How to Write the USC Supplemental Essays 2019-2020
The University of Southern California, home of the Trojans, is located in the bustling heart of Los Angeles, California. The private school is renowned for its sunny weather, campus spirit, and academic rigor.
In the 2018-2019 admissions cycle, almost 65,000 students vied for just 8,400 spots, an acceptance rate of 12.9%. This rate is the lowest USC has ever seen, and marks a full three-point drop from the previous year. With the school’s growing pool of applicants, and decreasing rate of acceptance, the admissions numbers are undoubtedly tough.
It’s more important than ever to make your application stand out, and the essays are the key to this. Your essays are one of the only opportunities you’ll have to show an admissions officer who you are beyond the numbers, and with USC’s total of 14 different prompts, it’s clear this school wants you to seize that opportunity. Want to know your chances at USC? Calculate your chances for free right now.
Long Answer Prompts
The tricky bit about this prompt is that it essentially combines the “why this major” and “why this school” essay archetypes into one essay with a strict cap of 250 words. That’s a lot of information in not a whole lot of space.
One way to maximize the little space you have is to find a way to relate your first and second choice majors. This way, your explanations of each wouldn’t read like separate essays; rather, they would be telling different parts of the same story.
Say your first choice major is physics; your second choice is English. In this case, a potential angle for your essay could be explaining a dream of yours is to publish a fictional book that incorporates the phenomenons of physics. By relating your two prospective majors to one another, you conserve space by avoiding the need to separately delve into an explanation of each. Moreover, you demonstrate a focus in your academic goals and beyond.
If this isn’t possible, and your majors really are just disparate, that’s totally okay too. You’ll just have to be a little more careful to stay under the word limit.
Now for the second part: why USC? This is, of course, the most vital aspect of the prompt. By the end of your essay, you need to have convinced USC that it is the best school to help you obtain your dreams and that, given the chance, you would take full advantage of their resources in order to obtain those dreams.
To do this second part justice, you need to be as specific to USC as possible. Too many students make the mistake of broad or unbackable statements. Here’s an example of how to achieve the specificity you need.
Bad: USC is a great school, located in the beautiful city of Los Angeles, with unparalleled academics and renowned instructors.
Good: At USC, I would join the Cosmic Writers club to find a community of students who, like me, are passionate about the intersection of physics and English.
In the bad example, the sentence could just as easily apply to UCLA; without the bit about Los Angeles, the reasoning could even apply to any decent school in existence. The second example works because it provides a resource unique to USC.
USC’s second prompt is optional and won’t apply to most students. However, if you do have a gap in your educational history, then be sure to use this space to address it. Give a brief explanation of the reasoning for the gap—be it illness, a move, etc.—as well as an overview of how you spent this time outside of school.
For example, let’s say your family moved across the country and you took a term off during the transfer. You can describe your role in the move (perhaps you were in charge of organizing a yard sale), why the circumstances warranted an educational gap (maybe the new school doesn’t allow mid-term transfers), and any other projects or commitments you dedicated your time off to.
Ideally, you want to demonstrate how you made the most of this time off and why the time off was necessary.
For this essay, USC lets you pick the prompt that resonates with you.
The first prompt is an opportunity to demonstrate kindness and responsibility, but you should only pick it if you feel it genuinely applies to you. If, for example, you have a pet dog that you take for walks once a week, don’t write an essay about that. On the other hand, if both of your parents work and you care for your younger sibling every day after school, that could make for a great essay.
The second prompt is a freebie. That’s the one to pick if there’s something you’re dying to say that you haven’t been able to yet. Maybe you have a unique hobby or a project you’ve worked on—this is a great place to talk about it!
The third prompt is an opportunity to demonstrate growth and maturity, but it’s important to stay focused. You don’t want the essay to be vague or didactic, so a workaround is to base the advice around an anecdote. Maybe you were struggling in math class and you put in extra hours to get an A on a test; you can tell the story with the moral of hard work paying off. Keep in mind, however, that you want the advice to be more unique than this and for the story to show more about who you are.
A good example might be to explain the story behind an activity you do. Maybe you’ve listed cross country and track in your activities section, but you didn’t get to explain that you used to hate running, and only began liking it after running a charity 5k for a friend’s mother—the run was grueling, but it showed you how empowering pushing your body was. This would be an interesting anecdote, and also illustrate your grit.
Before you choose a prompt, you might want to brainstorm a few ideas for each, and select the one you feel will allow you to say the most about you.
Similar to the last prompt, USC offers you three options to choose from. Let’s take a look at each.
