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How to Write the USC Application Essays 2018-2019

The University of Southern California — more commonly known as USC — is located in the heart of Los Angeles, California. The school’s position in a metropolitan area offers students the opportunity to not only explore their own intellectual curiosities, but also the city’s vibrant cultures.


Often known for its fierce athletic rivalries, the Trojan student body advertises a highly spirited, tight-knit community. With nearly one-fifth of the undergraduate class involved in Greek life, the school encourages its students to embrace both social and intellectual endeavors.


Boasting competitive programs in business, medicine, and engineering, USC has become one of the most prestigious private research universities in California. This past year, USC was ranked #21 by U.S News & World Report, and achieved a historic low acceptance rate of 16%, with over 56,000 applicants.


In addition to the Common App personal statement, USC requires two supplementary essays (four for prospective engineers), and multiple short answer questions. While these essays may initially seem daunting, CollegeVine is here to help you approach these prompts and land a spot in USC’s class of 2023!


USC Application Essay Prompts

Please respond to one of the prompts below (250 words or less).

The first question allows you to choose between three prompts. Many of you are probably worried about making the mistake of choosing the “wrong” prompt, but it is important to know that no prompt is easier than the other. It’s important to remember that there is no right or wrong answer here; the purpose of this essay is for the admissions office to get to know you and your individuality.


If you’re having trouble choosing, it might be better to think of personal experiences first and molding the story to fit one of the prompts. While the questions are different, the goal is the same: to showcase your personality. It’s safe to say that your anecdote will likely work for all 3 prompts — it’s just a matter of which approach you want to take.


The main challenge with this essay is the brevity of your response; with only 250 words, there isn’t too much room to pack in loads of details. Even so, 250 words provide plenty of room for a brief introduction, at least one short-body paragraph, and a few sentences to wrap up at the end. Here is how we at CollegeVine recommend you to tackle each prompt.

Prompt Option #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.

At first glance, this question seems very similar to prompt #3 on the Common Application: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? The key difference between the two is that USC wants to know about a time when your belief was challenged by someone or something else. Here, you are the one being challenged, not the one doing the challenging.


For those of you who chose prompt #3 on the Common App, do not write about the same thing. This will just make your application seem too repetitive. Instead, try to think of some situations that forced you to look at an idea from a different perspective and thereby prompted your growth as an individual.

Here are a few examples to get you started:


  • Speech and Debate – You were a member of your school’s Speech and Debate Team and participated in a competitive tournament. You competed under a debate category that mimics a Congressional hearing room, and took stances on scenarios that reflect modern world issues and controversies. Perhaps the issue at hand was internet security or the implementation of renewable energy. During your round, you were challenged by a rival competitor who put forth an opposing perspective, bringing a new idea to the table. What did you learn from this?


  • Foreign Travel – You traveled to another country on a mission to educate and bring medical resources to underprivileged kids and their families. Having never traveled internationally before, you had never encountered another country’s culture or practices. Shocked by the torn state of the developing nations, you learned about the world outside of your own home state. You were introduced to the notion of embracing another country’s environment and using it as a means to gain worldly perspectives. This trip ignited your desire to provide assistance to those in need and expand your worldviews through travel.


  • Challenged Through Literature – Being exposed to a new idea or being challenged can be as simple as reading a book (literally). Perhaps Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In inspired you to conquer your introversion and step out of your comfort zone. Or maybe her book exposed you to a new idea by proposing a novel way to approach work and leadership.

The key here is to demonstrate some sort of personal growth. While the prompt doesn’t explicitly ask for this, including a few sentences on how you matured will add that extra “wow factor” that USC loves to see. It is important to be honest here (as with all essays). Don’t write what you think USC wants to hear — write what you think highlights who YOU are. If you didn’t save hundreds of lives by providing vaccines to children in Africa, then there is no reason to pretend that you did.

Prompt Option #2

Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning.

Here, it is important to note that USC wants something outside of your academic focus. This, however, doesn’t limit you to discussing only academic topics; you are free to discuss almost anything that you’re interested in (as long as it’s appropriate, of course). Essentially, this is USC’s way of asking, “What else are you interested in?”

There are two ways to approach this prompt:


  • Write about an interest that is outside of your focus, but connects back to your major. An example of this would be a Biology major interested in using artificial intelligence to streamline medical practices or an Environmental Studies major interested in law for the purpose of implementing green energy policies.


