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Studying Neuroscience at USC: My Experience

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Majors have been a wild ride for me and the wildest part was that I really didn’t expect it. I started at USC with a firm plan to get a PhD in Neuroscience and go into Alzheimer’s research. But then, throughout the course of my freshman year (and through some of my humanities courses during freshman year), I realized that I just couldn’t be happy without humanities courses in my schedule. After I spent a good chunk of college figuring out what I want, I am set to graduate on time with a Neuroscience BA and an English BA—that’s right, a STEM/humanities double major.


The Neuroscience program at USC gave me the flexibility I needed to study two very disparate subjects. I started out pursuing a Bachelor of Science, but when I needed more space for English, I easily transitioned to the less schedule-consuming Bachelor of Arts. On the other hand, my pre-med friends have been able to complete almost all of their medical school prerequisites through the Neuroscience BS program. 


My point: Neuroscience at USC has something to offer for anyone interested in what’s happening behind the scenes with the brain, whether you want to be a doctor or a researcher or a mere writer.


Declaring the Neuroscience Major at USC


At USC, there are generally two types of majors: those that are open to any-and-all students and those that require specific prerequisites, GPAs, and/or portfolios. Neuroscience falls within the former category. USC has an outstanding Neuroscience program, with top professors and noteworthy labs, but the program is by no means competitive to join.


If you don’t apply to USC with Neuroscience as your prospective major, the steps for declaring Neuroscience, changing your major to Neuroscience, or adding Neuroscience as a second major are all the same (and very simple):


  1. Set up an advisement appointment with the Neuroscience advisor for your section of the alphabet. Advisor information can be found online and most advisors these days use sign-up links.
  2. Show up for your appointment and let your advisor know which of the above options you are trying to do.
  3. Walk through your schedule with your advisor to make sure you have room in your four-year plan to finish the Neuroscience program on time.
  4. Leave your appointment and sign up for Neuroscience classes during the next registration round!


A quick note on advisement: Advisement is an underrated part of college that I urge you to embrace. For Neuroscience majors, each semester you attend mandatory advisement to remove a hold on your registration (a hold on your registration means you cannot register for classes… not ideal). These appointments involve double-checking your four-year plan, discussing second majors and minors, and making sure you are completing all University requirements. In later years, if you meet a certain GPA requirement, you may be able to handle mandatory advisement via email.


While advisement for the Neuroscience BA and BS at USC is the same, it is important to draw a distinction between the two programs. The Neuroscience BA often attracts students interested in double majoring (like me!) while the Neuroscience BS often attracts pre-med students. This is explained by the fact that the BA Program requires around 50 units, while the BS Program requires around 75 units (which include most of the required pre-med courses).


Requirements for the Neuroscience Major at USC


There are three types of requirements for Neuroscience at USC: introductory requirements, higher-level requirements, and upper-division electives.


Both the Neuroscience BA and BS require the following introductory requirements:


  • General Chemistry 
  • General Biology 
  • Calculus I (you can be waived out of this with AP credits)
  • Intro to Psychology (you can also be waived out of this with AP credits)
  • Statistics (surprisingly one of my favorite courses I’ve taken at USC) 


Gen Chem and Gen Bio have rightfully taken on the label of “pre-med weed-out classes” in the minds of the USC STEM population. 


The BS Program additionally requires a second semester of General Chemistry, two semesters of Organic Chemistry (affectionately, OChem), two semesters of Physics, and a computer science course.


I personally struggled through the introductory courses, but the higher-level, more specialized requirements have been engaging and less overwhelming which has made it much easier for me to learn and succeed. 


The higher-level Neuroscience requirements include Neurobiology and two out of three of the following: Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience, Systems Neuroscience, and Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience. Systems Neuroscience and Cognitive Neuroscience have undoubtedly been my two favorite Neuroscience courses.


Neuroscience Major Electives at USC


In addition to the more regimented curriculum, Neuroscience students get to select 4-5 upper-division electives from a range of departments including:


  • Biology
  • Biomedical engineering
  • Computer science
  • Health promotion
  • Pharmacology
  • Economics
  • Psychology (I’ve taken Cognitive Processes, Learning & Memory, and Sensation & Perception)
  • Gerontology (I’m registered for Neuroaffective Disorders of Aging next semester)


I never had trouble getting a spot in any elective I wanted. Many departments allow you to receive D-Clearance (fancy term for “your spot is saved”) for specific courses before registration begins, so if you are taking a course as a Neuroscience upper-division elective and plan properly, it’s quite easy.


