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The Requirements: 2 essays of up to 250 words; 2 short-answer lists.
There’s no nice way to say this: the USC application is kind of all over the place. It kicks off by asking applicants to choose one of three prompts, two of which overlap with the Common App, and it just gets stranger from there. You’ll be asked about everything from your academic interests to your life’s theme song, so our best piece of advice is, buckle up. Oh, and also remember that you should use every essay as an opportunity to showcase something different about yourself. 😉
To rephrase the question: What experiences have exposed your personal blindspots? When have you been forced to admit that you were wrong? This first option may be the most challenging of the three because it requires a great deal of self-awareness and introspection. A successful essay will showcase your humility, intelligence, and adaptability. Maybe you never used to think of your teachers as people with lives outside of school until the day your family put your dog down and your English teacher offered you some words of comfort. How did your perspective change? What did you learn about the universal nature of grief? Don’t limit yourself to stories about conflict and don’t worry about being right or wrong. The most interesting essays will focus on small, personal moments that have shaped the way you see the world.
And finally, a warning: this prompt is very similar to the third prompt on the 2020-21 Common App, which asks students to reflect on a time when they challenged a belief or idea. If you chose this prompt #3 for your Common App personal statement, you might want to steer clear of this particular USC prompt in order to avoid redundancy. If you picked a different Common App prompt, feel free to refer to our prompt #3 guide for more inspiration!
If you already have a major in mind, chances are your application is bursting with supporting evidence. So you want to be an English major? We bet you’ve served on the board of your literary magazine, entered writing competitions, and aced your Literature AP. This is your shot to show USC that you’re well-rounded! Maybe you’ve always wanted to study physics, but were intimidated by the math. Perhaps the field of astronomy has piqued your imagination as much as your academic interest. Don’t be afraid to get a little out there! The prompt never says you have to choose another academic topic, so if you’d like to go for a quirkier answer, maybe you could focus on a new skill you’d like to gain: Woodworking? Orienteering? You should avoid being weird for weird’s sake, but we encourage you to think outside the box and be genuine about your interests and passions! Make sure to explain why you haven’t yet studied the topic you propose and describe the specific reasons for your interest. Maybe a recent debate you got into with a friend sparked an interest in philosophy. On the other hand, you might just be daydreaming about what your life would be like if you could speak Japanese, where you’d go, and who you’d meet. The point is, don’t just explain why the subject is worth studying in general. Render it specific to your life and personality.
Here’s your free-for-all prompt! With a question this broad, you can write about pretty much anything as long as it tells a story about you and your life. (Sorry, that treatise on wide-legged pants will have to wait.) Our three primary pieces of advice are the same as always: (1) Pick a story rather than a fun fact. Give yourself the opportunity to really write in your own voice. (2) Use a topic that hasn’t shown up on your application before. (3) Make sure no one else could put their name on your essay.
Similar to the first USC prompt, this one also mirrors a Common App prompt, so we’d recommend nixing this option if you wrote your Common App personal statement on prompt #1. If not, hit up our Common App guide for more brainstorming tips!
Unlike the second prompt above, this one is all about your enduring academic interests and passions, but it’s not really about you. Rather, it’s not about you alone. This is USC’s take on the classic Why essay. In asking how you plan to pursue your interests, admissions is really trying to suss out your core reasons for choosing USC. While college will offer you a wealth of social and professional opportunities, its primary function is academic — and your primary role is as a student. So, what kind of student do you hope to be? Where do you hope your studies will take you? What resources and opportunities does USC offer that will meet your needs and guide you towards your goals?
To answer these questions, set aside an hour or two to pore over the USC website (there’s no hack, you’ve just got to put in the time). Beyond the basic departmental listings, look up information about news and research coming out of your department, the kinds of courses available, the opportunities that other undergrads have had studying in your area of choice. Even if you have a wide array of interests, consider explaining how two to three departments might complement each other or foster your interest in a larger idea or theme. Your ultimate goal is to show that your interest in USC (just like your intellectual curiosity) runs deep!
When the challenge is pith, the opportunity is humor. We rarely offer an across-the-board directive to be funny because humor writing is hard — and sometimes it just simply isn’t appropriate for the story you need to tell in a longer essay. But with lists and short answers, it’s wit that will make you stand out. Your answer doesn’t need to be laugh-out-loud funny, but it should avoid the generalities that so often populate these questions: loyal, kind, smart… you get the idea. We’re sure you are all of these things — and they are lovely qualities to showcase in the stories you tell elsewhere in your essay — but these sorts of terms can ring hollow if you aren’t able to back them up with evidence. A good place to start might be to examine your contradictions (you’re mostly easy-going, until you start playing Scrabble) and craft an essay that showcases some funny irony about your personality. Think about how different people in your life would describe you, and then think about order. Can you make it read like a very short story? Can you make it rhyme? Though this assignment is short, you may need to spend some time wordsmithing different combinations. When the prescribed format is a list, order matters just as much as content, so use every element of the assignment to your advantage!
Behold! USC’s attempt at being quirky! You’ve been limited to less than the length of a tweet for each answer, so you’d better make every word (and character) count! These prompts don’t have time for generalities or gentle introductions, so you’ll have to cut straight to the point. The more specific your words are, the more memorable your answers will be. Favorite snack? Don’t just say, “popcorn and Junior Mints.” How about, “A box of junior mints melting over hot popcorn as I watch a horror movie” (72 characters). If you can paint a funny picture or display a knack for wit, take this chance, but don’t force it. You also don’t exactly have to think of this as filling in the blanks, but more as filling in any blanks in your application. Anything that doesn’t feel like it merits a full essay can go here as a tweet, hot take, punchline, or elegantly-worded sentence.