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The Ultimate Guide to Applying to USC

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365,000 alumni can’t be wrong: the University of Southern California is an exceptional place to get your education. Among those alumni are luminaries as varied as actor John Wayne, astronaut Neil Armstrong, and former Prime Minister of Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Comprised of nearly twenty different schools, upwards of 40,000 total students, and a rich variety of traditions, USC’s resources and global network present extraordinary opportunities for its students.


At USC, high-level technological studies and a renown business school exist side-by-side with a venerable program in cinema studies and strong programs in other performing arts.


You can even combine the two — where else could a budding innovator get a bachelor’s degree from a school founded in part by hip hop legend and entrepreneur Dr. Dre? (That would be USC’s Iovine and Young Academy, which focuses on “nurturing and developing original thought, leading to breakthrough products, systems, technologies and more.”) The sunny setting in Southern California and the amenities of the city of Los Angeles certainly don’t hurt.


Are you interested in attending USC? Read on for more information about the different undergraduate programs available, what makes it special, and how to navigate the admissions process.


Introducing USC

Located in the University Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, only two miles away from downtown LA, the University of Southern California was founded in 1880 on land donated by a number of the city’s notables. USC was originally affiliated with the Methodist Church, but it has been nonsectarian since 1952.


From its very beginning, USC has championed fair access to education, refusing to deny applicants admission based on race or gender. In fact, the valedictorian of its very first graduating class (comprised of only three students) was a woman, at a time when admission to many or most prestigious universities was restricted to men.


Today’s USC is a large, private research university with a much-expanded total enrollment of over 42,000 students, almost 19,000 of whom are undergraduates. It has also expanded in land area, including its Health Sciences Campus in Los Angeles as well as a number of other facilities, satellite campuses, offices, and a scientific research station on Catalina Island.


According to the U.S. News and World Report rankings, USC comes in at #23 in the National Universities category. Its business programs are especially well-regarded. The university is also famous for having the oldest and largest film school in the country.


The thousands of undergraduate students at USC are spread out among majors in a grand total of 16 different schools and programs, listed below:


  • Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
  • USC School of Architecture
  • Roski School of Art and Design
  • USC Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation
  • Marshall School of Business
  • USC School of Cinematic Arts
  • Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism
  • Kaufman School of Dance
  • Ostrow School of Dentistry (Dental Hygiene Program)
  • USC School of Dramatic Arts
  • Viterbi School of Engineering
  • Davis School of Gerontology
  • Keck School of Medicine of USC (Bachelor’s Degree Programs)
  • Thornton School of Music
  • Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
  • Price School of Public Policy


Across these 16 schools, students can choose among 174 majors at last count. An exhaustive list of these majors, with links to additional information about each, is available. Since specifying your intended major is part of applying to USC, you’ll have to devote some time to researching the options before you apply. However, we can tell you that the most popular majors at USC are within the fields of business, social sciences, visual and performing arts, and engineering.


Life on the USC campus is vibrant and packed with different opportunities. Athletics are an important part of the campus culture, with a number of varsity teams (known as the Trojans) having been extremely successful in recent years. USC’s honor is fiercely defended against such traditional rivals as nearby UCLA and the further-off Notre Dame.


Even if you’re not a sports fan, with such a large and diverse student body from which to draw, USC’s student activities and organizations have something for everyone. Over 800 different student groups and organizations are officially recognized by the university. These include an engaged student government, an active fraternity and sorority scene with over 60 individual chapters, performing arts groups, cultural organizations, and volunteer opportunities. Outside of the campus,  students also have access to everything Los Angeles has to offer.


USC Admissions Information

The admissions process at USC is quite competitive; during the 2015-2016 application season, the university received a whopping total of over 54,000 applications for its undergraduate programs. 8,920 applicants were accepted, making the acceptance rate 16.2%. USC has not yet released enrollment numbers for the fall of 2016, but in most recent years, the number of students in the matriculating class has hovered around 3,000.


All applicants to USC apply through the same basic application process, but depending on your intended major, which you will be required to specify on your application, you may be asked to complete additional materials including portfolios, videos, essays, auditions, or course prerequisites. When you’re getting ready to apply, it’s important that you thoroughly research the requirements for your particular intended major so that you can make an informed decision.