In the first prompt, USC is asking you to demonstrate that you will appreciate, add to, and benefit from the diverse community they have fostered. Use the space to tell a story that shows your own personal growth or character arc. The key here is to show that you are open-minded and that you understand the value of learning from the people around you.This prompt is a tough one to do justice, so only pick it if it really resonates with you!
The second prompt is another one that either speaks to you, or it doesn’t. If you have a hobby, or even just a burning curiosity, outside of your first and second-choice majors, feel free to use the second prompt to talk about it. You can also use this space to tie the interest back to how you hope to pursue it at USC.
For example, if you’ve always wanted to know more about film production—maybe you make the occasional YouTube video but have never formally explored film as a hobby—you can talk about why this is an interest of yours and how USC’s incredible film resources (being more specific, of course) would allow you to delve deeper into this topic.
One thing to keep in mind is that this interest shouldn’t be entirely random. While it’s fully okay to not have an extensive background—that is the point of the essay, after all—you should be able to explain at least how you came to be interested in the subject. If possible, include an anecdote!
Finally, the third prompt: the third prompt is really an opportunity to share something about yourself that you haven’t yet been able to. That said, it shouldn’t be a random fact or tidbit; it needs to be more fundamental to what makes you who you are. Choose a specific quality about yourself—maybe you love trying as many new things as possible, for example—and then tell a story about this that ties into how the quality is a key component of what makes you, you.
Short Answer Prompts
In this section, USC lets you have a little fun. The questions ask for short, rapid-fire responses that give you the opportunity to let your individuality shine.
1. Describe yourself in three words (25 characters max each).
Example: Cinephile. Cynophile. Logophile.
Tip: Be creative!
2. What is your favorite snack?
Example: Grandma’s Lebkuchen
Tip: This is an opportunity to show your roots or quirky favorites.
3. Best movie of all time
Example: October Sky
Tip: A lot of applicants will write Harry Potter. Be genuine in your response, but take this opportunity to stand out rather than providing a generic answer.
4. Dream job
Example: Crossword Puzzle Writer
Tip: If you go with a serious answer, make it a clear connection to your major to show
that you’re focused in your academic path. That said, you could also go for a more
lighthearted answer, like crossword puzzle writer, to use the space to show personality.
5. If your life had a theme song, what would it be?
Example: The XX Intro
Tip: Just as with the best movie prompt, you may want to avoid mainstream selections
and instead put forward a title that says something about you. What song would you want
the admissions officer to play while reading your application? Make sure the song you
choose is appropriate.
6. Dream trip
Example: Road trip around the perimeter of Iceland
Tip: Be more specific than simply “Hawaii” or “Europe.” Also, just as with all the
prompts, you want to convey something about yourself in your response, so avoid
mainstream or overly luxurious answers.
7. What TV show will you binge watch next?
Example: Aggretsuko (anime about a red panda who relieves job stress by singing death metal at karaoke bars)
Tip: Follow similar guidelines to the theme song prompt—mainstream selections are fine
and are potentially relatable to the reader, but that quirkier show you have your eye on
might make for a more fun response. If your selection is lesser-known, consider adding a brief description.
8. Which well-known person or fictional character would be your ideal roommate?
Example: Rory Gilmore (at least we’ll always have coffee)
Tip: It’s okay to go with a more well-known character here, since that will allow the
reader to relate. You can add a brief descriptor in parentheses, although in many cases
this isn’t necessary if you feel your selection speaks for itself.
9. Favorite book
Example: Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
Tip: Follow the same advice for best movie of all time.
10. If you could teach a class on any topic, what would it be?
Example: SETI: Using the Drake Equation to Find E.T.
Tip: You can have some fun with this prompt; try thinking outside the box of the generic
“Intro to Calculus.” You can also have the class relate back to your intended major,
though that’s not absolutely necessary.
The most important thing to keep in mind with the short answer supplements is that USC is giving you an opportunity to provide new information that sheds light on different aspects of your personality.
Don’t repeat tidbits you’ve already mentioned, although you can and should develop new angles of themes you’ve already established. Most importantly, have fun in this section! If you’re having fun writing it, chances are your admissions officer will have fun reading it.
You can leave descriptions or notes in your responses, though remember that you have 100 characters max. If your choices are more offbeat, we recommend giving a brief description, as your admissions officer certainly won’t have the time to look things up. If your choices are pretty well-known, you can still leave a note about why you chose it (as in the sample response to #8). It’s another opportunity to share your personality, which is valuable!
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