3 USC Essay Examples By Accepted Students
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 requires applicants to fill out a variety of prompts, some in the form of essays and others as short-answer questions. In this post, we’ll go over three essays that helped real students gain acceptance to USC and explain what each essay did well and where it could be improved.
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.
Read our USC essay breakdown to get a comprehensive overview of this year’s supplemental prompts.
(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.)
Essay Example #1 – 10 Minutes to Change the World
At what point does injustice become background noise?
Bloodied black bodies can be “liked” on Instagram. Gunshots in classrooms are easily reposted via Tiktok. My generation’s digital environment is so overwhelming we’re desensitized. Given the numbing nature of dark humor, youth prefer it over justice. Rape culture is palatable once it’s a punchline. Laughter is more socially acceptable than tears.
A recent documentary about Jeffery Dahmer (which his victim’s family members did not consent to) has led to several callous jokes about his horrifying devastation of the Black gay community. Tiktok now hosts several trends concerning Dahmer, all spearheaded by Generation Z youth.
Humor is a valid coping mechanism, but it’s now a crutch for a generation that needs to start walking on its own.
Why is shock humor desired today? Dark humor was how I grappled with my internalized racism, partly triggered by enduring racial slurs at school. However, the hilarity fizzled out once I realized how counterproductive it was. Now, rather than reposting footage of global tragedies or joking about them, I promote new bills, pro-cause literature, and nonprofits, celebrating the proactivity of our nation.
To begin my conversation, I would address my own desensitization, urging my audience to examine theirs as well. Through my talk, I want individuals to undergo a transformative examination of social media consumption and the role of humor in the face of tragedy. Hopefully, my talk leads them to consider how they can work to alleviate social issues, rather than laughing at them.
What the Essay Did Well
This prompt is incredibly open, which can be both a blessing and a curse: you can write about anything you want, but with that much freedom, will you be able to focus on something specific? For this student, the answer to that question is unquestionably yes, as they do a phenomenal job writing about a creative, nuanced topic, in a way that is clear and easy to understand.
The topic they choose is also personal, which is important. The purpose of any college essay is to teach your readers something about who you are, and if you write about a topic that you know a lot about, but aren’t emotionally invested in (like, say, the different kinds of screwdrivers you learned about while helping your dad with a summer project), your personality won’t shine through.
This student, however, focuses not on racism in general, which is far too broad a topic for an essay this short, but on the problematic ways Gen Z copes with racism. That unique perspective shows that the student both has strong critical thinking skills and can reflect on their own experiences. And to take things a step further, they are also willing to get vulnerable, and acknowledge their own role in perpetuating the very issue they are highlighting, with the section:
“Dark humor was how I grappled with my internalized racism, partly triggered by enduring racial slurs at school. However, the hilarity fizzled out once I realized how counterproductive it was. Now, rather than reposting footage of global tragedies or joking about them, I promote new bills, pro-cause literature, and nonprofits, celebrating the proactivity of our nation.”
In this part of the essay, the student shows a remarkable level of humility, and an ability to work on themselves. While getting vulnerable with a bunch of strangers thousands of miles away is not easy, this especially deep self-reflection is what takes this essay from good to great.
In addition to zooming in on their own character, the student also zooms out from their own experience, to arrive at thoughtful, compelling takeaways that assuredly would hold the attention of a million people. Lines such as “Humor is a valid coping mechanism, but it’s now a crutch for a generation that needs to start walking on its own” and “Given the numbing nature of dark humor, youth prefer it over justice. Rape culture is palatable once it’s a punchline. Laughter is more socially acceptable than tears” show that this student is not only personally invested in this issue, but ready to start taking steps towards solving it.
Lastly, this essay is incredibly well-written and easy to follow. The passionate yet conversational tone stays true to the goal of the prompt (start a conversation!), and because of the writer’s varied sentence structure, we never get bored or want to stop reading.
What Could Be Improved
The main problem with this essay comes in its last paragraph:
“To begin my conversation, I would address my own desensitization, urging my audience to examine theirs as well. Through my talk, I want individuals to undergo a transformative examination of social media consumption and the role of humor in the face of tragedy. Hopefully, my talk leads them to consider how they can work to alleviate social issues, rather than laughing at them.”
Unfortunately, this paragraph doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, which unfortunately means the student has essentially wasted 63 words in a 250 word essay. If you write a strong essay (which this student does), you do not need to wrap things up or connect your answer back to the prompt explicitly. Those things will just happen naturally.
Instead of this paraphrased, overly tidy conclusion, the student could have painted a picture of what their talk would look like. For example:
“Hopefully, I can inspire my audience to reflect on their own desensitization, as I did, by describing the time I retweeted ten Trump memes in an hour, and how that did absolutely nothing to help me feel better about the state of the country. Turning away from band-aid solutions and committing to sucking the poison out of the wound is challenging, but I hope that through my talk and conversations my listeners have with each other afterwards, more of us will feel ready to take on that challenge.”
This version doesn’t just summarize points the student has already made, but rather presents us with tangible ways (reflecting on their own low moments; conversations after their talk) they hope to continue fighting back against desensitization.
Essay Example #2 – The Power of Debate
Prompt: What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you? (250 words)
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.
What the Essay Did Well
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. It immediately creates a drive to read more: what is the conflict here? Who’s saying “chill out,” and why?