In addition to first-year applicants, USC accepts applications from students at other colleges who wish to transfer to USC. In recent years, the university has received about 8,000 transfer applications per year, and has accepted approximately 25% of these applicants.


When USC evaluates your application, it takes into account both your academic and other achievements, and your potential to be a good fit for the USC environment. Successful applicants are generally quite strong academically and have taken challenging courses in high school. Leadership and community involvement are important factors, as is “intellectual curiosity.” As a university with strong programs in the arts, USC also appreciates students who will bring creative talents to the campus, whether as arts majors or in addition to their other studies.


Paying for USC

The estimated cost of attendance at USC for the 2016-2017 school year is $69,711, $51,442 of which accounts for tuition. This estimate is meant to cover the entire cost of a student’s attendance for a year, including room and board as well as books, transportation, and personal expenses, but it may vary from student to student, especially for the many students who choose to live off-campus after their first year. Also, some majors and programs require additional fees.


About two-thirds of USC’s undergraduate students receive some kind of financial assistance, need-based or merit-based, to cover the cost of their education. Need-based financial aid options include grants, loans, and work-study. Merit-based scholarships include a number of different scholarship programs, and about 22% of students at USC receive some kind of merit-based scholarship. Athletic scholarships are also offered to some incoming students, and may be awarded either as a specific dollar amount or as a percentage of the cost of attendance.


Admissions to USC is need-blind for students from the United States, meaning that neither a student’s indication that they will apply for financial aid, nor the amount of aid they require, will affect that student’s admissions decision.


For international applicants, admission to USC is need-aware, and international applicants will need to submit documentation certifying that they have the funds to pay for college. Need-based financial aid is not available for international students. However, international applicants are still considered for certain merit-based scholarships, and may have other options to privately finance their educations.


Applicants who are undocumented students living in the state of California have some additional funding options. Under the California Dream Act, these students may be eligible for certain California state grants if they have attended a California high school and will be attending a California college. Students who receive these grants may also gain access to additional funding from USC, though the amount of funding available is limited.


Need-Based Financial Aid

Domestic students can apply for need-based financial aid by submitting the FAFSA and the CSS Profile, both of which are due by February 14th. Residents of California should also apply for the Cal Grant state financial aid program by March 2nd.


After the initial application is submitted, financial aid applicants will need to provide their family’s income tax documents to USC as soon as possible. Additional documents may be requested by the Financial Aid Office under certain circumstances, and these documents should be submitted to the office within 10 days of when the request is made.   


Transfer applicants to USC who are from the United States will have to submit the same forms to apply for need-based financial aid, but their FAFSA and CSS Profile forms will be due on March 2nd along with the Cal Grant application.


Merit-Based Scholarships

A number of merit-based scholarships are also available to USC students, whether or not they receive need-based aid. (Need-based aid may be reduced if a student receives a merit scholarship as well.) These scholarships range from awards of $1,000 to full-tuition coverage. Some scholarships are open to transfer applicants as well as first-year applicants.


Students are automatically considered for some merit scholarships based upon the information they submit in their applications, but other scholarship programs require students to specifically apply to the program itself. A detailed list of USC’s academic scholarship options and requirements for the 2017-2018 school year is available, along with information about how to apply for each scholarship.


The USC Application

In some ways, the process of applying to USC as a first-year undergraduate is simpler than at many other schools. All applicants use the same application form — the Common Application — and all apply on the same timeline, since USC has no Early Decision or Early Action option. Most first-year undergraduate applicants to USC will need to submit their admissions applications by January 15th at the latest, and most applicants will receive their admissions decisions by early April.  


However, since USC is comprised of a rather large number of distinct schools and programs, application deadlines and requirements for different majors vary. You’ll need to submit your application by December 1st if you’re applying to USC’s undergraduate programs in Dramatic Arts, Cinematic Arts, or Music; the Kaufman School of Dance; the Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation; or the World Bachelor of Business program at the Marshall School of Business. Each undergraduate department may have additional admissions requirements with additional deadlines; USC’s list of additional major requirements is available for viewing.


In addition to these program deadlines, if you would like to be considered for merit scholarships, you’ll need to submit your admissions application by the December 1st deadline. Applicants selected to interview for or receive merit scholarships will be contacted by USC in February. If you apply by December 1st and aren’t selected for a merit scholarship, your application will still be considered for admission, and you’ll hear back about your decision in early April.


Students who have already completed some college courses can apply to transfer to USC. Just as with first-year students, applicants will submit the Common Application and supporting materials, which may vary depending on which undergraduate program they’d like to join. The application deadline for most transfer students is February 1st, or December 1 for transfer applicants to the School of Dramatic Arts, the Kaufman School of Dance, the Thornton School of Music, and the Iovine and Young Academy, as well as some programs within the School of Cinematic Arts.  


Again, some departments have different or additional admissions requirements and forms to fill out, and prospective transfer students can check out the requirements for their program. You’ll be contacted by USC, either with an admissions decision or with a request for spring-semester grades, by June 1st.


Now that we’ve introduced you to the USC application procedure, we’ll go over the school-specific questions that USC will expect you to answer on the Common App.

Common Application

As you probably already know, the Common Application is an online application system that allows you to enter all your basic information only once and send that information to multiple schools. For some help navigating the Common App, you can refer to the CollegeVine User’s Guide to the Common App, as well as our targeted posts regarding how to fill out the sections on your demographics, citizenship, academics, activities, awards, and more.


In addition to the standard Common App questions, you’ll need to answer a number of questions that are specific to USC, and possibly even some that are specific to your intended major. To access these questions, you’ll first need to add USC to your My Colleges list within your Common App account. Once you’ve done so, navigate to your My Colleges page and click on USC. You’ll see the following page, illustrated by a screenshot from our CollegeVine sample student’s profile:




On the left, under the USC tab and the heading that says Application, click on the word Questions. You’ll see the following screen:




As you can see, there are four separate sections of questions for you to answer, labeled General, Academics, Family, and Other Information. Click on the section headers to access the questions in each section, or click Continue to move on to the next section.


For the General section, you’ll answer the following questions:




  • Preferred start term: Select Fall 2017 from the drop-down menu.
  • Preferred admission plan: Select Regular Decision from the drop-down menu.
  • Do you intend to use one of these school-specific fee waivers?: Take a look at the drop-down menu; if you’re making use of one of the specific fee waivers mentioned, select it from the list. Otherwise, select “Not applying for a USC fee waiver.” If you select the latter, you’re still able to apply for a standard Common App fee waiver.
  • Do you intend to pursue need-based financial aid?: Select Yes or No.


For the Academics section, you’ll answer the following question:




  • First-choice major: Select your first-choice major from the drop-down list. Since admission to USC takes your intended major into account, it’s important to consider this question carefully and research your options before you answer.
  • Second-choice major: Select your second-choice major from the drop-down list. Answering this question is optional.
  • Pre-professional emphasis: Take a look at the pre-professional programs in the drop-down menu. If one of these applies to you, select it; if not, you don’t need to answer this question.
  • Because of the major you selected above, you will need to submit a portfolio for your program to complete your application: Select Yes from the drop-down menu. This question illustrates a particular feature of the USC application: it adapts according to the information you submit. Our sample student has indicated that they would like to be a Theatre major, so they’ve been presented with this particular prompt about submitting a portfolio. Depending on what major you select, you may or may not see this question, another question, or no question here.


For the Family section, you’ll answer the following questions:




  • Are any siblings also applying for undergraduate admission to University of Southern California this year?: Select Yes if you have one or more siblings who are applying to USC this year; otherwise, select No. If you select Yes, you’ll be prompted to provide their names and relationships to you.
  • Have any relatives ever attended University of Southern California?: Select Yes if you have any relatives who have attended USC; otherwise, select No. If you answer Yes for this question, you’ll be prompted to enter additional information. Keep in mind that USC values relationships with families; roughly 20% of USC students have at least one parent who attended USC. (Such students are known as SCions.)
  • Have any relatives ever worked for the University of Southern California?: Select Yes if you have any relatives who have been employed by USC; otherwise, select No. If you answer Yes, you will be prompted to enter additional information.


