatively. There are ample opportunities of which students are encouraged to take advantage, and the small class sizes and accessible professors make the educational experience personalized.
Loyola Marymount University (LMU)
While it’s not as close to the ocean as Pepperdine, LMU’s location in Playa Vista (what is colloquially called “Silicon Beach”) is nothing to scoff at. It sits atop a bluff, and there are beautiful ocean views from campus. It’s one of the only spots in the LA area where you can see both ocean and the Hollywood sign from the same window (a dorm window!). Right below the bluff are the LA IMAX, Youtube, Microsoft, TOMS, and The Honest Company headquarters, all businesses that are happy to provide professional experience to LMU students. Additionally, the campus is only 10 minutes from LAX, making transportation for out-of-state students incredibly convenient.
Loyola Marymount is a Jesuit university, with DI athletics and over 100 majors and minors from which to choose. Many would argue that LMU is best known for its School of Film and Television, which boasts a higher acceptance rate than Chapman, but fosters an equally creative and impressive learning environment. The core class requirements encourage students to be open-minded when exploring areas of study, and there are several different first-year programs for freshmen to take advantage of.
If you ask any LMU student or alumni to describe the student body, one of the first words that comes up most frequently is “friendly”. Students who are kind, compassionate, generous, imaginative, and intellectually curious would do well at LMU.
Good luck (but I know you won't need it),
Jessica Chermak, LPC, CEP
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors