How to Write the USC Supplemental Essays 2020-2021: The Perfect Guide (Examples Included!)

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University of Southern California (USC) is a private university located in downtown Los Angeles, California.

With its warm weather and beautiful campus, USC has been a prime film location for many films and television shows.

  • If you’ve seen Forrest Gump, Legally Blonde, Love & Basketball, The Social Network, and the C., you’ve seen USC.

Boasting over 21 colleges, academies, and schools of study that offer hundreds of majors, and thousands of courses, USC offers plenty of variety for even the most curious students.

USC’s acceptance rate has been sitting at a thin 13% for the past few years.

With such a low acceptance rate, you’ll need to write excellent essays to be considered for admission at USC.

USC uses the Common App, which means you can access all essay questions on the Common App portal.

Though you’ll need to make these essays count, you shouldn’t worry. This guide is here to help you through the entire process, so you can show the USC admissions team that you deserve to be a part of their upcoming class through thoughtful and well-written supplemental essays.

What Are USC’s Supplemental Essay Requirements?

USC requires that students answer multiple prompts as part of the application process. You will find both on the Common App.

For the first prompt, students must choose one of three potential essay questions. These questions assess the student’s diverse experiences, interests, and characteristics. This type of question is also commonly referred to as the “diversity essay.”

The prompts for essay #1 include:

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.

USC faculty place an emphasis on interdisciplinary academic opportunities. Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning.

What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?

For the second prompt, students must describe their intended major and what motivated them to make that choice.

The question is as follows:

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.

USC also has a short answer section, in which you are expected to write extremely short, 1 sentence (or even 1 word) answers. These questions are designed to better showcase your personality.

These questions are quite random, so prepare yourself to answer with authenticity and a bit of thought, so the best version of yourself is represented.

Creating a compelling application to USC requires well-written essay responses that reflect critical self-reflection and self-understanding.

On top of perfecting your mechanical skills, work to condense and hone your writing so that every word adds to your main point.

In addition to helping admissions counselors get to know you better through writing, you should pay attention to your organization, spelling, and grammar.

Simple mistakes in those areas can outshine your true potential.

We’ll look into each of the prompts in detail below, to help you submit the best version possible

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USC Supplemental Essay Prompt #1: New Ideas

“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.”

In this prompt, USC tells you that they value diversity.

Not only do they value diversity, but they also value people who can appreciate diversity and are open-minded to new ideas, experiences, and perspectives.

First, it’s vital that you truly understand what diversity means.

  • According to Merriam-Webster, two definitions are “the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization” and “an instance of being composed of differing elements or qualities.”

To answer this question, you will have to reflect on past experiences during which you faced a different idea or belief that somehow challenged yours.

  • You will then have to tie your experience and lessons learned in with USC’s values.

USC’s values are found underneath the Applicant Admission Process tab on their website.

In the Personal Qualities section, USC states: “We look for students who possess the potential to contribute to our diverse and vibrant campus life, who represent a vast array of interests and passions, and are leaders unafraid to speak up in class or fight for a cause.

We value students who make us think….”

  • In other words, not only does USC want you to be open-minded and appreciative of diversity, they also want you to be a leader and contributor to their community. They want you to own your uniqueness and share it with others in a way that is mutually beneficial to the community and to you.

Before you begin generating ideas, let’s take a deeper look at the question to fully understand what USC is asking for without going overboard in your response.

  • “Tell us about A TIME you were exposed to a new idea OR when your beliefs were challenged by another point of view.”
  • Your essay response only needs to include one story and does not need to include both components mentioned in the prompt.

To start brainstorming, think of a few times where you heard something or had a conversation that introduced you to a new perspective, changed your perspective, or called it into question.

  • How did you feel?
  • Why did you feel that way?

Once you have generated a list of experiences, pick the one you feel offers the deepest experience with diversity in your life.

Reflect on this experience and discuss how it affected you in a positive way.

  • How did those experiences change your thinking or your outlook on life for the better?
  • Did the experience cause you to question or reflect on other beliefs you possess?
  • If your perspective didn’t change, what did you appreciate about the other perspective on the issue/idea/belief?

It’s helpful to write down thoughts and notes before you begin crafting your actual essay.

After doing this, take what you have written and summarize that into a brief thesis statement.

  • Then, expand to help the reader to understand your challenge just as you were experiencing it.

Your telling of the experience can flow similar to how you would tell someone out loud, but you’re limited to 250 words.

  • For example, “My discussion with Person X did not change my views on the problems associated with income inequality, but it did help me to better understand and sympathize with some of the issues self-made wealthy individuals face…etc.”

Pick your most poignant experience and make a story out of it.

Help the reader to experience your challenge just as you were experiencing it.

Be sure to showcase your individuality and your open-mindedness. Once you’ve written your personal statement, be sure to have someone read through and edit your response.

This will help make sure your point was made and avoid spelling/grammar errors you may have overlooked.

USC Supplemental Essay Prompt #2: Outside of Your Academic Focus

“USC faculty place an emphasis on interdisciplinary academic opportunities. Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning.”

With this prompt, USC wants to see that you are able to demonstrate open-mindedness.

  • It’s great that you want to study mathematics, but are you open to learning from the field of music?
  • What about psychology?
  • Maybe you want to be a doctor and are inspired by literary doctors like Oliver Sacks and William Carlos Williams. In this case, you’d explain how you plan on studying literature in addition to pre-medical courses.

They want to know that you care about things outside of your immediate focus.

Having more than one interest makes you more well-rounded on a personal level, and it can help you on professional and academic levels as well.

  • For instance, USC wants to produce skilled doctors, and they would prefer to produce good doctors who also understand the healing power of narrative. You’ll want to have a focus but also a breadth of diverse interests.

For this question, you will also need to be genuine.

Even if your other interest is not an academic field or major offered at USC, it’s okay.

  • The prompt doesn’t state it has to be an academic interest – it just has to be outside of your intended academic focus.
  • You may decide to minor in another area, but you should not feel restricted to discuss academics only.

Consider writing about opportunities offered at the university that exist outside of the classroom.

You could try researching the different clubs, activities, or events that exist or happen around campus.

  • For example, you may major in political science but also want to become a better musician.
  • You might sign up for a voice class at the university and join choirs and singing groups to improve your musical ability.

Or, maybe you are a STEM major, but you’ve also been learning ASL. You could write about your interest in USC’s American Sign Language Club, as it would help you better practice your sign language.

  • What are your other interests?
  • Try writing them down and writing about the one that means the most to you (or shows a side of you that is not yet on your application).

Here is another example:

  • If you plan on majoring in bioengineering, you’ll want to think beyond biology and engineering, as this is implied in the name of the major. You could be interested in a humanity like anthropology, which works to explain how human cultures work – an interest that may inform and enrichen your primary focus.

If you can’t think of a particular interest that would be completely new to you, consider a topic outside your academic focus that you want to become better versed in.

In this case, you’ll express why you want to continue learning more about that interest. In other words:

  • What is something you want to learn more about?
  • Why do you want to learn more about it?

While there’s no wrong way to answer the question, a great way to approach the question is using your interest to unconventionally further your understanding in your academic focus.

  • For instance, if you’re a physics major with a passion for music, you might write about using music as practical applications of some physics principles regarding vibration and sound transfer.

If there’s a particular story behind your interest, share that in a way that helps the reader connect with you.

Telling a short story about your interest will help you effectively use more of your 250-word limit.

Overall, try to be authentic and show USC that you’re a well-rounded individual who will add to their campus community in more ways than one.

USC Outside of Academic Focus Essay Example

“Hi. My name … is Bobby … and I will be playing Fur … Elise … today.”

