The University of Southern California (USC) is a private research university in Los Angeles, California. It’s ranked among the Top 30 universities in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.
USC is one of the world’s leading private research universities and a global center for technology, arts, and international business. Students have opportunities for interdisciplinary study and collaboration with leading researchers. About 20 percent of students participate in Greek life. The USC Trojans compete in the Pac-12 Conference and are best known for their legendary football program.
While the university has campuses and centers throughout sunny California, the main University Park campus is located in the heart of Los Angeles. The campus is a short walk or ride away from numerous dining, shopping, and entertainment options.
There’s a lot to do in the area surrounding USC, but there’s plenty to do on campus too. USC offers more than 1,000 student organizations to its highly diverse student population. Dozens of lectures, concerts, special events, spirit rallies, conferences, and social and cultural events are held on campus each year.
USC is a prestigious university with a lot to offer, and it’s no surprise that the school receives more than 50,000 applicants each year. Last year, 71,000 students applied to USC. The competition is tough, but don’t worry—this guide is designed to give you a strategic plan for admission. We’ll share the information, data, and advice you need to increase your chances of receiving an acceptance letter from USC!
Is It Hard to Get Into USC?
USC has an acceptance rate of 12%. That means for every 100 applicants, only 12 receive an acceptance letter. The other 88 applicants receive a rejection.
In comparison to other universities, admission to USC is very selective. It’s not as competitive as the Ivy League universities, but it’s harder to get into than most other schools.
GPA and Test Scores for USC
On average, students admitted to USC have a GPA of 3.79. You’ll need to earn mostly A’s and very few B’s to have a competitive GPA for USC. Most students admitted to USC are ranked in the top 10 percent of their graduating class.
If your GPA is lower and you’re a freshman or sophomore, you have time to raise your GPA before sending transcripts to universities. But what if you’re already a junior and there’s not enough time to significantly increase your GPA? In that case, focus on scoring competitively on the ACT or SAT. And keep in mind that USC considers numerous factors for admission, not just your numbers.
Students admitted to USC have an average ACT score of 32. The 25th percentile score is a 30, and the 75th percentile score is a 34. For a competitive school like USC, it’s best to score in the 75th percentile so you can stand out from the crowd.
Now, let’s look at an SAT score breakdown for students admitted to USC.
|Section||Average||25th Percentile||75th Percentile|
Since your chances increase with a score in the 75th percentile, aim for a 1530 on the SAT, with a 790 in Math and a 740 on Reading. Overall, our data suggests you should strive for a:
- 3.79 GPA or higher
- 34 on the ACT, OR
- 1530 on the SAT
Of course, some students get admitted to USC with lower scores too. But when only 12 out of 100 applicants are accepted, it’s important to do what you can to rise to the top of the applicant list.
At an extremely competitive university like USC, the numbers matter. Think of these numbers as a ticket to get your foot in the door. But many students who apply to USC will have a strong academic background. USC looks at other factors too, giving you a chance to stand out.
What Other Qualities Does USC Look For?
In reviewing applications, the admissions committee’s goal is to find students who will thrive at USC.
What does that mean, exactly? The university’s website says:
“USC students pursue ambitious intellectual and professional goals. They are willing to venture outside their comfort zones. They are interested in the world, in other peoples and cultures, and enjoy examining important issues from a global perspective. USC students are unafraid to speak up in class to make others think or fight for a cause. They get involved by participating in student organizations and connecting with others. They seek to grow to their fullest potential, and they seek to serve others in the community along the way.”
Other qualities USC considers are:
- Performance in school
- Strength of high school schedule
- Writing skills
- Test scores
- Vast array of interests and passions
- Community involvement
- “Bold, driven, curious, and creative”
Overall, USC will conduct a holistic, comprehensive review of your application. They are considering both your academic and personal qualities. The application process is designed to help the admissions committee discover your individual story, so they can see how you might take advantage of the opportunities available at USC.
What Should You Do in High School?
Now it’s time to get strategic! Based on the data and information we’ve reviewed so far, what should you do in high school to prepare for admission to USC?
Excel in Challenging Classes
USC’s website explains that admitted students usually pursue “the most rigorous program available to them” in English, social studies, science, foreign language, and the arts. Students are also expected to complete at least three years of mathematics, including Algebra II.
