How to Write the USC Supplemental Essays 2021-2022

The University of Southern California has a few supplemental essays that students must complete. There are two required essays and one optional essay. The required essays cover your academic interests at USC and lets you choose from three prompts covering diversity, interdisciplinary education, or personal background. The optional essay gives you the opportunity to explain any gaps in your high school education. 

 

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 many 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.​​

 

USC Supplemental Essay Prompts

Prompt 1: Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests and why you want to explore them at USC specifically. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections (250 words).

 

Prompt 2: Respond to one of the prompts below (250 words).

 

  • Option 1: USC believes that one learns best when interacting with people of different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Tell us about a time when you were exposed to a new idea or when your beliefs were challenged by another point of view. Please discuss the significance of the experience and its effect on you.

 

  • Option 2: USC faculty place an emphasis on interdisciplinary academic opportunities. Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning.

 

  • Option 3: What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?

 

Prompt 3 (Optional): Starting with the beginning of high school/secondary school, if you have had a gap where you were not enrolled in school during a fall or spring term, please address this gap in your educational history. You do not need to address a summer break (250 words).

 

Short Answer Prompts: Respond to all the prompts below (100 characters unless otherwise specified)

 

  1. Describe yourself in three words (25 characters each)
  2. What is your favorite snack?
  3. Best movie of all time
  4. Dream job
  5. If your life had a theme song, what would it be?
  6. Dream trip
  7. What TV show will you binge watch next?
  8. Which well-known person or fictional character would be your ideal roommate?
  9. Favorite Book
  10. If you could teach a class on any topic, what would it be?

 

Dornsife Applicants Prompt: Please select one of the essay prompts below. Please provide an essay of no more than 250 words on your selected prompt topic. In your response, we encourage you to write about something that you haven’t already discussed elsewhere in your application. 

 

  • Option 1: The word “education” can take on a variety of meanings. To some, receiving a high school or college diploma is the ultimate mark of being “educated,” while others take a different view. Looking past receiving a diploma, what does it mean to you personally to be “educated”? What standards will you put in place to define whether or not you’ve obtained a great education?

 

  • Option 2: Many of us have at least one issue or passion that we care deeply about — a topic on which we would love to share our opinions and insights in hopes of sparking intense interest and continued conversation. If you had ten minutes and the attention of a million people, what would your talk be about?

 

Prompt 1 (Required)

Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests and why you want to explore them at USC specifically. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections (250 words).

 

The tricky bit about this prompt is that it essentially combines the “Why This Major” and “Why This College” 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, which might feel overwhelming. The first thing you should do is figure out the content of your essay.

 

Step One: Think about your academic interests (i.e. your majors). 

 

  • How did your interests develop? 
  • Why are you passionate about your interests? 
  • What are your goals within your interests?
  • How will pursuing your major help you achieve your goals in life? 

 

Step Two: Think about the answers to those questions in relation to USC. 

 

  • How will USC help you to further develop your interests? 
  • What resources does the university have that will help you achieve your goals? 

 

While your essay should explore resources that will aid in your academic pursuits, you should also keep it as specific to USC as possible—this essay should not be able to be copied and pasted for any other university! 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.

 

Why is this bad? This 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.

 

Good: At USC, I plan to participate in the Joint Educational Project (JEP) to find a community of students who, like me, are passionate about the intersections of teaching and social justice. Through JEP, I will be able to actively use the teaching principles I learn in my classes about the Dynamics of Early Childhood.

 

Why is this good? It references a unique resource at USC and relates to the student’s academic interests.

 

The Final Step: Write a cohesive essay that tells admissions officers why you are pursuing your field and why USC is the right place for you to pursue it. Some examples could include:

 

  • An Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering student who was obsessed with the launching of the Antares rocket, movies like Gattaca and The Martian, and their physics summer camp as a middle schooler. They could describe their goal of working for NASA, then discussing their interest in the USC Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (RPL).
  • An English student who ultimately wants to write romance novels discussing the Creative Writing Hour series that is hosted by English faculty. They might want to reference some of the big-name professors at USC—like Maggie Nelson, Aimee Bender, Dana Johnson, and T.C. Boyle—who have inspired their love of writing.
  • A Fine Arts applicant mentioning the Fisher Museum of Art that is on USC’s campus. It was after a school field trip to the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) that they first tried working with graphite and learned of their life goals. They know the power of art museums for inspiration and are excited to have a constant source of inspiration just minutes away.