The audience sat still as I stuttered through my introduction, approaching the lavish grand piano for my freshman-year recital. As chords flowed through my hands, my fingers began to slip, missing notes along the way. My stage fright had gotten the better of me.

When I enrolled at GSA the next year, my friends dragged me to drill practice in preparation for the Clash of the Halls dance competition. I was reluctant, but upperclassmen convinced me to represent my hall at the most popular event at school. Although I had performed at multiple piano recitals, participating in choreographed dancing was a new challenge.

Passion gradually outweighed my fear as I became more comfortable with the challenging choreography. Dancing became less of a commitment. I slowly became obsessed with making sure our team hit every note, rhythm, and beat. When I began leading practices, rising from apprentice to teacher, the moves became muscle memory and excitement pumped through my veins.

After months of practices, I led my hallmates into the gym, exuding hall spirit and assuming our formation. The fear that once possessed me completely vanished. We went on to give an unforgettable show.

Having discovered my newfound passion, I went on to choreograph my school’s Diwali dance for the next two years. I look forward to pursuing my love for dance by joining the USC Zeher Bollywood fusion team in the near future.

USC Supplemental Essay Prompt #3: Essential to Understanding You

“What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?”

This is the equivalent of the “tell me about yourself” question; the same one that you will be asked during almost every interview.

This question is broad, so you want to be particular.

The best way to be particular is by utilizing a story you haven’t already told in another part of your application. This story should also highlight one of the characteristics you feel is essential to who you are as a person.

  • Think of a story that demonstrates your values, a perfect day, an activity you enjoy, or an important relationship.

You’ll want to be able to pinpoint that one thing throughout your story.

  • The key is to answer the question concisely (within the 250 word count maximum) and genuinely.

Another great way to approach this question is to ask yourself a question and answer through a free-write.

Examples of questions you could ask yourself include:

  • What do I value?
  • What does my perfect day look like?
  • What could I do every day and not get tired of?
  • Who are the most important people in my life?
  • What’s my ultimate life goal?
  • What motivates me?

Write whatever comes to mind for your questions.

Don’t be afraid to include a negative experience if it significantly affected your life, goals, or personality.

This is where you can find beauty in the darkness to show how you’re unique.

Do the same free-write exercise with these questions.

  • What struggle do I work most to overcome?
  • What is something only those closest to me know about how I’ve become who I am?
  • What do I avoid at all costs?
  • What am I terrified of?

You are not being asked to share your most tragic story or deepest darkest secret, but it’s important to appreciate that we don’t only grow from positive experiences.

We grow from all experiences, so write about one (positive or negative) that has shaped you most.

The next step is to ask yourself why. This is very important.

USC wants to know what is important to you and why it’s important.

  • If your answer is “I don’t know,” take some time to think about it or move on to the next idea on your list.
  • Ask friends and family for their thoughts (but remember that you have to create an essay with your own thoughts and not those of someone else).

Here’s an example of breaking down a meaningful story to pinpoint the specific characteristic that is essential to you being you.

  • Interest: I love traveling by train.
  • Why? I like the rhythm and cadence of the wheels on the tracks, the sound of the whistle, watching the diversity of the landscape as I travel in and out of urban centers.
  • What does it say about me? I pine for a quieter, slower time and love to find ways to balance the rush and grind of the city with habits of slow living.
  • What characteristic does this give me? This says something about how I’m contemplative.
  • How do I use this characteristic? I spend time contemplating choices longer than most and dislike being rushed to make a decision.

When you’re able to come up with the answer to “Why?” write down as much as you can without judging yourself. You’re the only person who knows the truth about what is essential to understanding you.

When you’re able to identify what you would like to write about, frame it within a story.

Remember you only have 250 words to spare, so it won’t be a full-blown story.

However, two to three sentences about the background behind your topic will be helpful to the reader.