  • Write about something completely unrelated to your major. This gives you more freedom and can thus be about anything. For example, you could be an Economics major with an interest in music or a Physics major who wants to be multilingual.

As with the previous prompt, it is important to be truthful. Don’t write about an interest that you think will make you look more appealing, as admissions officers can easily spot essays that try too hard. In order to convey real passion, be yourself and be honest. This is a great prompt to employ descriptive language and imagery; entice the readers into wanting to learn about what you love.

Prompt Option #3

What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?

Out of the three prompts, this one is the most open-ended, almost mimicking the infamous interview question “tell me about yourself.” Before jumping in, first ask yourself, “Is there anything I want USC to know about me?” When contemplating this, make sure you choose something that cannot be found somewhere else on your application. Don’t write about being a star basketball player if you already listed that under your extracurriculars.


Since this prompt is so flexible, you can incorporate any of the aforementioned examples from the previous two prompts to fit into this one. For instance, you could write a vivid account of your travels last summer and emphasize your desire to absorb new cultures. Or perhaps your interests in law and public policy are what fuel you to work toward making a positive social impact.


An easier way to start brainstorming for this prompt is to create a list of your personal qualities (avoid clichés like hard working, responsible, smart, etc). After doing this, try thinking of anecdotes that show or highlight this particular quality. If you’re adventurous, it would be great to tell a story of the time you went skydiving and connect it back to your inclination to step out of your comfort zone. If you’re a problem-solver, include an anecdote of the time you successfully completed an escape room and use that to highlight your love for puzzles in everyday life. Here, the possibilities are endless.


This prompt allows for more creativity; there is no need to be too serious and academic here. It doesn’t hurt to have a little fun with this essay — a little light humor goes a long way. As always, use vivid language to show the reader who you are.

Essay Prompt 2

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)

With so many options at USC, it might be a little overwhelming to choose a major let alone know how to pursue it. CollegeVine is here to help you narrow down your interests and find ways to express them at USC.


Before we dive in, here are a few facts about USC that will help you get started:


  1. USC is located in metropolitan L.A., the home of many large companies such as Deloitte, Bank of America, and Paul Hastings.
  2. USC has its own medical school, the Keck School of Medicine.
  3. USC has its own business school — the Marshall School of Business — that offers programs for undergraduates.


To approach this prompt, you should first evaluate your academic interests and your selected major. Next, you should ask yourself, “Why USC?” What does USC offer in your major that no other college offers? If you are interested in medicine, you might discuss the practical experience that the Keck School of Medicine can provide you. Perhaps you have a strong interest in stem cells, and will pursue this by conducting medical research at Keck. Or maybe you are more interested in clinical experience and are hoping to shadow doctors at the medical school’s hospital.


If you are interested in business economics, you can analyze USC’s optimal location in downtown Los Angeles, discussing how the school’s geography gives you access to internships with the nation’s top corporations. You can include a brief paragraph on the strengths of USC’s Marshall School of Business, raving about how an education there will provide you with the necessary leadership skills to succeed in business.


Avoid vague and cliché answers such as “USC has a good business school,” or “USC is prestigious and highly ranked.” These types of responses don’t particularly answer the question, nor do they show that you have done your research on the school.


No matter what subject you intend to pursue, the most important thing is to show the school what you will do at USC if you are accepted. Which professors do you look forward to working with? What special curriculum path do you hope to head down? What resource do you plan to take advantage of? There is no right or wrong answer; USC just wants to understand the academic path you intend to follow. You don’t have to be too creative or try to think of an outside-the-box answer. For this prompt, simple and straightforward is better.

Short Answer (One Sentence)


Describe yourself in three words.

First Word:

Second Word:

Third Word:

What is your favorite snack?

Favorite app/website:

Best movie of all time:

Hashtag to describe yourself:

Dream job:

What is your theme song:

Dream trip:

What TV show will you binge watch next:

Place you are most content:

These rapid-fire questions scare a lot of applicants because many think there is a “correct” way to answer them. The reality is, however, as with all prompts, there is no right or wrong answer. 