Finally, for the Other Information section, you’ll respond to the following prompts:




  • The US government requires all international students to provide proof of the ability to pay tuition and living expenses for the first academic year. Along with your application for admission, you must submit the Financial Statement of Personal or Family Support, accompanied by documentation of available funds (such as savings deposits, checking accounts, investment portfolios, or a signed bank letter verifying the ability to pay educational expenses). Documentation may also include proof of any scholarships or fellowships you have received or expect to receive: This section applies to international students only, so if you’re from the United States, you don’t need to worry about it. If you’re an international applicant, you’ll need to carefully read this statement and upload the required documents. For more information about attending and paying for USC as an international student, check out the USC undergraduate admissions website and the USC financial aid website. 


Once you’ve finished filling out these questions, you’ll move on to the second part of USC’s supplement to the Common App. This part is often referred to as the “Writing Supplement,” but it’s more complicated than that — in addition to USC-specific essays, you’ll need to answer a number of short-answer questions and also provide additional information about your academic background.


To get to USC’s Writing Supplement, look in the left-hand column under USC’s name. You’ll see a heading that says Writing Supplement, and underneath that heading, the word Questions. Clicking on Questions will bring up the following screen:




As with the questions you’ve already answered, the questions in the Writing Supplement will be grouped into a number of sections. First, you’ll address the prompts under the Writing Questions section.




  • 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.
  • Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning.
  • What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?




  • Describe yourself in three words.
  • 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?


Take a look at our CollegeVine blog post How to Write the USC Essays 2016-2017 for a detailed breakdown of these essay prompts and short-answer questions, along with some guidance on how to go about answering them.


As you may have noticed from the screenshot above, our sample applicant has been given an additional essay prompt: “Explain your educational and career interests and why Annenberg is the best match for you.” You may or may not see this prompt when you apply, because this prompt is another example of the responsiveness of the USC application.


The sample applicant is receiving this particular essay prompt because they indicated that their first-choice major was within USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. You may be presented with a different essay prompt, depending on your intended major, or you may not find an essay prompt here at all. For more information about the individual requirements you’ll encounter for each major, check out USC’s list of additional major requirements.


Next, you’ll move on to the Academic History section, as shown below:




  • Though you will submit official high school transcripts, we ask that you provide us with self-reported information about the courses you have taken in high school and the grades you have earned. If your school does not adhere to the U.S. educational system, this section is optional: Select the option in the drop-down menu that applies to you. If your school does provide grades in the manner of the U.S. educational system, you’ll need to fill out the rest of the Writing Supplement. 


Below this question, you’ll see this list of sections:




In each of these sections, you’ll self-report information about each academic class you’ve taken from grade 9 to grade 11. For instance, the 9th Grade English, Literature, or Composition Courses section will ask you the following questions:




Follow the directions and enter your high school course information here. (If your school doesn’t have a Semester 3, don’t worry about it — you don’t need to fill in every single field.) Make sure to give yourself adequate time to fill out this section. You’ll probably also want to have a copy of your transcript in front of you to make the data entry easier.


Additional USC Application Requirements

Along with the Common App with USC-specific questions and essays, all applicants to USC must submit the following:


  • Application fee of $80, or application fee waiver
  • School Report and official transcript provided by your high school 
  • ACT or SAT scores (The Writing section of either test is not required)
  • International students for whom English is not their first language: scores from the TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE Academic tests


In addition to these general application components, many of the individual undergraduate programs and majors at USC have additional requirements. These range from portfolios and auditions for programs in the arts, to video submissions and additional essays, to prerequisite courses you must have already taken in high school.


For some majors and programs, your additional required essays will automatically be provided to you on the Common App once you specify your intended major, as we discussed above. If you complete a requirement using the Common App, you don’t need to additionally submit it in any other way.


You can visit the USC admissions website to go over the additional requirements and due dates for each undergraduate program and major.