  • For example, if you want to write about your involvement in sports as an important part of who you are, write about how you became interested in sports in the first place.
  • Maybe your grandfather taught you how to throw a football. Maybe he came to all your games.
  • Let the reader know the story behind what you’ve chosen to write about.

As always, have someone read your essay to ensure that it is error-free and genuinely reflects you.

USC Essential to Understanding You Essay Example

My grandmother likes to tell the story of three-year-old me in the grocery cart, screaming in Vietnamese the names of passing vegetables, much to the amusement of shoppers. Back then, Vietnamese was enough.

In kindergarten, I faced my first language obstacle. At the toilet, I couldn’t undo my double-ring belt. How embarrassing would it be to interrupt the teacher in the middle of class and silently point to it, hoping she would get the message? I chose to sit on the toilet and cry. That was the first day I peed my pants in class but the last time language would ever come between me and going to the bathroom. I made learning English my mission. By third grade, I was reading stacks of books almost as tall as I was every week.

Language is meaningful to me. While volunteering in the hospital, when I ask a lost elderly couple if they speak Vietnamese, their eyes light up in relief. When a Spanish-speaking woman hurriedly calls her child over to translate, I tell them in Spanish not to worry, empathizing with the child who has the same role I once did.

Language doesn’t just communicate information. For me, it has been a tool for insight, allowing me to connect with others. Throughout my schooling, I’ve taught my parents a lot of English, and I still teach them new words every so often. When I make the occasional error, I jokingly but affectionately blame it on English as my second language.

“Why USC?” Supplemental Essay: How to Answer The Intended Major Question

“The intended major question states: Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests at USC. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections.”

This is another version of a “Why This College” essay.

Sometimes when high school students are asked about their major, they get overwhelmed because they aren’t 100% confident about what they want to study.

Consider major selections to be a road trip, not a death sentence.

You are allowed to change your mind, but it helps if you know what you want and why. So, take some time to think about it:

  • What do you enjoy studying?
  • Why do you enjoy studying it?
  • Are there other subjects you enjoy as well?

Think about your experiences in school up until this point.

Sure, interests change, but, often, there are things within our lives that remain constant.

Maybe you never cared about history class, but you enjoyed reading novels and analyzing characterization and plot techniques.

  • Or, perhaps you hated having reading assigned for class but enjoyed acting out scenes from different novels and plays.

These are things to take note of.

Another way to help you figure out your intended major is to look through USC’s website.

  • Remember, this question functions as both a question about your intended major and a question about your intentions for applying to USC. Your answer is best suited when tailored to USC’s unique features that other colleges may not offer.

Does Biomedical Engineering sound interesting to you? Check out USC’s Biomedical Engineering program. Look at the courses you will have to take. See what excites you.

Still struggling to come up with your intended major?

Working backward is another helpful strategy.

  • Think about where you will want to be 5 to 10 years from now.
  • What do you want to be doing every day?
  • Are you passionate about reading and analyzing large amounts of information and communicating it in a way that makes sense to other people?
  • Do you want to teach people how to handle their finances?
  • Are you interested in helping other people live healthier lives?
  • Do you want to develop your passion for writing into a career?

Look at careers that match the types of things you will want to be doing every day. Then, look at the type of knowledge that will be required to get those jobs.

That knowledge may be found in more than one major. If that’s the case, you will need to look through the department websites for your intended majors.

  • Once you’ve done the necessary background research, tell your story.
  • Lean into a story of what your major will be and own it, but, remember, it’s not binding or contractual.

The more you learn about different majors, the clearer your intended major may become, so spend a couple of hours clicking deep into the website:

  • Start with the programs related to a chosen field.
  • Then, look at the types of courses that are offered and learn about some of the professors teaching the courses.
  • You’ll also want to look at news or research coming out of the department.

Consider ways in which you will grow and flourish academically and programs to which you might contribute as a student at USC.

If you have a career goal, it can help.