Throughout this essay, the writer uses physical and powerful verbs to describe their passion for debating. If you went through the essay with red pen, you’d underline a lot of dynamic action: “vehemently disagree,” “drive,” “conquer the war,” “voice piercing through the room.” Words like these involve the reader physically in the action of debate in a way that drier words, like “respond” or “address” would not. As a result, the applicant comes across as enthusiastic and passionate. And, as the icing on the cake, the violent words make the author’s personal growth – their stoic mastery over their passions – resonate as more truthful by the end of the essay. We can appreciate their calm, because we’ve experienced their storm.
By far, the most important element of this essay is its focus on a personal transformation. This applicant could have relished in their success on debate team or the Board of Education, but they don’t – instead, they involve these occurrences in a narrative about their fatal flaw.
Why is this attractive to an admissions reader? Well, because it demonstrates that the applicant is introspective and interested in improving themself 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”).
What Could Be Improved
There is honestly very little this student needs to do to strengthen this essay as it already is captivating, passionate, and illuminating. However, a word of caution is to make sure the mood of your essay matches your personality. This essay works because as far as we can tell from what this student tells us about themselves and the activities they engage in, they are outspoken, quick-thinking, and love to exchange ideas. These qualities all lend themselves to a fast-paced, dynamic essay. But if that isn’t you, don’t try and inject powerful language into your essay to have the same impact as this student. Make sure your essay reflects you and the story you are trying to tell.
Essay Example #3 – Admitting You Were Wrong
This essay covers the difficult topics of eating disorders and mental health. If you’re thinking about covering similar topics in your essay, we recommend reading our post Should You Talk About Mental Health in College Essays?
Prompt: 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. Please discuss the significance of the experience and its effect on you. (250 words)
“You barely have lunch, and I’m worried that you’re not eating enough.”
My face burnt bright red. They know.
It was true, of course. Throughout sophomore year, my daily food intake slowly inched below 1,500 calories, barely enough to sustain a toddler. Six months in, my period halted its monthly cycle – hormonal amenorrhea. Tired, anxious, scared. Yet, nothing deterred the voice in my head from telling me that I would never be small enough.
With an already petite stature, my health was never questioned; people seldom criticized my diet or the amount of space I occupied in a room. Skinny was healthy, and I bought into that myth. Until I started to listen. I listened as my friend confronted me with her concerns. For the first time, I was exposed to a new definition of health detached from fear foods and aesthetics. Not immediately convinced but willing to change, her perspective encouraged me to do the research and reflect on my health subjectively. In the following week, dietetic research papers and videos filled my search history; the verdict was glaringly clear. I was wrong.
Today, I exercise for adrenaline. I eat for fuel. I recognize my worth beyond the number on the scale. Listening to a different perspective was all it took for me to unravel the flaws of my own, and that, as I currently eat the rest of the holiday toffee pretzels unabashedly, is something that I am forever thankful for.
What the Essay Did Well
This student opened up about a deeply personal topic in a that really allowed the reader to see the mental and physical effect her eating disorder had on her. We aren’t just told she had an eating disorder and when she was confronted by a friend it changed her perspective; we are shown what she suffered through and what her original perspective was.
Admitting to thoughts about the “amount of space [she] occupied in a room” and how “Skinny was healthy” demonstrates very clearly her mental stance on her body. That contrasts with her admission of her physical health: “my daily food intake slowly inched below 1,500 calories, barely enough to sustain a toddler” and “my period halted its monthly cycle.” Describing both the mental and physical aspects help us to understand the depth of the struggle she went through and how deeply engrained she was in her current way of thinking.
This essay has a triumphant ending that warms our heart for the student because she was able to find help and conquer her eating disorder. The last paragraph nicely reflects on the effect this new idea had on the student by showing us her new mental approach to food and her weight: “Today, I exercise for adrenaline. I eat for fuel. I recognize my worth beyond the number on the scale.” Finishing the essay with her giving thanks for eating “holiday toffee pretzels unabashedly” brings a light-hearted conclusion to a serious essay and leaves the reader with a smile on their face for how far this student has come.
What Could Be Improved
While the narrative this student tells is very good, it reads more like an “Overcoming Challenges” essay than a “New Beliefs” essay. This could be fixed with more attention to the encounter with her friend and her subsequent research on eating healthy.
We are simply told, “I listened as my friend confronted me with her concerns,” and that through that experience she was “exposed to a new definition of health detached from fear foods and aesthetics.” However, what we want to see is how this student grappled with the confrontation and what her mental and emotional response was to learning new information that contradicted her previous assumptions.
Like in the beginning, a quote from her friend would be a nice way to place the reader in the action. This student also provided us with a lot of introspection about her eating disorder, so the essay should pay the same amount of attention to her overcoming it. For example, she might write something like this:
“‘We are all concerned for you.’ The sad eyes of my friend roamed over my thinning body, and I heard my heart shatter. I wasn’t just hurting myself, I was causing all my friends and family to worry. ‘I think you’ll like this article.’ Turning her computer around, big bold letters ran across the screen: YOU ARE MORE THAN A NUMBER. I hesitated in the moment, terrified of letting go of the societal message to be skinny that had become my mantra. But as my sunken, tired eyes looked back at me in the mirror that night, I opened up the article and learned just how wrong I had been.”
Where to Get Your USC Essays Edited
Do you want feedback on your USC essays? After rereading your essays countless times, it can be difficult to evaluate your writing objectively. That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool, where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.
If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!