The Requirements: 2 essays of up to 250 words; 2 short-answer lists.
Supplemental Essay Type(s):Why, Oddball, Short Answer
University of Southern California 2017-18 Application Essay Questions Explained
There’s no nice way to say this: the USC application is kind of all over the place. It kicks off by asking applicants to choose one of three prompts, two of which overlap with the Common App, and it just gets stranger from there. You’ll be asked about everything from your academic interests to your personal hashtag, so our best piece of advice is, buckle up. Oh, and also remember that you should use every essay as an opportunity to showcase something different about yourself. 😉
Please respond to one of (the three) the prompts below. (250 word limit)
1. USC believes that one learns best when interacting with people of different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. Tell us about a time you were exposed to a new idea or when your beliefs were challenged by another point of view.
To rephrase the question: What experiences have exposed your personal blindspots? When have you been forced to admit that you were wrong? This first option may be the most challenging of the three because it requires a great deal of self-awareness and introspection. A successful essay will showcase your humility, intelligence, and adaptability. Maybe you never used to think of your teachers as people with lives outside of school until the day your family put your dog down and your English teacher offered you some words of comfort. How did your perspective change? What did you learn about the universal nature of grief? Don’t limit yourself to stories about conflict and don’t worry about being right or wrong. The most interesting essays will focus on small, personal moments that have shaped the way you see the world.
And finally, a warning: this prompt is very similar to the third prompt on the 2017-18 Common App, which asks students to reflect on a time when they challenged a belief or idea. If you chose this prompt #3 for your Common App personal statement, you might want to steer clear of this particular USC prompt in order to avoid redundancy. If you picked a different Common App prompt, feel free to refer to our prompt #3 guide for more inspiration!
2. Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning.
If you already have a major in mind, chances are your application is bursting with supporting evidence. So you want to be an English major? We bet you’ve served on the board of your literary magazine, entered writing competitions, and aced your Literature AP. This is your shot to show USC that you’re well-rounded! Maybe you’ve always wanted to study physics, but were intimidated by the math. Perhaps the field of astronomy has piqued your imagination as much as your academic interest. Don’t be afraid to get a little out there! The prompt never says you have to choose another academic topic, so if you’d like to go for a quirkier answer, maybe you could focus on a new skill you’d like to gain: Woodworking? Orienteering? You should avoid being weird for weird’s sake, but we encourage you to think outside the box and be genuine about your interests and passions! Make sure to explain why you haven’t yet studied the topic you propose and describe the specific reasons for your interest. Maybe a recent debate you got into with a friend sparked an interest in philosophy. On the other hand, you might just be daydreaming about what your life would be like if you could speak Japanese, where you’d go, and who you’d meet. The point is, don’t just explain why the subject is worth studying in general. Render it specific to your life and personality.
3. What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?
Here’s your free-for-all prompt! With a question this broad, you can write about pretty much anything as long as it tells a story about you and your life. (Sorry, that treatise on wide-legged pants will have to wait.) Our three primary pieces of advice are the same as always: (1) Pick a story rather than a fun fact. Give yourself the opportunity to really write in your own voice. (2) Use a topic that hasn’t shown up on your application before. (3) Make sure no one else could put their name on your essay.
Similar to the first USC prompt, this one also mirrors a Common App prompt, so we’d recommend nixing this option if you wrote your Common App personal statement on prompt #1. If not, hit up our Common App guide for more brainstorming tips!
Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests at USC. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections. (250 word limit)
Unlike the second prompt above, this one is all about your enduring academic interests and passions, but it’s not really about you. Rather, it’s not about you alone. This is USC’s take on the classic Why essay. In asking how you plan to pursue your interests, admissions is really trying to suss out your core reasons for choosing USC. While college will offer you a wealth of social and professional opportunities, its primary function is academic — and your primary role is as a student. So, what kind of student do you hope to be? Where do you hope your studies will take you? What resources and opportunities does USC offer that will meet your needs and guide you towards your goals?
To answer these questions, set aside an hour or two to pore over the USC website (there’s no hack, you’ve just got to put in the time). Beyond the basic departmental listings, look up information about news and research coming out of your department, the kinds of courses available, the opportunities that other undergrads have had studying in your area of choice. Even if you have a wide array of interests, consider explaining how two to three departments might complement each other or foster your interest in a larger idea or theme. Your ultimate goal is to show that your interest in USC (just like your intellectual curiosity) runs deep!
Describe yourself in three words (25 characters).
When the challenge is pith, the opportunity is humor. We rarely offer an across-the-board directive to be funny because humor writing is hard — and sometimes it just simply isn’t appropriate for the story you need to tell in a longer essay. But with lists and short answers, it’s wit that will make you stand out. Your answer doesn’t need to be laugh-out-loud funny, but it should avoid the generalities that so often populate these questions: loyal, kind, smart… you get the idea. We’re sure you are all of these things — and they are lovely qualities to showcase in the stories you tell elsewhere in your essay — but these sorts of terms can ring hollow if you aren’t able to back them up with evidence. A good place to start might be to examine your contradictions (you’re mostly easy-going, until you start playing Scrabble) and craft an essay that showcases some funny irony about your personality. Think about how different people in your life would describe you, and then think about order. Can you make it read like a very short story? Can you make it rhyme? Though this assignment is short, you may need to spend some time wordsmithing different combinations. When the prescribed format is a list, order matters just as much as content, so use every element of the assignment to your advantage!
