How I Got Into USC

Do you know how to improve your profile for college applications?

See how your profile ranks among thousands of other students using CollegeVine. Calculate your chances at your dream schools and learn what areas you need to improve right now — it only takes 3 minutes and it's 100% free.

Show me what areas I need to improve

What’s Covered: 

 

I established two criteria for navigating my college search during my junior year of high school: academic rigor and location (specifically, far from home). While I was confident that a highly-ranked university that required a plane flight would be right for me, I couldn’t name a single school except the Ivies that fit that bill—and, though it hurt my ego, I knew that my stats wouldn’t get me into the Ivies and, even if I got in, that the intensity would probably break me. 

 

One day when looking through university rankings, my dad had a casual thought—”Have we talked about USC?” We hadn’t talked about USC because I had never even heard of USC. I was a Texas girl and all my friends came out of the womb in either a UT Austin, OU, or Arkansas jumper. Were we talking about South Carolina? After some confusion, my dad told me all about the University of Southern California: a renowned university, known for its cinema program, but also excelling in STEM and the humanities, all in the heart of sunny SoCal. 

 

Flash forward four years, and USC isn’t some “renowned university.” It’s my campus full of my memories; it’s residence halls where I figured out what it means to be an adult; it’s classrooms where I discovered my passions. 

 

My USC Admissions Story

 

At my public high school in Dallas, the goal of finding a challenging school outside of the Deep South was anomalous, so the majority of my research into schools like USC took place at home starting in August of my senior year. After months of research and spreadsheets and pros-and-cons lists, I started submitting applications in November. 

 

This included my application to USC—a school I had never toured in a state I had never spent time in—which I submitted by the December 15 deadline so that I would automatically be considered for university merit scholarships. Getting my USC application submitted two weeks early (even when I did not expect to attend USC) was the best decision I’ve ever made because it led to an interview request, a trip to campus, and, ultimately, my receiving a half-tuition merit scholarship. I did not apply for any financial aid until my sophomore year at USC.

 

A little bit about me, for your reference:

 

  • Ethnicity: white
  • Citizenship: US citizen
  • Parental education level: professional degrees

 

Academics

 

To tell you more about my admissions story, we should start with academics. Academically, I excelled in high school. My love of learning led me to take extra classes and my competitive nature made me crave success (which meant good grades to me at the time). Since high school, I have lost most of my competitive drive, but I have maintained my passion for my studies. While USC students show a range of academic achievement before arriving in LA, it is clear on campus that USC student success is typically a product of our passion for our studies. We all love learning and that passion lends itself to a certain level of intensity.

 

My academic background:

 

  • Application GPA: 103.997
  • Application class rank: 2/555
  • AP courses
    • Freshman year: Human Geography
    • Sophomore year: World History and Biology
    • Junior year: US History, English Language, Physics, Spanish Language, and Capstone Seminar
    • Senior year: Government, Macroeconomics, English Literature, Calculus AB, Chemistry, Psychology, and Capstone Research

 

Note: For my admissions year, 88% of incoming freshmen to USC were in the top 10% of their graduating class. As seen above, my class rank fell well within this range.

 

Standardized Testing

 

Moving on to standardized tests, it is important to note that USC is a test-optional university for the 2022 and 2023 cycles. That being said, during my admissions cycle I was required to submit my scores from either the ACT or the SAT. 

 

I took the ACT once and submitted the scores below. When preparing for the ACT, I mostly used test preparation books. English has always been a strong point for me (a fact reflected in my test scores), likely because I love books. In high school, when I learned a new word through reading, I was adamant about incorporating the word into casual conversation. I think that actively using the vocabulary (and other skills) you are learning is a great tip for test prep, even if you aren’t a literature enthusiast like me!

 

My test scores:

  • PSAT: 1450/1520
  • ACT: 33/36
    • English: 35/36
    • Mathematics: 31/36
    • Reading: 34/36
    • Science: 33/36

 

Note: USC’s middle 50% ACT range for admitted students was 32-34 for the 2020-2021 cycle, with the average math score ranking from 29-35 and English ranging from 33-36. As seen above, my scores mostly fall somewhere in between (though I applied in another admissions cycle, average year-to-year stats tend to be comparable). The middle 50% SAT range was 1410-1540.

