I loved UCSC, and never once regretted my choice to go here. But I want to help people get a better picture of what the school is like:
First and foremost, I think UCSC's reputation understates the quality of academics here.
Almost every class I took was taught by a competent professor who had enthusiasm not just for the subject, but for teaching and their students as well. Many of them may not be renowned in their field, but the quality of the education itself was largely top-notch. I've learned a lot and enjoyed nearly every class. Classes I took were never competitive -- people actually liked to work together.
Many departments in the physical/biological sciences (and probably other divisions as well) are producing high-quality research. And luckily, there are plenty of research/internship opportunities at UCSC for undergrads -- all you have to do is reach out. Everyone I know who looked for extra-curricular work found it quickly by simply asking professors for openings, something I've heard can be difficult at other universities.
The cost of UCSC is comparable to any other UC -- reasonable if you're Californian, but pretty high if you're from another state. Keep in mind that the UC system keeps getting shafted with budget cuts and tuition hikes, and what you pay your first year will probably be much less than your senior year. UCSC also doesn't offer a wide variety of majors, so be sure you can find your ideal major and several other backups in case that doesn't pan out for you.
CAMPUS & CITY
If there's a more beautiful campus than UCSC, I've never seen it. Rather than being a beach school, it's really a forest school. The campus is located on a hill, nestled in between many beautiful redwoods. There are paths that meander through the forest, bridges spanning deep ravines, beautiful views of the Monterey Bay, and plenty of wildlife. It's a calm and peaceful atmosphere, with tons of places to explore. It's what really won me over, and what I feel makes the school so unique. Even after five years here, I still love walking around the school and enjoying the views. The architecture isn't grand or prestiguous. Instead it's more modern and subtle, and blends in well with the surroundings. The school is divided into ten colleges, each with its own architectural style.
The city of Santa Cruz is quirky, but generally enjoyable. There are plenty of beaches, the boardwalk is OK, and downtown is pretty cool. There aren't many bars, but it's easy to find one you like. The forests offer hiking, biking, and more. If you have a car, San Jose and the Bay Area are a short drive away. The city isn't the cheapest place to live though, and has a surprising amount of traffic.
As beautiful as the campus is, there are some potential problems:
- Since it's up a good-sized hill, it's pretty separate from the town. To get to campus without an intense workout, you'll need to drive (expensive) or take a bus (limited). City buses are free, but they don't travel all over town and they fill up regularly. Travelling to and from campus usually takes at least 30 minutes. If you live off-campus, live near a bus route. If you live on-campus, going into town is pretty inconvenient. On the plus side, the campus feels very safe.
- The campus itself is a hill, which means that different parts of campus are very spread out. The campus has a bus system, but it's not perfect. Walking is really the fastest way, and if you're not okay with walking regularly up hills, you won't like UCSC.
If you're bent on the "college experience" like in the movies, you won't like UCSC. Again, the type of campus really dictates the social life at UCSC. Because everything is so spread out (and because there are no major sports teams), there isn't much collective sense of school pride, nor are there mass-parties. Those who like to party will find plenty, though.
Each college has its own stereotype, some of which are sort of true, but almost everyone finds friends easily regardless of personality or choice of college. You'll meet people in other colleges, but your closest friends will probably be mostly from your college.
UCSC is regularly called a hippy school, and that's sort of true (particularly on April 20th), but there are people of all types and backgrounds. It's a very accepting school. There isn't much Greek life, but frats and sororities do exist if you're looking for that.
SHOULD I GO HERE?
Really, the best way to tell if you'll like UCSC is to visit the campus. It's different than most, and you'll either love it or hate it. Don't pick UCSC because you didn't get into a more selective UC -- you'll hate it. But if you like the campus and the atmosphere, and they offer your major, you'll never want to leave.