The following prompts have a 100 character limit:
What is your favorite snack?
Best movie of all time:
Hashtag to describe yourself:
What is your theme song?
What TV show will you binge watch next?
Place you are most content?
Behold! USC’s attempt at being quirky! You’ve been limited to less than the length of a tweet for each answer, so you’d better make every word (and character) count! These prompts don’t have time for generalities or gentle introductions, so you’ll have to cut straight to the point. The more specific your words are, the more memorable your answers will be. Favorite snack? Don’t just say, “popcorn and Junior Mints.” How about, “A box of junior mints melting over hot popcorn as I watch a horror movie” (72 characters). If you can paint a funny picture or display a knack for wit, take this chance, but don’t force it. You also don’t exactly have to think of this as filling in the blanks, but more as filling in any blanks in your application. Anything that doesn’t feel like it merits a full essay can go here as a tweet, hot take, punchline, or elegantly-worded sentence.
Brief Intro to USC
With a total undergraduate enrollment of 19,000, there is opportunity around every corner of USC’s beautiful campus. Academics at USC follow a Renaissance ideal, and the school emphasizes a unique undergraduate experience built around flexible academic programs and interdisciplinary research.
USC athletic teams boast a total of 123 national titles across various sports, and fans from across the nation often deck themselves out in cardinal and gold in support of the dominant Trojan football team. Athletics prides itself on this “fighting spirit,” and over 40 USC athletes participated in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.
The USC social dynamic is diverse and exciting, and if Greek life is your thing, about 25% of men are in a fraternity and 20% of women are in a sorority. With amazing academics and a gung-ho student culture, it’s no wonder that USC alum come away loving their four years as a Trojan.
Please respond to one of the (three) prompts below. (250 word limit)
Tell us about a time you were exposed to a new idea…
USC believes that one learns best when interacting with people of different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. Tell us about a time you were exposed to a new idea or when your beliefs were challenged by another point of view.
As USC makes clear in this prompt, they are looking to add diversity and believe that their student body will thrive when members of different backgrounds interact. Thus, this prompt is best if you can write at length on your unique views and experiences, and how a new idea or puzzling belief uprooted your sense of self. It’s a chance to share your individuality, perspectives, potential flaws, and willingness to adapt and improve with the world around you.
There are many ways to approach this prompt, since diversity prompts are becoming common, but two strong ways would be to use a narrative before explanation or give a vivid character description of yourself and the fundamental change in your perspective.
Remember to speak about the belief that challenged you in a nuanced way — most competitive applicants share experiences in being challenged by new academic and ethical perspectives, so strive to leave the reader thinking, “I never thought about that or experienced that before.” The new idea or belief can range from a social issue you initially disagreed with, to views on daily habits and vices, and often times entertaining stories can be weaved around a challenging moment.
If using a narrative, focus on employing descriptive language and sensory detail to transport the reader into the moment, and center your narrative around the event that challenged your views. Follow up with an explanation of your reaction and change in perspective. This is a great opportunity to showcase your writing ability and intrigue your reader, but avoid overdoing it or making your story feel comedic. It might pay to use a twist introduction or hyperbole when expressing your revelation, but still avoid aggrandizing excessively.
If you choose to write a description of your character, use vivid language to describe what you were like before and after exposure to the unique perspective on which you’re writing. Then, explain what this perspective was and how you changed. For example, you may have once been rather timid but are now bold and venturous, which you can elaborate on before describing the new belief that challenged you to the core and caused this change in personality. It’s a gamble that may confuse the reader, but can also make for a very interesting and enjoyable read.
Describe something outside of your intended academic focus…
Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning.
This is a straightforward prompt, and the response can be equally straightforward. If you have some academic interest not related to your major, explain what that is, why it’s important to you, and how you will strive to learn more about it. It can be something you have no experience in so far and are interested in learning more. You want to avoid discussing an interest or topic that doesn’t expand upon your extracurriculars and activities — rather, talk about a hidden passion or growing field that you are dying to explore and learn more about.
An alternate approach is to employ an anecdote to describe this interest. For example, you can talk about how you’ve wanted to master chess after hearing about computer AI that beat the world’s best chess player, or how you play the flute but know nothing about music theory and would like to learn more regardless of your intended degree in mechanical engineering. Maybe you are passionate about tying knots after being an eagle scout, and would like to expand your knowledge of knots and start a club at USC. There are few clichés — what you choose to write about will most likely be unique to your interests, so don’t feel limited in terms of what you choose to reveal.
What is something about yourself that is essential…
What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?
