I am a first year Sophomore at UC Merced, and am currently a Molecular and Cellular Biology major planning to either go into medicine (MD) or research (PhD). Some things I've noticed about this forum is that there is a serious dearth of information compared to the other UC threads, so I hope to fix that!
Some common questions/comments about UCM:
I heard that UCM students aren't smart/hard workers
After spending my first semester in both freshmen and sophomore classes, I can say this rumor is absolutely not true. While UCM undoubtedly isn't as prestigous as UC Berkeley or UCLA, it is still a UC. Everyone who goes to this school still met the UC eligibility standards, and throughout my first semester at UCM I've met plenty of hard workers here. While there are flakes, it's not exclusive to UCM or the "lower" UCs. No matter which school you go to, there will always be a few slackers, but that does not mean that the school in general is lazy.
That said, students at UCM tend to start at a lower academic level compared to other UCs. While myself and my friends at other UCs started Calculus II or Chem II (due to AP credits), many started off at Calc I or Chem I with a few taking Precalculus or General Chemistry.
This still does not mean, however, that the students are lazy. If anything, many of the people I've met are some of the hardest workers I've come across. While UC Merced isn't prestigious, it definitely does not deserve the bad reputation as a "dropout UC" it gets.
What's the environment at UC Merced like?
As many of you know, Merced is in the middle of nowhere. Merced itself is a very small city. I'm a city boy myself, so my opinion is a bit biased, but quite frankly I find the city boring. The mall is much too small for my taste with the stores poorly stocked. The selection of restaurants is lacking, and the only real place to hang out is the one block downtown where the movie theater is located.
The school itself though is amazing. Almost every night, there's a club event put on to keep the students occupied. We've had activities from Wii game night in the cafe to an outdoor screening of Kill Bill to dances. If you make the effort to venture outside of the dorm halls, you definitely will not be bored.
Nearby the school is Yosemite Lake. It's about a 15 minute walk from the dorms, and it is absolutely beautiful. If you've a free weekend and the weather is great, you definitely should make the trip. The place is a well-maintained park alongside pristine waters, and students do everything from swimming to picnics here. And while the park officially closes at sundown, an unrepaired hole in the fence (apparently there for years now) admits students in after hours. The stargazers here need to pay this place a visit after hours.
Finally, because of how close the school is to Yosemite, clubs at UCM like to schedule trips to Yosemite National Park. They charge a relatively cheap (if memory serves, ~$30) for two nights of camping at Yosemite. YARTs, a direct bus line to Yosemite, comes to the school and picks students up, and almost everything but the sleeping bag is provided to you. These trips happen at all times of the year, and is definitely worth trying out.
What's special about the school?
UC Merced is a much smaller school than the other UCs, but truthfully that's what I love about it. The school is small enough that you can walk to your classes from the dorms or parking lot within five minutes. Everything is close enough so that you don't need to take a bus simply to get to the other side of school.
The biggest highlight of this school though is the level of professor-student interaction. At UCM, professors take the time to help out their undergrads, something many of my friends at other UCs find out of the ordinary. The professors themselves, not TAs, teach the courses, and it's normal to see professors stay back after lectures and help out students one-on-one. Even in a high-stress weeder classes like my organic chemistry class, my professor makes it a point to help out any student who needs it, to the point where he'd pause lecture to better explain a point if someone doesn't understand. From what my friends at other UCs tell me, it's extremely hard to find this level of attention from your professors.
Professors at UCM are also top notch like any other UC. Many come from schools with familiar names: Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, Yale, Columbia, and Cambridge. This year, UCM even joined a select group of UCs with a Nobel Laureate on the faculty.
Should I go to UC Merced?
UC Merced, like every other university, will not suit everyone's needs. I'd definitely recommend this school to you if:
-You like a small, liberal arts-sized school
-You place a high priority on attention from your professors
-You like a small city in a rural setting
Those I think should reconsider attending UC Merced are those who:
-Are city boys (like me)
-Prefer a large university
-Place a high priority on prestige
I hope this post answers most of your questions. If you have anymore, feel free to post them here or private message me, and I'll try my best to answer them :)