What is it Like to Attend University of California-Berkeley?

The tutors behind Varsity Tutors are not just here to teach – they’re sharing their college experiences as well. Yasmine is a San Diego tutor specializing in LSAT prep tutoring, Writing tutoring, French tutoring, and much more. She graduated from the University of California-Berkeley in 2012 with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. Check out her review of her alma mater:

VT: Describe the campus setting and transportation options. How urban or safe is the campus? Are there buses or do you need a car/bike?

Yasmine: UC Berkeley’s campus is a fun mix between a closed, structured campus and a sprawling, integrated city campus – it ‘s the best of both worlds! Cal’s buildings are each different, and the layout of the campus creates pockets of unique environments, such as the more serene, nature-filled North side, and higher-traffic South side. Berkeley’s campus is particularly wonderful because it is very accessible by both foot and bike. (Bikes can only be ridden within the more dense areas outside of regular class hours.) Students can easily leave a class at Dwinelle on South side and make it to their next class in North Gate within seven to eight minutes by walking. Every Cal student receives a semester bus pass during their tenure at the school. Without a pass, it costs $2.10 to hop on the bus, so the pass makes getting groceries or heading down to BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) – the Bay Area’s subway system – simple. The majority of people who attend Berkeley do not have cars, and would be burdened by them if they did. However, it is always nice to befriend a vehicle-owner and take advantage of the easier trips to the grocery. I bought a bike my junior year of college and absolutely loved how late it allowed me to leave my house for morning classes, and found that it opened up the campus for me. That being said, bikes (or more accurately, bike seats, handlebars, baskets, pedals, or whatever can be scrapped) are regularly stolen in Berkeley, so beware. Nevertheless, I rarely felt unsafe in the campus or town. Always walk with a buddy at night or call the BearWalk night escort service and you’ll be plenty safe.

VT: How available are the professors, academic advisers, and teaching assistants?

Yasmine: I found that all the professors and teaching assistants that I reached out to were very helpful. The greatest obstacle in connecting with these advisors will most likely be you – but I highly recommend putting in the effort and meeting with your professors and TAs in the classes you find interesting. They can provide fantastic support and insight, and it will be much easier to get a well-written, powerful letter of recommendation for internships, jobs, and graduate school if you put in the little effort now. It will be considerably less worry later!

VT: How would you describe the dorm life – rooms, dining options, location, socialization opportunities with other students?

Yasmine: If it isn’t clear yet from my earlier responses, I loved my undergraduate experience at Cal. I’ve talked to many other undergrads while at school and found that dorm experiences can vary from being paired with your future best friends to making you consider transferring to another school. There was only one person I knew who considered transferring, and after her first year, she found her niche and enjoyed her next few years. Lucky for me, my first-year dorm experience was at the very ‘best friends’ end of the spectrum. I lived in a 2-person room in the co-ed Unit 1 hall (located a few blocks from campus) and was fortunate enough to live on the most social and intellectually-stimulating floor I could imagine. However, if you don’t find your dorm or floor particularly attractive, it is very easy to locate your niche elsewhere on campus. Joining a club or professional fraternity is easy – just walk through Sproul Plaza (one of the campus’ main entryways) and you’ll find any club you could desire. You can also join a social fraternity or sorority. Personally, I did not go this route, but many of my close girl friends did, and they enjoyed their experiences. It’s also not particularly hard to make friends in your classes, especially once you begin taking courses specific to your major. You’ll soon see just how small a 26,000-person school can be.

Fortunately, Cal campus dining options are plenty. There are several cafeterias which you will likely frequent during your first and maybe your second year, which are not half bad. I believe Cal installed the first college campus all-organic salad bar in the country! The fun really starts when you venture into the dining options that the city of Berkeley has to offer. There are too many fantastic restaurants to name, but you can safely know that finding delicious, relatively inexpensive food will not be a difficult task. If you choose to cook for yourself, Berkeley Bowl provides the most fresh, delicious, and cheap produce I have ever encountered.

VT: Which majors/programs are best represented and supported? What did you study and why? Did the university do a good job supporting your particular area of study?

Yasmine: UC Berkeley is a fantastic school and is a world-leader is so many areas; however, since it is such a large university, it can’t look after each and every one of its blossoming undergrads and care for them tenderly until they reach the final goal of earning a Bachelor’s degree and landing a full-time job. It is my understanding that Cal’s Career Center is good, but I cannot speak to whether it is fantastic or terrible with confidence because I didn’t take much advantage of it. I would call this my #1 mistake at Cal. Why do we go to college? To get a job. Unfortunately, this extremely basic realization didn’t dawn on me until a few years into my undergrad education. I highly recommend that future Cal students understand that while the resources to help you are available at Berkeley, you will need to work (sometimes quite hard) to seek them out, and the bureaucracy at Cal is very real and can be quite frustrating.

