What are your chances of acceptance?

Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
+ add school
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

USC Essay Example: Breakdown + Analysis

The University of Southern California is a selective private school in Los Angeles. Its film school is consistently ranked the top in the country, though its other academic programs are incredibly strong as well.


USC has two required long-answer prompts and an additional optional prompt. You’ll also be asked to respond to 10 short-answer questions, which are fun questions like “What is your favorite snack?”


Today, we’re going to be breaking down a successful USC essay and discussing how you can apply its strategies to your own application. Get ready to work your creative muscles!


(Also, CollegeVine has a ton of other resources for your USC application. Want to learn what USC will actually cost you based on your income? And how long your application to the school should take? Here’s what every student considering USC needs to know.


Ready? Let’s go! 


USC Supplemental Essay Prompt

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

This is a fairly typical college app prompt, as it allows a lot of potential for uniqueness. But it also demands a high amount of personal engagement and self-honesty: if someone on a date asked “what’s essential to understanding you?”, you’d probably feel nervous. 


So take the personal demands seriously. The essay we’ll be breaking down, for example, is a frank analysis of the applicant’s flaws that’s emotionally revealing. It doesn’t shy away from cutting to the marrow of the applicant’s messy personality. 


While brainstorming for this essay, think about the core ingredients of what make you unique. You can also think about it this way: which aspects of your life or personality, when taken away, would totally change who you are? Is it your desire to constantly challenge yourself? Your love of baking? Your knowledge of five languages?


The goal is to present an interesting and engaging peek into your life. When the essay is over, you want admissions officers to think, “Wow, I’d love to get to know this person.” Don’t be afraid to share your raw thoughts and emotions in your writing.


And with that, let’s take a look at a USC essay example, written by a real applicant.


USC Essay Example


Let’s begin by reading the essay in its entirety. We’re going to break it down section-by-section, but it’s important to start with a complete picture. As you’re reading, take note of how the writing builds and develops. 


Please note: Looking at examples of real essays students have submitted to colleges can be very beneficial to get inspiration for your essays. You should never copy or plagiarize from these examples when writing your own essays. Colleges can tell when an essay isn’t genuine and will not view students favorably if they plagiarized. 


“Chill. Out.”

Surely my classmates felt annoyed that I had transformed a simple English debate about the existence of the American Dream into a full-on tirade, hands revolving in furious circles, voice emphatically piercing throughout the room. But for me, the slightest mention of a debate, even a minor discussion on the best team in the NFL (Patriots!), unleashes my passionate, borderline bombastic self, determined to conquer the war of words.


Of course, when discussing the merits of pharmaceutical price controls at a debate tournament, my assertive speaking style and quick-thinking become valuable assets. But other times, I find those tendencies to hinder what would otherwise be productive, civilized conversations. Often, a simple discussion about the merits of pineapple on pizza would quickly devolve into a redundant, unproductive squabble. I have to constantly remind myself that not everything needs to be debated endlessly, no matter how much I vehemently disagree (Pineapple on pizza, however, is a TERRIBLE idea).


Yet it is this desire to seek truth and conclusion, to vouch for my beliefs, that drives me to my life endeavors. Whether it be interning at an immigration law firm and fighting for clients’ prosperity or volunteering for a local Board of Education candidate, I strive to focus my love for reasoning and dialogue into avenues that benefit those around me. Pointless debates lead nowhere, but insightful, genuine conversations are essential to addressing the key issues that affect our community. And honestly, pineapple on pizza doesn’t really matter that much anyway.

Breaking Down This USC Essay Example


Bold Beginnings


“Chill. Out.”


Not only does this essay start with a one-line paragraph, it starts with two sentence fragments. This is a great way to begin a college app essay, because let’s face it: admissions readers have to plow through hundreds of essays per day. They don’t want to pick apart drawn-out introductions. They want something that’s going to pique their interest, and “Chill. Out.” meets this requirement. Like “Call me Ishmael” from Moby-Dick, it’s artful, edgy, rough-hewn, and short. 


Additionally, it’s a phrase with a lot of built-in conflict. Nobody ever says “Chill out” unless something tense is going on. So it immediately creates a drive to read more: what is the conflict here? Who’s saying “chill out,” and why? 


Look at the punctuation as well. Quotation marks! it’s dialogue, which (again) stands out against standard essay prose. It immediately sets us up in a situation so that we forget we’re reading an essay at all – it feels, rather, like a story. 


And another plus about quotation marks: they’re visually distinctive. They activate a few more brain cells and engage the reader’s unconscious focus just a little more. (In fact, the first quotation marks in history were designed by ancient Greeks to act “like arrows” and direct the eyes.) Using them at the beginning is a great way to lasso your reader’s focus. 