If your school doesn’t offer advanced classes like IB and AP, the admissions committee won’t count it against you. But if these courses are available, take as many AP and IB classes as possible. USC is trying to envision your academic performance at the next level. The best way to show what you’re capable of is to take and excel in the most challenging classes at your school.
Remember that you’ll need mostly A’s to have a competitive GPA for USC, and that most students admitted to USC are in the top 10 percent of their graduating class. You’ll need to develop excellent study habits, turn in all assignments on time, and take notes in your classes. If you start to fall behind, act quickly to ask for help from your teacher, a tutor, or a friend who is excelling in the class.
Prep for the ACT or SAT
The good study habits you develop in your classes will come in handy when it’s time to prepare for the ACT and/or SAT, but these exams require a more advanced level of preparation.
USC accepts both the ACT and SAT, with no preference for either test. For 2022 and 2023, USC is test-optional. This means that you won’t be penalized or at a disadvantage if you don’t submit test scores. However, ACT and SAT scores are another opportunity to demonstrate your academic ability and impress the admissions committee. And if your GPA isn’t up to par, high test scores can help balance out your grades.
We recommend taking the ACT or SAT, then submitting your scores if they are competitive for USC. Start by taking a practice test for both exams to determine which exam will allow you to make the best impression. Once you’ve decided which exam you want to take, start studying well in advance:
- Use practice tests to assess your strengths and weaknesses, then build a personalized study plan.
- Drill practice questions and tap into available resources on topics that are challenging for you.
- Read high-level texts. Look up the definitions of any unfamiliar words and keep a list.
- With about a month left until the test, focus on your areas of weakness.
- Take more practice tests and adjust your study plan as needed.
- If necessary, take the ACT/SAT more than once. Score reports from your earlier attempt(s) are an excellent tool to analyze what you’re doing well and what you need to improve on.
Test scores are only one component of your application, but they can certainly give you an edge for admission to a competitive school like USC.
Volunteer in the Community
USC’s website emphasizes the importance of community service several times. The university looks for students who will make an impact both in and out of the classroom by serving the community along the way.
Throughout your high school career, find meaningful ways to serve the people and the community around you. Community service fosters tremendous personal growth and enhances your application. Demonstrating your passion for improving the world around you demonstrates that you’re a good fit for USC.
So, participate in projects that can better your community or make life easier for the people who live there. Think about areas of need in your area or problems in the community that you can help address. You can also tackle a social issue that is close to your heart.
Better yet, launch your own community-based project or nonprofit organization. It sounds like a tall order, but many students who get into Ivy League universities or top-tier colleges like USC do just that. Show that you’re innovative, compassionate, and motivated to create positive change.
When the USC admissions committee sees a stellar record of community service on your application, they’ll view you as someone who will positively contribute to USC’s campus and to the wider world.
Pursue Your Passions
USC’s website says, “We strive to enroll a diverse group of students who represent a vast array of perspectives and passions.” They recognize that each student is unique and has something to offer. They want your application to reveal who you truly are.
What makes you tick? What academic subject is the most exciting and intriguing to you? How do you most enjoy spending your time? The admissions committee wants your extracurricular participation to reveal answers to these questions.
So, don’t choose extracurricular activities based on what you think will be most impressive to the admissions team. Choose 3-5 activities that align with your passions and commit to them long-term.
Demonstrate other qualities USC looks for through your extracurricular participation, such as leadership, creativity, curiosity, drive, and achievement. Strive to make significant contributions and take on leadership roles. When possible, enter competitions, submit for awards, and find tangible ways to show that you’re both passionate and skilled in your favorite activities.
When you apply to USC, you apply to the major you’d like to declare. Ideally, the activities you’re passionate about will be relevant to your intended major. (If that’s not the case, it may be worth reconsidering your major. Follow your talents and passions to your future major and career.) The admissions committee will appreciate that you’ve chosen a major you’re dedicated to, passionate about, and talented in.
USC Application Process and Checklist
USC requires prospective students to submit the Common Application for admission. You’ll select a first and second-choice major when you apply. If spots for the first major are competitive or fill up quickly, you can still get admitted to USC through your second-choice major.
Your application will include:
- Official test scores (optional for 2022-2023)
- Selection of major
- Activities list
- Letter of recommendation from either a school counselor or teacher (Applicants to the School of Cinematic Arts must submit two letters of recommendation)
- Common Application personal essay
- USC Supplements
- Mid-Year Grade Report
Some majors also require a portfolio, audition, resume, and/or additional writing supplements. USC does not require interviews as part of the admission process.