 

If you are worried about the word count, 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. A student with a first-choice major in Physics and a second-choice major in English might want to write about their ultimate goal of writing Science Fiction novels. A student with a first-choice major in History and a second-choice major in East Asian Languages and Culture might write about their goal of curating Asian American history museums.

 

Make sure you focus on your academic interests/goals and tell admissions officers the ways that USC will help your academic dreams come true, and you will be set!

 

Prompt 2 (Required)

 

Option 1

USC believes that one learns best when interacting with people of different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Tell us about a time when you were exposed to a new idea or when your beliefs were challenged by another point of view. Please discuss the significance of the experience and its effect on you. (250 words)

 

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. In this sense, this essay is similar to “The Diversity Essay” archetype, just flipped on its head. It is important to recognize that this prompt builds in a lot of flexibility. There are many different avenues that your essay is free to go down.

 

First, it does not specify the kind of experience you have to discuss. You could talk about joining a new club, making a new acquaintance, reading a book that challenged your views, internal questioning (where you were the one presenting the new ideas), or any other experience that connects to the prompt. One topic we recommend staying away from, however, is sharing how you used to be closed-minded about certain groups of people (like certain cultures or sexualities), but now are open-minded. While you may be more open-minded now, this sort of situation doesn’t present yourself in the best light.

 

Second, it does not specify whether the challenge must be positive or negative—both positive and negative experiences have effects on us! For example, if a student were to write about an experience at a protest, it might not be the most joyful essay, but it could be compelling. On the other hand, a student could write about a situation where they made a friend who was very different from them and learned about themself—like a Christian young girl learning the principles of Hinduism through a new friend or a student of South African descent learning about the history of Algeria from their Algerian American teacher.

 

Third, it does not specify if the challenge or exposure had to lead to you changing your belief. Sometimes we are challenged and the challenge simply reaffirms something we formerly believed. If that’s your situation, you are free to write about it!

 

Use the space to tell a story that shows your 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.

 

Prompt 2, Option 2

USC faculty place an emphasis on interdisciplinary academic opportunities. Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning. (250 words)

 

This prompt is great for students who have a hobby, interest, or even just a burning curiosity, outside of their first and second-choice majors. 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 would allow you to delve deeper into this topic. 

 

You can also use this space to demonstrate your passion for your major and show how that passion compels you to make connections between your field of study and other fields of study. This approach—which simultaneously shows that you understand the interconnectedness of academics and care about your field—will be very appealing to admissions officers. Examples could include:

 

  • A student majoring in Fine Arts expressing an interest in biology and anatomy because they ultimately aspire to be a medical illustrator
  • A student majoring in International Relations being interested in studying Arabic due to their Middle Eastern ethnicity and its ability to help them in their career
  • A student majoring in Creative Writing who is interested in songwriting because they believe their words take on new power when incorporated into music

 

One thing to keep in mind is that your interest shouldn’t be entirely random. While it’s okay to not have an extensive background, you should be able to explain at least how you came to be interested in the subject. 

 

If the subject you are writing about does not relate to your major studies, you might want to consider including an anecdote to introduce your new subject. This essay might take on a more narrative form. On the other hand, if your interest relates to your major, you might want to write a reflective essay about your goals and the importance of interdisciplinary studies in achieving your goals. 

 

Prompt 2, Option 3

What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?  (250 words)

 

Finally, the third prompt is an opportunity to share something about yourself that you haven’t yet been able to. This could include discussing your values, beliefs, history, identity, or personality. Just make sure to keep in mind that the prompt asks for something essential to understanding you—don’t stretch this too far. Here are some examples:

 

Your Values

 

  • Your upbringing in Japanese culture led to an emphasis on respect in the way you approach your daily life
  • A negative experience where a family member was unexpectedly cut off from your family led you to value loyalty
  • Your reading habit shows you the importance of precision of language, as articulating one’s thoughts is fundamental to human connection

 

Your Beliefs

 

  • Your Christian faith is something you grapple with, but you know that you agree with the basic tenets of caring for others and helping
  • You believe forgiveness to be the most valuable human quality because of a time that you had to forgive yourself for hurting someone very badly
  • You see communication as key after a time when your sibling relationship took a major hit because you didn’t communicate early enough and resentment built

 

Your History

 

  • Your values or beliefs were shaped by a past family or individual trauma
  • An experience with adversity or a struggle made you who you are
  • You had so much trouble learning English when you first moved to the United States, but studied hard and now are confident in your English