 

Extracurriculars and Awards

 

Extracurricular involvement is extremely important for selective schools, so here is a snapshot of some activities and awards that were included on my application resume:

 

Mock trial advocate and witness (11,12)

  • Served as captain of school’s mock trial team for two years
  • Responsibilities included teaching trial strategies and objections to junior team members, determining lineups for scrimmages and competitions, and organizing fundraising
  • Awarded “Outstanding Advocate” in the Region 10 District competition based on votes from professional judges during multiple trials (10)
  • Awarded “Outstanding Witness” in the Region 10 District competition based on votes from professional judges during multiple trials (12)

 

Spanish club president (11) and publicidad (10)

  • Envisioned, planned, and conducted various cultural experiences including field trips, concerts, and educational seminars
  • Organized club logistics including dues and membership

 

Wellesley College Book Award (11)

  • Awarded by Wellesley college to young women exhibiting intelligence, determination, motivation, and achievement

 

AP Scholar (10) and AP Scholar with Distinction (11)

  • Awarded for superior performance on multiple AP exams

 

National Merit commended student

  • Awarded in recognition of outstanding academic promise based on PSAT scores and the Texas selection indices

Discover your chances at hundreds of schools

Our free chancing engine takes into account your history, background, test scores, and extracurricular activities to show you your real chances of admission—and how to improve them.

Essays

 

I started thinking about my essay when my AP English Literature teacher started class one morning with a creative writing exercise. He emphasized imagery and painting a picture in the reader’s mind (a strategy that has stuck with me as my writing has evolved). 

 

USC uses the Common App for admissions, so I responded to the Common App prompt “Discuss an accomplishment or event that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood” by explaining my experience at a live-in youth therapy program. Here is an excerpt from the essay:

 

After crossing this ceremonial threshold of adolescence, it became time for me to re-integrate into the world as a strong, mature adult. The beating of drums filled my ears. It was the sound of the world preparing for my arrival. I shook with excitement. I prepared a statement representing my ideal self—an intent statement. Next, the words “who are you?” exploded from the crowd. I took a deep breath then from the bottom of my heart and at the top of my lungs came “I am a bold and wise adult who knows her true self and is unashamed of imperfection.” My heart pounded within my chest as the crowd erupted with joy.

 

Adulthood is imperfect, but dancing through the trials demonstrates true wisdom. Even as I write this essay, the idea of perfection lingers in the back of my mind.  What can I say so that you will understand me better? How can I distinguish myself from the other applicants? It’s times like these that I must cling to my mantra: I am a bold and wise adult who knows her true self and is unashamed of imperfection.

 

 I envision myself sitting in my dorm room in a few years. I begin scribbling numbers on a sheet of paper. Fatigue consumes me, yet thoughts continue to race through my mind—thoughts that need to be acted upon. What if I go to bed and the next thing I was going to study is on the test tomorrow? What if staying up another hour gains me a better grade? I run a cost-benefit analysis of sleep versus grades. But then, the idea that happiness is more important than perfection wanders in the back of my mind—an idea from my eighteenth summer spent in Punalu’u.

 

During my admissions cycle USC also asked for responses to the following supplemental questions:

 

  • Tell us about a time you were exposed to a new idea or when your beliefs were challenged by another point of view. 

 

Here, I wrote about a friend at the therapy program who called me a “shape-shifter” for changing how I presented myself in different social situations. I related his critique to the growth I addressed in my longer Common App essay, so that the readers could get a full picture of my life trajectory.

 

  • Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests at USC. 

 

Here, I wrote about my interest in neuroscience. I referenced the prestige of USC’s research programs as well as my plans to study abroad. Admissions likes when students demonstrate an active interest in campus life, including academic life!

 

Finally, USC likes to ask some funkier questions. Don’t overthink them, just answer honestly!