When you’re trying to come up with a beginning, consider a moment of tension or confrontation that can instantly evoke a lot of interest. 


Active, Fighting Words


Throughout this essay, the writer uses physical and powerful verbs to describe his passion for debating. If you went through the essay with red pen, you’d underline a lot of dynamic action: “vehemently disagree,” “strive,” “drive,” “conquer the war,” “voice piercing through the room.” 


Words like these help the essay communicate a wealth of emotion while adhering to the short word limit. They involve the reader physically in the action of debate in a way that drier words, like “respond,” “claim,” or “address” would not. As a result, the applicant comes across as enthusiastic and passionate – someone we’d want to talk with. 


And, as the icing on the cake, the violent words make the author’s personal growth – his stoic mastery over his passions – resonate as more truthful by the end of the essay. We can appreciate his calm, because we’ve experienced his storm. 


So, how can you apply this? While you’re writing, think of a mood you want to communicate, whether it’s the artistic flow of making pottery, the adrenaline rush of snowboarding, or the warm togetherness of studying with friends. List verbs, images, and feelings that communicate this emotional state. Really strive to immerse your reader in your emotional world. 


Flaws, Challenges, and Obstacles


By far, the most important element of this essay is its focus on a personal transformation. This applicant could have relished in his success on debate team or the Board of Education, but he doesn’t – instead, he involves these occurrences in a narrative about his fatal flaw. 


Why is this attractive to an admissions reader? Well, because it demonstrates that the applicant is introspective and interested in improving himself in deeply personal ways. For example, it takes humility to insert yourself into the perspectives of others (“surely my classmates felt annoyed”). And it takes honesty to 1) identify a problem with yourself and 2) correct your behavior (“I have to constantly remind myself that not everything needs to be debated”). 


Focus on a personal quest also helps the awards and achievements of the author seem authentic, rather than just bragging. If he’d simply stated, “I’m a great debater!” or “I speak at the Board meetings!” or “I excel in English discussions!”, a reader might be left cold. But by framing these achievements in relation to his battle with temper, they seem like natural progressions of his biography. They’re not just events – they’re testaments to his development. We might not root for someone winning a debate, but we’re programmed to root for someone mastering his flaws and finally having productive conversations. 


So ask yourself – what’s my personal flaw, and my personal battle? How can I involve my achievements or biography in ways that reflect this ongoing struggle? Brainstorm examples of personal growth that have helped you throughout high school, and which you want to continue in college. 


Short, Personal Humor


This writer has a good instinct for when to add comic relief. When writing a college essay, it can be easy to get lost in self-seriousness, and be ALL ABOUT ANGST ALL THE TIME. College applications essays, after all, have a reputation for devolving into “struggle theatre,” in which applicants feel pressured to showcase, or even exaggerate, their worst setbacks. It can be easy to fall into the trap of, “if my issue isn’t grand enough, I need to make it sound that way.” But thankfully, our writer recognizes that “debate club” and “English class” aren’t life-and-death situations. His little quips about pineapple on pizza and the Patriots show he’s not trying to outdo anyone in terms of seriousness.


So, what can we learn from this? Well, that you should always have perspective about how serious your topic is. If you’re writing about something immensely serious – for example, your commitment to helping assault victims or experience with oppression – you probably don’t need these self-effacing quips. But if you’re writing about something less urgent and serious, like a sport or favorite singer, it’s a good idea to signal (briefly) that you’re not fanatically grave about the subject. 


Summarize the Lessons Learned


In the last paragraph of his essay, our writer succinctly sums up the life lessons he’s taken away from his debating. He tells us, “Pointless debates lead nowhere, but insightful, genuine conversations are essential.” This synthesizes his experiences into an applicable set of new principles. 


It’s a good idea to devote, as he does, a sentence or two to articulating your own principles or lessons. This shows that you’re able to think broadly about your life – it’s the mark of an adult to keep constant, abstract principles in mind instead of simply moving from situation to situation. So crystallize a guiding message that you’ve learned, and state it clearly as you move toward your conclusion. 


Final Thoughts


For your reference, here’s a brief checklist of all the points we’ve just discussed. 


  • Is my opening eye-catching, captivating, and unique?
  • Have I used active, vivid verbs and imagery to convey my passions and experiences?
  • Is my essay reflective? Does my essay share my thoughts and emotions, and show self-awareness? 
  • Do I include levity if I need it? 
  • Do I articulate a clear lesson or guiding principle that I’ve learned? 


For more help with your USC essays, check out our USC essay breakdown.


It’s been a pleasure chatting! As always, CollegeVine is here to help you with other elements of your application as well. Want more help with your essays and improving your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.

Short Bio
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.