 

Your Identity

 

  • The economic status of your family has led to struggles and you have had to support your family for years
  • Your unique experience of growing up queer in your community helped you figure out what matters in a friend
  • A mental/physical difference led people to judge you and disregard you and affected your self-esteem for a long time

 

Your Personality

 

  • You are known for your gregarious personality and specifically how you get your sick father laughing when he has hard days
  • You have always been super mature, organized, and compassionate so your friends call you mom
  • You were the school’s mascot and are not afraid to make a fool of yourself

 

Of course, these are just a few examples. This prompt can go anywhere you want as long as it ties back to something fundamental about yourself. Take some time to really think about why you are the way you are.

 

Prompt 3 (Optional)

Starting with the beginning of high school/secondary school, if you have had a gap where you were not enrolled in school during a fall or spring term, please address this gap in your educational history. You do not need to address a summer break (250 words). 

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 to which you dedicated your time. 

 

Ideally, you want to demonstrate how you made the most of this time off and why the time off was necessary.

Short Answer Prompts

Required: respond to all the prompts below (100 characters unless otherwise specified)

1. Describe yourself in three words (25 characters each)
2. What is your favorite snack?
3. Best movie of all time
4. Dream job
5. If your life had a theme song, what would it be?
6. Dream trip
7. What TV show will you binge watch next?
8. Which well-known person or fictional character would be your ideal roommate?
9. Favorite Book
10. If you could teach a class on any topic, what would it be?

 

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.

 

The most important thing to keep in mind with the short answer supplements is that USC is asking you 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 them (as in the sample response to #8). It’s another opportunity to share your personality, which is valuable!

 

1. Describe yourself in three words (25 characters max each).

 

Example: Cinephile. Cynophile. Logophile. 

 

Tip: Be creative!

 

2. What is your favorite snack?

 

Example: My Gram’s Lebuchken, tiny gingerbread-esque German cakes that my family devours each holiday season.

 

Tip: This is an opportunity to show your roots or quirky favorites. Make your response more interactive by including descriptive words that appeal to the senses, especially taste and smell. Also, if you’re using another language or describing a less common food, feel free to provide a short description or explanation so that someone who’s never heard of it before can still imagine it.

 

3. Best movie of all time

 

Example: October Sky; Homer’s rockets remind me of my own homemade science creations, like my DIY lava lamp.

 

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: A math professor; sharing my love of topology to positively shape students’ view of the subject. 

 

Example: Crossword Puzzle Writer; my mornings aren’t complete without a cup of OJ and my daily brain teaser.

 

Tip: If you go with a serious answer, make a clear connection to your major to show that you’re focused on your academic path. Don’t give a generic answer like “doctor” or “lawyer;” talk about what specialty or subfield interests you most. That said, you could also go for a more lighthearted answer, like a crossword puzzle writer, to use the space to show personality.

 

5. If your life had a theme song, what would it be?

 

Example: The [TV show] Intro; I’d like to think of myself as a [character], but I have to admit I’m more of an [character]. 

 

Example: Happy Birthday by AJR – a catchy tune with funny/sarcastic lyrics about the reality of modern life.

 

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 Iceland’s perimeter; stops include Thingvellir National Park and the Geysir Springs.

 

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 – there definitely won’t be a shortage of coffee or good conversation.

 

Tip: It’s okay to go with a more well-known character here, since that will allow the reader to relate. It’s just important to use that extra space to elaborate on why you’d want to live with this person.

 

9. Favorite book

 

Example: Shoe Dog by Phil Knight – I read the entire book in my favorite pair of Air Max 97s.

 

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., complete with a field trip to outer space!

 

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.

 

Dornsife Prompts (Required)

Option 1

The word “education” can take on a variety of meanings. To some, receiving a high school or college diploma is the ultimate mark of being “educated,” while others take a different view. Looking past receiving a diploma, what does it mean to you personally to be “educated”? What standards will you put in place to define whether or not you’ve obtained a great education? (250 words)

This first prompt can be difficult for some due to its seriousness. This is a great option for students who feel more like deep thinkers than creative thinkers. That’s because it does not leave much room for creative freedom or extrapolation—the admissions officers just want to know your philosophy towards education. 