Interviewing at USC

Admissions interviews are not a requirement to apply to USC, and in an average year, less than 20% of USC applicants elect to schedule an interview. The university states that data from past years shows no real difference in acceptance rates between applicants who interview and applicants who don’t. However, USC does encourage applicants to take advantage of on- or off-campus interview opportunities if they can.


Applicants who are able to visit the USC campus may be able to schedule on-campus interviews. Program-specific interviews are not available for every undergraduate program at USC, but all visiting applicants can interview with USC’s general Office of Undergraduate Admissions, or choose between the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the Marshall School of Business, the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and the Viterbi School of Engineering.


If you’re planning on visiting campus this fall and would like to take advantage of an on-campus interview, you can check out your options on the USC website. Keep in mind that you’re only permitted to have one admission interview, so you’ll need to think carefully about which program you’d like to interview with. You don’t need to have already submitted your application in order to schedule an interview.


USC also conducts off-campus interview sessions in a number of major cities across the United States during the fall application season. If you’re able to make it to one of these cities, you can schedule an interview with an admissions officer, just as you would on campus. Take a look at this website to start the process of setting up an off-campus interview.


Again, the number of undergraduate programs that offer program-specific interviews is limited, and availability will vary from city to city, but if you’re not able to interview with your specific program, you can always interview with the general Office of Undergraduate Admissions.


Since even off-campus USC interviews are only available within the United States, international applicants who are not able to visit USC have an additional option. These applicants are invited to submit interviews through Vericant, a third-party evaluator with whom USC contracts. (You can use a different third-party interview service if you prefer.) If you’re interested, you can learn more about this process. You should bear in mind that this process will involve additional costs not covered by your USC application fee.


Hearing Back from USC

Since USC does not have an Early Action or Early Decision application program, most first-year USC applicants will hear back about their admissions decisions at the same time, in early April. (As we mentioned, some students may be contacted earlier if they’re selected for certain merit scholarship programs.)


If you’re accepted to USC at this time, you have to make up your mind as to whether to attend by May 1st. If you decide to enroll in the fall, you must notify USC through their online system and submit your non-refundable $300 enrollment deposit by this date. You’ll also need to take care of applying for housing and signing up for an orientation program, about which you can get more information.


You may be rejected by USC, in which case you’ll need to move on to other college plans, but may be able to reapply as a transfer student in the future. However, there’s a third option at USC, and unlike at many other schools, it’s not a waitlist.


A certain number of USC applicants will be neither rejected nor accepted for the fall term. Instead, they’ll be accepted, but on a delay — they’ll have to wait until the spring semester to attend. If you’re applying to USC during the 2016-2017 application season and receive admission for the spring semester, that would mean that you’d enter the university in the spring of 2018.


If you have more questions about how spring admissions work, you can learn more. One thing to keep in mind is that if you accept admission for the spring semester, there is a chance that a slot will open up in the fall class and you’d be able to enter in the fall as you originally intended. Few students are able to make this move each year, but you’ll only be considered for these fall slots if you have already indicated that you’ll attend in the spring.


Should you agree to start attending USC in the spring if you’re offered spring admission? It depends. If you’re certain that USC is your top choice, enough so that you’re willing to wait a while longer, spring admission may be worth it for you. You’ll still get to attend USC and have access to all the same opportunities as students who are admitted in the fall. Some students end up finding their “time off” before starting at USC very enjoyable and enriching, similar to a gap year. They may use that time to take community college courses, travel, work, or explore other interests.


However, accepting spring admission to USC does mean reassessing your post-high-school plans somewhat. Spring admits may or may not graduate “on time” with the rest of the class of 2021, though taking transferable courses somewhere else prior to coming to USC can help. Some students are concerned about social and extracurricular opportunities, and others simply don’t want to wait to start their college careers. In the end, the choice is up to you as to whether the spring admissions program is a good fit for your needs.


Are you excited at the prospect of becoming a USC Trojan? You can learn more about USC’s 16 undergraduate schools and programs on the USC admissions page. Remember, your prospective program choice is considered as part of your application, so you’ll need to make sure you know what your options are.


Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.