Berkeley has cultivated some world-leading programs, particularly in research-oriented majors. Mathematics, Sciences, and Engineering majors are very highly respected and carry much clout. I studied Political Science, which is another leading program at Cal. Whatever you study at Berkeley will be respected.

VT: How easy or difficult was it for you to meet people and make friends as a freshman? Does Greek life play a significant role in the campus social life?

Yasmine: I am friendly and somewhat shy, and I had no trouble making friends as a freshman. Of course, every person will be unique, but the majority of the people I met over the years really enjoyed their social life at Cal. Whereas the large size of the undergraduate population could be terrifying, somehow you still see the same people on your walk to class in the morning, and eventually you’ll run into each other elsewhere and a budding friendship will ensue. If you find that your dorm experience is not as wonderful as you had hoped, seek out a club or social fraternity. Greek life is just one of the many communities on campus. Everything is available to you at Cal, but sometimes you actually need to go out and find it.

VT: How helpful is the Career Center and other student support services? Do many reputable companies recruit on campus? 

Yasmine: As I’ve mentioned, the Career Center is an available resource, but you must seek it out. At smaller schools, you may be required to sit down with your advisor each month to chat about your progress in completing your major or your job prospects, but I did not find that to be the case in my major (Political Science) at Cal. However, I have heard that other, smaller majors do make the effort to support you more in that way. In addition to resume and cover letter critiquing, and mock interviews, the Career Center hosts an online employment page that can be very helpful for finding part- or full-time summer or graduate positions. Also, I have heard that reputable companies do recruit on campus for business, consulting, or legal positions, but I did not participate in them and so cannot elaborate.

VT: How are the various study areas such as libraries, the student union, and dorm lounges? Are they over-crowded, easily available, spacious?

Yasmine: Berkeley has some fantastic libraries, and each blossoms into its own persona with every unique student. For me, Doe Library was for leisurely studying and fantastic naps, Main Stacks was for crunch time, and the Music Library was for Saturdays. If you aren’t feeling any of the 32 libraries on campus, there are a plethora of great local cafes to escape to (and eat in). Libraries and cafes can get crowded during finals weeks, but I imagine this is true at almost every university. If you need to do research for a paper or a URAP (Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program) position, there are over 10 million books at your disposal. Berkeley has the most extensive library system of any public university in the country, so you should be able to knock out that paper without a hitch. And if the book you’re looking for isn’t available in any of the Cal libraries, you can check the other UC system libraries and request it for your use. In terms of libraries and research, Berkeley has you covered!

VT: Describe the surrounding town. What kinds of outside establishments / things to do are there that make it fun, boring, or somewhere in between? To what extent do students go to the downtown area of the city versus staying near campus? 

Yasmine: Berkeley is a fun town with many different sub-niches. The immediate campus surroundings are very collegial and comforting, with many cafes, cheap dining options, and shops. If you head East toward the Berkeley Hills, you will find great, nearby hiking trails. The surroundings include more high-end shops and restaurants, each neighborhood carrying its own ambiance. Of course, you can always escape to San Francisco which is less than 40 minutes away by BART – a great weekend adventure. There, you’ll find unlimited opportunities for fun, food, and shopping.

VT: How big or small is the student body? Were you generally pleased or displeased with the typical class sizes?

Yasmine: The undergraduate student body is about 26,000, which can be an intimidatingly large number. However, the campus, student body, and class size never felt nearly that big to me. Most classes consist of about 30 students. Many of these smaller classes are discussion sections led by graduate students. Introductory courses tend to be large (up to 500 students), but as you get into more advanced courses, the sizes shrink quite rapidly. Seek out your professors and TAs, allow them to put a face to your name, and you should do pretty well.

VT: Describe one memorable experience with a professor and/or class. Perhaps one you loved the most or one you regret the most.

Yasmine: Before I started school, I developed a small infatuation with the concept of the universe. While attending Cal Day when I was visiting my brother (he went to Cal, too!), I stumbled into a public lecture on “The Universe and its Accelerating Expansion” by Professor Alex Filippenko, a world-renowned astrophysicist. The course was completely outside of the scope of my intended major, but I was fascinated. When I decided to attend Cal, I sought out Filippenko’s introductory astrophysics course and ended up taking his 11-person seminar the following semester. Learning under such a world-renowned professor in a field that I had little to no prior experience in seems very unique to the experience at Berkeley. 

Check out Yasmine’s tutoring profile.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.