 

  • Describe yourself in three words: Determined, resilient, and growing
  • What is your favorite snack? Bagel with too much cream cheese
  • Favorite app/website: Virtual Pottery
  • Best movie of all time: Catch Me If You Can
  • Hashtag to describe yourself: #you_aint_seen_nothin_yet
  • What is your theme song? Imagine- John Lennon
  • Dream trip: Sagrada Familia in Spain 
  • What TV show will you binge watch next? Parenthood
  • Place you are most content? White Rock Coffee

 

Learn more about the USC essays and get your essays edited by a peer for free.

 

Letters of Recommendation

 

USC generally requires three letters of recommendation, with one from an academic source (though the requirements differ for some majors). For my academic letter, I asked my World History teacher who had also served as the sponsor of the mock trial team that I captained. High school was difficult for me, so I selected a teacher who was familiar with the obstacles that I had overcome, could articulately express my growth, and exhibited the discretion to protect some of my more personal experiences.

 

The key to letters of recommendation is knowing the teacher you are asking well enough to predict the way that they will represent you. I was represented as resilient—the phrase “phoenix from the ashes” was used—which precisely aligned with the growth I described in my Common App and supplemental essays.

 

Interviews

 

In early spring of my senior year I was asked to attend a program called Explore USC and interview for the Presidential Scholarship. Last week was the four year anniversary of my Explore weekend, when I came to LA for the first time, stayed in a residence hall with a USC student, went on a campus tour, attended different programs and speakers, and had my interview with a group of faculty, staff, and students.

 

The interview itself, like any important opportunity, is nerve-racking—and that’s normal! People say that confidence is key, but I think it’s important to specify what exactly you should be confident about. The answer: your strengths. Personally, I was surprised that USC was considering me for a scholarship. I was not confident in my ability to face the school’s academic rigor. I was not confident in my future plans. I wasn’t even certain I believed that I deserved a scholarship. 

 

Despite all of those doubts, I was confident in my ability with words and my strength at communicating my thought processes. I reminded myself constantly that, even if I didn’t have a great answer for a question, I would be able to articulate the reason for my uncertainty in an intriguing and interesting way. 

 

While not everyone is great at articulating their thoughts, everyone is great at something. Some people can rely on their passion for their field as a crutch. Others can rely on their determination or their work ethic. It’s important to recognize that you can’t be confident about everything (the word for that is egotistical, actually), so figuring out your strengths and using them to your advantage is the only way to make it through an important (and thus, stressful) interview.

 

Final Tips for Applying to USC

 

USC’s application, particularly the supplemental questions, give you a space to tell a full narrative about who you are and what you value. Use that space! Then, use your recommendations (and potentially your interview) to support the amazing narrative that you outlined in your application. I thought of my application as a place to show my story to USC, to build an image of my life, and to foreshadow what that life would look like once I was a student at USC.

 

What Are Your Chances at USC?

 

Only 16.1% of USC applicants were accepted in 2020. If you’re feeling discouraged by this low acceptance rate, remember that your personal chances of acceptance can vary based on your profile. Also keep in mind that your profile doesn’t need to look exactly like mine—USC aims to create a diverse student body with all kinds of interests.

 

To better understand your chances of acceptance, use our free admissions calculator. This tool will not only let you know your chances at hundreds of schools, but also give you tips for improving your profile. 

 

Getting into a selective school requires a strong strategy, and our free admissions platform can help you every step of the way, from your school search to essays to live advice from admissions experts.

 

Want more tips on improving your academic profile?

We'll send valuable information to help you strengthen your profile and get ready for college admissions.


Brooke Elkjer
Blog Writer at CollegeVine
Short bio
Brooke is a third year at the University of Southern California, originally from Dallas, Texas. She is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience. Brooke is the associate literary producer for the intersectional feminist production company on campus, ART/EMIS. She also is a Resident Assistant (RA) and a student worker for the Thematic Option Honors GE Program. In her free time, Brooke enjoys reading, writing, and painting