UC Berkeley, or Cal for short, is one of the most selective public colleges in the country, with an acceptance rate of about 14%. A respected research institution, Cal gives students access to a faculty that includes numerous MacArthur fellows, Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel laureates, including biologist Randy Schekman, who received the 2013 Nobel Prize for medicine, and astrophysicist George Smoot, who won the 2006 award in physics.

As with many big universities, lower-level classes are large — one computer science course usually draws more than 1,000 students. But with scale also comes a mind-boggling array of choices for non-academic pursuits, including more than 60 sororities and fraternities, as well as hundreds of clubs (including several devoted to specific dance styles such as tango, ballroom and K-pop). Sports are a big attraction on campus, and the Golden Bears' Division I sports teams tend to be very strong — the football rivalry with nearby Stanford is legendary and results in an annual "Big Game."

Cal grads go on to earn a median of $88,000 in the first 10 years after enrolling, which is more than what peers from comparable schools typically make. Famous former students include the author Maxine Hong Kingston, Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, actor John Cho, novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen and "Myspace Tom" Anderson.