This prompt’s theme is similar to that of the first Common Application essay prompt: “Some students have a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful, they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.” If you wrote an essay for that prompt, it may be wise to select one of the other two options, unless you have something important and lengthy to write about here that is not otherwise discussed in your Common Application essay.
Admissions at USC can most likely gauge who you are as an academic and hard-working individual through the rest of your application, especially in terms of scores and extracurricular activities. Thus, when revealing something about yourself that is fundamental to understanding who you are, try not to talk more about traits involving your academics, i.e., traits that explain why you are so hard-working. If you do, it may be at the expense of being cliché and limiting the perspective of yourself lent to the admissions committee.
Also, essays on the experience of being a first-generation student, immigrant, or dedicated athlete have been rendered cliché by the frequency with which students write about them. Avoid these topics or take a nuanced approach that will distinguish you from other applicants.
The approach is simple, and you can use an anecdote here for a vehicle. You could talk about how growing up with synesthesia explains your love for music or how your uncle’s work as a surgeon has inspired you in many ways. Understand that no matter what you write about, it should inherently reveal something the admissions needs to know about you as a person.
Describe yourself in three words.
This part is simple, so don’t overthink it, but avoid being generic. It is a tendency to put words like generous, trustworthy, persevering, focused, diligent, etc., because it is natural for a student to convey their hard-working attitude and model-citizen personality. However, even if those do apply to you, USC wants to see you describe yourself as who you are, not who the student side of you is.
Whether you are quirky, amenable, inquisitive, gullible, compassionate, etc., it’s important to accurately portray your personality type. Be honest (even at the expense of mild self-deprecation, though it should be in good humor — nothing negative and contradictory), and use sophisticated diction.
Rapid fire – Personal Questions
What is your favorite snack?
Best movie of all time:
Hashtag to describe yourself:
What is your theme song?
What TV show will you binge watch next?
Place you are most content?
These are all personal questions that have no wrong answer, so feel free to answer what your actual likes and preferences are, whether your dream job is to be a freelance photographer (even though you’re applying as an electrical engineer), your theme song is the Pokémon theme (because you’ve been playing way too much Pokémon Go), your favorite website is The New Yorker, and you are most content people-watching on a park bench.
For some questions, such as the favorite TV show, students often feel compelled to portray themselves as a cultured and conscientious person and may elect to write down some documentary series or history show that they don’t actually watch, but this is the wrong approach. Admissions can often see through false answers when looking at your application as a whole. Be honest, even if that show is Game of Thrones, because it can reveal that you are in sync with modern culture and trends.
Writing the School of Engineering Prompts
If you plan on applying to the School of Engineering:
While scientists yearn to discover the world that exists, Engineers and Computer Scientists seek to create the world that never was. Our faculty and students believe collaborative teams are the key to great accomplishments. Please describe a time in your life (academic, co-curricular, or otherwise) where you had to collaborate to accomplish more than you could alone. (250 word limit)
Collaboration is important in the world of science and engineering, so USC wants to see the role collaboration has played in your past experiences. While most students will opt for the cliché “important group project in APUSH that you guys got an A on,” it’s important to give a nuanced approach to the topic of collaboration and how you collaborated.
You can really drive a narrative here, starting by describing a conflict in the realm you collaborated in, whether that was a small business you started with two friends or a research project during a summer program, then explaining how it was resolved and what you learned from that experience.
You could also reveal some vulnerabilities, stating how you had always been independent-minded and had done all work yourself, until you came across a daunting academic or extracurricular challenge so vast that you had to sacrifice your pride and collaborate to achieve more than you could have alone. The word count is limited, but it is important to use a good anecdote and clearly communicate the personality traits this collaboration reveals about yourself.
Your browser history says a lot about you. Take a moment to think about the time you spend online. Whether it’s browsing an Instagram account, listening to your favorite podcast, subscribing to the best web series on YouTube, or even addressing questions on tech-help forums, we want to know where you spend the most time online, and why. Please share your favorite online destination (via a web address, specific app, social network, etc.) — and describe why in a few sentences. (250 word limit)
Like the question you answered on your favorite website, this is a chance to reveal your personal style and preferences. Of course, you don’t want your favorite online destination to be Facebook or Twitter, unless there is a special reason why, such as using that site as a marketing platform for your budding tech startup, or using them to spread awareness for events at a local shelter.
Since this is your application to the school of engineering, they naturally want to see that where you end up online tends towards your STEM interests. On the flip-side, they don’t want to see you as a purely academic type who only reads nature publications every week — reveal who you are as a person through your web history in a way that ties in your desire to enter engineering.
Maybe you use your Instagram account to follow major companies and the kind of the things they are building, and you then post your own inventions to garner feedback and a following. Or perhaps you enjoy online tutorials and engaging science lectures on YouTube, or use Reddit to crowdsource massive amounts of polling data for a personal social psychology experiment. Similar to previous questions, there are few clichés because this is very personal, so have fun with your response!
Get your essay reviewed by our expert team before submitting. For more help and guidance through the admissions process, sign up for our distinguished application guidance services. Good luck with admissions, and fight on!