USC Supplemental Essays
When you apply to USC, you will write a personal essay for the Common Application, along with the USC Supplement. The USC Supplement includes two 250-word writing prompts and 12 very short-answer questions.
Prompts may vary slightly from year to year, but the most recent USC Supplement is listed below:
Prompt 1 (Required): Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests and why you want to explore them at USC specifically. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections (250 words).
Prompt 2 (Required): Respond to one of the prompts below (250 words).
- Option 1: USC believes that one learns best when interacting with people of different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Tell us about a time when 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.
- Option 2: USC faculty place an emphasis on interdisciplinary academic opportunities. Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning.
- Option 3: What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?
Prompt 3 (Optional): Starting with the beginning of high school/secondary school, if you have had a gap where you were not enrolled in school during a fall or spring term, please address this gap in your educational history. You do not need to address a summer break (250 words).
Short Answer Prompts: Respond to all the prompts below (100 characters unless otherwise specified)
- Describe yourself in three words (25 characters each)
- What is your favorite snack?
- Best movie of all time
- Dream job
- If your life had a theme song, what would it be?
- Dream trip
- What TV show will you binge-watch next?
- Which well-known person or fictional character would be your ideal roommate?
- Favorite Book
- If you could teach a class on any topic, what would it be?
For the longer prompts, including the Common App essay, be sure to:
- Answer the prompt completely. These questions are straight from the USC admissions committee, so you know they’re based on something USC wants to know about you. Respond to each prompt directly and completely.
- Do your research and be specific. For questions about USC and your intended major, do your research via the university’s website. Cite specific classes, professors, programs, and opportunities that get you excited about USC. Knowing your stuff shows the admissions committee that your interest is genuine, and you’re excited about the opportunity to become a USC Trojan. Make sure you let that genuine enthusiasm shine through!
- Write in your unique voice. Your essay should reflect your unique personality and voice. USC wants to know you as a person, not just a GPA, test score, and a list of activities. Don’t focus too much on impressive sentences and fancy vocabulary. That will make your essay sound just like dozens or even hundreds of others. Tell your story in your voice, and you’ll submit an essay no one else could write.
- Proofread, proofread, proofread. Errors in an application essay give the impression of laziness, poor writing skills, and maybe even a lack of enthusiasm about getting into USC. At a highly competitive school, that can send your application straight to the bottom of the pile. Proofread carefully for grammar, punctuation, capitalization, usage, clarity, and concision. Ask a teacher, parent, or trusted friend to review your essay for any errors or confusion, and ask them if the essay “sounds like you” too.
The short-answer questions are different. You only have 100 characters (and sometimes fewer) to respond. Think of the short answer questions as a fun, rapid-fire personality test. Have fun, be creative, and let your uniqueness shine. Our advice to proofread, however, still applies. A mistake in a 100-character response will stand out even more than a mistake in the longer essays, and it looks lazier too.
USC is trying to gain new, interesting insights into your personality. Try not to repeat information mentioned elsewhere in your application. For most of the short-answer questions, you have space to include your answer and a brief explanation of your reasoning. Most importantly, have fun writing these! It’s supposed to be enjoyable—and if you enjoy writing them, chances are the admissions team will enjoy reading them.
Should You Apply Early to USC?
USC does not offer early action or early decision programs. The university’s website states, “All students who apply to the university by the appropriate deadline are given equal consideration in the application review process.”
Final Thoughts: How to Get Into USC
USC is a very selective school, meaning it’s difficult to get into. To compete with the 50,000-plus applicants, you’ll need a strong GPA with a rigorous schedule, excellent test scores, and a solid record of community service and extracurricular participation. Your essays should reflect your personal qualities and your personality, giving you another opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
Aim for a GPA of at least 3.79 and an ACT score of 34 or SAT score of 1530. Commit long-term to extracurricular activities you’re passionate about, striving (when possible) to take on leadership positions, make significant contributions, and earn accolades and achievements.
When you write your essays, do your research on USC and your intended major. Let your personality, voice, and excitement about USC shine through. Show the admissions committee why you’re a great fit for the university.
Work hard in school, excel academically, and follow the tips in this guide, and you’ll strengthen your chances of becoming a USC Trojan!