 

As you get started, you should notice that the prompt asks for:

 

  1. A definition of “educated” for you personally
  2. How you will know whether or not you have obtained a great education

 

The first prong of this prompt is your opportunity to talk about your internal self. Think about how your broad conception of education relates to your values and what is important to you. You need to answer the question “For me, being well-educated means” Don’t ignore the fact that the admissions officers snuck in the word ‘personally.’ The point of a college essay is always for admissions officers to get to know you! 

 

Ideas that might be part of your personal definition of ‘well-educated’:

 

  • Feelings of confidence
  • An overwhelming passion for your field
  • Others being proud of you
  • Others looking up to you
  • Defying odds or circumstances
  • Unique knowledge
  • Being able to help others

 

The second part of this prompt is a good opportunity to focus specifically on your field of study. Because they are asking about you personally, feel free to mention your future major and your goals. Try to keep your standards for being ‘well-educated’ oriented around passion and interest, rather than future success or wealth. 

 

Some examples:

 

  • An English major writing that they will know they obtained a great education when they read books differently. They love books, always have. But they know that there is something they are missing in those pages. They see weird punctuation and notice references to mythology and feel like specific words must have been carefully chosen for a precise reason, but they don’t quite get it all yet. They will have obtained a great education when they feel like they understand the nuances of books—when they feel connected to the author’s decisions.
  • A Human Biology major writing that they will know they obtained a great education when they see connections between the way the body works and the way the world works constantly. When they can’t get away from thinking about the body, but when they also don’t want to. 
  • An Astronomy major writing that they will know they obtained a great education when they see something in the sky and feel a compulsion to figure out what it is. They stay up all night researching, checking, and rechecking. The research goes so far into the night that they fall asleep at their desk, but luckily, when they go to their ASTR-100 class the next day, the professor knows exactly what they are talking about. Having your professors instill passion in you is the mark of a great education.

 

Use this essay as an opportunity to think deeply about yourself and what you are interested in. Show off your passion and energy! It is important that your personal definition of educated (from the first prong of the essay) relates to your criteria for achieving the definition (from the second prong of the essay), but that can be difficult. If your definition doesn’t connect to your criteria, don’t be afraid to go back and tailor your definition. With attention to detail, deep thought, and smooth organization, this option can be pulled off beautifully!

 

Dornsife Prompt 2

Many of us have at least one issue or passion that we care deeply about — a topic on which we would love to share our opinions and insights in hopes of sparking intense interest and continued conversation. If you had ten minutes and the attention of a million people, what would your talk be about? (250 words)

This prompt requires less deep thought than the former. The “education” prompt asks students to think deeply about a question they have probably never thought about before, while this prompt asks you “what are you thinking about all the time?” 

 

If an idea comes to mind when you first read this prompt, that’s probably where you should start. USC is not looking for wild answers where students turn the holes in swiss cheese into a complex metaphor—they really just want to hear what you care about. That being said, what you care about can totally be weird or nuanced, as long as your interest in the subject tells admissions officers something about you.

 

Some examples of how you could work this prompt:

 

  • Writing about a social justice issue. Introducing a specific anecdote (that you would introduce during your hypothetical talk). Providing insightful and unique commentary on the issue—whether that be how we got here or where we should go from here.
  • Writing about a school of thought in science or philosophy. Explaining the importance of certain types of questions. Giving specific examples (historical, fictional, and anecdotal) that show that you have thought through the importance of rationalism, taoism, sensationalism, or any other school.
  • Writing about a lecture on a specific book. Discussing how White Teeth, Giovanni’s Room, or Moby Dick tells multiple important life lessons in one pretty package. Drawing connections between the fictional world and the real world.
  • Writing about the valuable lessons that can be learned from another culture. Introducing stories from your past that show the value of Japanese respect, Persian hospitality, or Indian selflessness. Recognizing negative aspects of cultures, but recognizing the lessons that can be learned when you take the time to learn them.

 

While these are just some examples, this prompt leaves the door open for you to explore whatever you care about. Because this essay is the simpler option, make sure that your writing is impeccable if you choose this second prompt. Engage with anecdotes and a unique personal voice to keep your essay engaging. Don’t give the reader the option to stop reading!

 

Where to Get Your USC Essays Edited for Free

 

If you’ve already written your USC supplemental essays, it might be time to get them edited. Having peers read your essays will help you to identify areas for improvement and, ultimately, will help you maximize your chances of getting into USC. By creating a free CollegeVine account, you will have access to CollegeVine resources like our free peer-review service. We’re here to help you put your best foot forward and feel prepared throughout this application season—because we know how overwhelming it can get.

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