I have primarily taken my electives through the Psychology department because the intersections between psychology and neuroscience are my area of interest. Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience is the only Neuroscience requirement that focuses on that intersection, and I wanted more of that in my upper-division electives.


In general, the upper-division electives tap into the intersections between neuroscience and other disciplines (with courses like Neuroeconomics, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, and Environmental Impacts on the Brain), so there’s something for everyone. Lots of pre-med students take medical school requirements like Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (affectionately, MoBio) as their upper-division electives. 


Neuroscience Course Structure and Professors at USC


The course structure for Neuroscience requirements varies by class, but it is important to note that classes are generally on the larger side. This is true of STEM classes compared to humanities classes generally.


Introductory biology and chemistry courses are normally taken freshman year and are likely the largest courses a Neuroscience major will take at USC. Lecture enrollment tends to be 100-200 students, separating into groups of 15-25 for a 3-hour lab section once per week. 


The good news about a large lecture/small lab setup is that it lends itself to a certain degree of flexibility because so many lab sections are offered at all different times (including early mornings, late nights, and Fridays if your schedule gets complicated). Lab sections are run by TAs and involve standard lab work—prepare your safety goggles, lab coat, and your pen to write lengthy lab reports.


As you start taking the higher-level requirements, class sizes drop to 50-100 students and instead of separating into lab sections, you separate into 20-25 student discussion sections. These also meet once a week and are run by the TA, but instead of involving titrations and identifying the presence of different macromolecules, they are characterized by weekly quizzes, group presentations on scientific papers, and TAs answering unresolved questions about the material from lecture.


Higher-level courses additionally involve more direct interaction with professors than introductory courses and students tend to utilize Office Hours more. I interact with professors more in my higher-level courses because I have developed a firm grasp on the principles of Neuroscience since freshman year and my curiosity leads me to more nuanced questions about the course material and oftentimes my professor’s research.


Additionally, the required introductory courses (and many other pre-med requirements) work with a program called Supplemental Instruction (SI) which accounts for some of the things you would expect to be handled in Office Hours. SI involves small nighttime study sessions (open to all students enrolled in a course) with an “SI Leader” who’s taken the course before and succeeded. During the session, you work through practice problems and discuss any questions about course content with the SI Leader.


Like I mentioned before, upper-division electives are the most variable part of the Neuroscience program. Because you elect to take specific courses, you end up with more control over your course’s content, professor, enrollment number, and so on. My psychology courses were primarily large lectures, but I chose to take them because of the course content.

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Studying Abroad as a Neuroscience Major at USC


The most important thing to know about studying abroad, in general, is that it takes planning. USC has specific policies for studying abroad (e.g. most courses abroad use a Credit/No Credit grading system and no General Education or Undergraduate Writing Requirements can be taken abroad). It is important to plan early in your undergraduate career so that these kinds of policies don’t interfere with your later plans!


That being said, with adequate planning, studying abroad can be easy and enriching! For the Neuroscience program, upper-division electives can be completed abroad. USC sends Neuroscience students to universities specifically recommended for their upper-division electives on every continent (save Antarctica… perhaps one day). 


To plan a study abroad semester, students work with the Office of Overseas Studies. There are specific advisors who work with students to navigate the application timeline, the costs, housing, making sure students get the credits they need, and anything else related to study abroad.


What Are Your Chances of Acceptance at USC?


While USC’s acceptance rate is relatively low (around 13%), your personal chances of acceptance may actually be higher or lower. 


To better understand your chances at USC, we recommend using our free admissions calculator. Using your grades, extracurriculars, and more, we’ll estimate your odds of acceptance, and help you improve your candidate profile.


You can also search for best-fit schools based on your chances, and other factors that may be important to you like size, location, or majors offered. This tool will make it a lot easier to create a strategy for your college application process.



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Brooke Elkjer
Blog Writer

Short Bio
Brooke is a film and television production assistant, originally from Dallas, Texas. She holds Bachelor’s degrees in English and Neuroscience from the University of Southern California. At USC, Brooke was a producer for the intersectional feminist production company on campus, a Resident Assistant (RA), and a student worker for the Thematic Option Honors GE Program. In her free time, Brooke enjoys reading, writing, and watching Gilmore Girls.