Since you have 100 characters for each short answer of this style, you can briefly explain your choices if you wish (e.g.”Best movie of all time: The Godfather; the depth and complexity of the mobsters was an unprecedented portrayal of crime circles”). If you can add answers that showcase your personality, i.e. a genuinely funny joke or something really interesting, then that might help you stand out a bit if it resonates with your admissions officer. But don’t force anything or it will produce the opposite effect.


It often scares students to leave such a straightforward response, but that’s exactly the purpose of these questions. The school wants to get to know you in a more direct and casual way. Unless your favorite website really is CNN or your theme song is Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, there is no reason to be too obscure or intellectual. If you thought Mean Girls was the best movie of all time, then don’t be afraid to put that down!


As long as you avoid any offensive comments and your answer is appropriate, you can practically write anything in the spaces (as long as it’s honest). Even so, make sure to use your own good judgement for these answers. If you were a big Fifty Shades of Grey fan, it might be better to put down your second choice for best movie of all time.

For Engineers

*The following prompts are only for students who listed engineering as their major.

What do you personally expect to get out of studying engineering or computer science in college? (250 words)

This prompt closely resembles the standard “Why Major?” question that schools often ask. In the “Why Major?” prompt, you want to explain your motivation for studying that subject, why you’re qualified to do so, and why that specific school is a fitting environment to pursue that major. This USC prompt, however, focuses specifically on why you’re interested in engineering or computer science, as well as what you hope to accomplish with your degree. One thing to note is that you can discuss what you want to gain while you’re a student and what you want to be able to do after you graduate.


Take care not to repeat any information from the previous prompt about how you intend to pursue your academic interests at USC. That prompt is where you’ll want to write about USC-specific resources. In this section, you can really hone in on the reason behind your intended major.


Perhaps you want to study computer science because you’ve witnessed firsthand how much more efficient it can make our lives. For example, maybe you were able to code a program for a hospital that you volunteered at that saved employees from manually searching for and updating data. With a degree in computer science, perhaps you want to be able to build larger-scale programs to increase efficiency of data systems in hospitals even further. In terms of the skills you might develop while in college, maybe you want to better understand the collaborative side of computer science, since you’ve been coding mostly on your own.


Whatever the reason, be sure to tell an engaging story about your passion for engineering or computer science, as well as the skills you hope to develop.

For Engineers

While the world as a whole may be more technologically advanced than ever before, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) has outlined 14 Grand Challenges that engineers should focus on to improve life on the planet. Learn about the Grand Challenges at www.engineeringchallenges.org and tell us which challenge is most important, and why. (250 words)

It might be difficult to pick just one challenge out of the 14, but it’s important to note that one choice isn’t better than the other. This prompt definitely holds less of a personal aspect compared to other questions since it does not explicitly ask about “you.” If relevant however, your personal experiences can still be incorporated.


If you have experience conducting research in a lab, you might find the challenge “Engineer Better Medicines” the most important. For this example, you can connect your time working in research to your summer internship at the hospital and speak about how you witnessed firsthand the level of physical, emotional, and familial impact research work has on people.


Even if you do not have any personal connection with any of these challenges, however, you can still write an equally strong response as long as you give your reasons for your selection. You can even draw on other people’s life stories here. It is about how you convince the reader that your challenge takes precedence, and not about the actual challenge. The key word for this prompt is “why.”


As an example, if you choose “Make Solar Power Economical,” you could praise the potential that solar power holds, but challenge the high price that makes it difficult for most people to obtain. Following this with an explanation of the rapid depletion of Earth’s natural resources will help you emphasize the need for a shift in energy source and thereby, more renewable energy affordability. This was just one example of how to approach the question, but make sure to always answer the “why” no matter what prompt you are writing about.


Here are some questions to get you on track:


  1. Will the world be a more unbearable living environment if we did not make any progress in Challenge #1 or Challenge #2 (and so on) in 50 years?
  2. What does the future look like if the world unites in tackling this obstacle?
  3. How and why will this improve our future?

Final Tips

As with all other personal essays, remember to show and don’t tell the reader who you are. DO be genuine and DO answer the question. DON’T pretend to be someone else and DON’T be afraid to be yourself. Happy writing!


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Our college essay experts go through a rigorous selection process that evaluates their writing skills and knowledge of college admissions. We also train them on how to interpret prompts, facilitate the brainstorming process, and provide inspiration for great essays, with curriculum culled from our years of experience helping students write essays that work.