  • Describe how your major in narrative studies will help you realize the goal of becoming a documentary filmmaker.
  • Explain how you will be prepared in a program that balances traditional studies in English literature with film theory, writing classes, as well as the study of popular culture and ethnicity.
  • Write about how a degree in social work will help shape you into the type of politician you want to be in the future.

Write the vision for your life and write how your first (and/or second-choice) major will help you get there.

It would be an added bonus if you can talk about extracurricular activities you might be interested in joining to further supplement your learning.

Remember, learning takes place outside the classroom as well.

Take time with this essay to make sure you’re confident in your future goals, and then share them with the admissions team. When you’re authentic and have a plan for the future, you’re sure to write a compelling essay.

Why USC and Why This Major Essay Example

8 p.m. – I sat in the peer tutor room, waiting for underclassmen to approach me for academic help. An hour-long shift passed without any students stopping by. At this moment, I realized the immense lack of organization within the peer tutoring program at GSA. Students could neither find available tutors nor schedule time with them despite needing support for challenging courses. I knew there had to be a better way. I spent the next few months teaching myself Android Studio programming and developed EngTutor, an app that streamlines the process of finding academic help connecting students with available tutors. I will use the resources available at USC to turn EngTutor into a commercial venture.

In the classroom, I aim to take advantage of USC’s advanced computer science program to broaden my knowledge of robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence. I am excited to take courses such as Advanced Natural Language Processing to understand AI concepts.

At USC, I intend to take advantage of the focus on interdisciplinary studies and enroll in elective courses at the Marshall School of Business to complement my skills developed at USC’s LavaLab. By receiving mentorship from professionals in entrepreneurship and computer science and gaining experience pitching my ideas to judges, I will be ready to participate in the Blackstone LaunchPad. Here, I aim to collaborate with like-minded individuals to enhance my entrepreneurship capabilities. Through these academic and extracurricular programs, USC will provide me with the resources necessary to embark on my entrepreneurial journey.

The USC Short-Answer Questions

The USC Short-Answer Questions include:

  • Describe yourself in three words.
  • 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?

While most universities that include a short answer section limit your word count to 100 words, the USC short answer questions only require one or two sentences to fully answer them.

  • Be sure to answer the “why” implicit in the question.
  • Treat it more like a conversation or an interview – monosyllabic responses don’t bode well for a conversation, and they don’t look great on your application, either.
  • Instead, add a little context to your answers.
  • After all, the USC admissions department should better understand you after reading your short answers.

There are two kinds of questions – Listing something that you feel describes yourself, and answering generic “break the ice” questions.

  • For the questions in which you describe yourself, try asking friends or family for some perspective.
  • Most importantly, make sure that you don’t choose vague adjectives – Each word should reflect a specific part of your personality.

If you are having a lot of trouble thinking of words that best describe you, don’t be afraid to get creative. For example, if you are a Harry Potter fan, consider using traits that describe your favorite Hogwarts house.

  • For instance, if you consider yourself a Ravenclaw, you might use the words “analytical, quizzical, and creative.”
  • A Slytherin may use “ambitious, hardworking, and clever.”
  • Whatever method you use, make sure that these words tell USC about you.

For other questions, begin with the answer, then explain the why.

Also, remember that the admissions team at USC is not looking for the most sophisticated student, they just want introspective students.

  • For instance, don’t just say that your favorite movie is Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Twelve Angry Men – explain why (briefly).
  • Perhaps you’re interested in the themes of privacy versus security, or the film made you interested in the law or political science.

With every question, bring along a little insight into your life, your beliefs, and your ambitions.

USC Short Responses Examples

1.Describe yourself in three words.

2. First Word: Self-motivated

3. Second Word: Analytical

4. Third Word: Mindful

5. What is your favorite snack? Raisins and almonds: nutritious, portable, and delicious

6. Favorite app/website: Spotify

7. Best movie of all time: Avengers: Infinity War

8. Dream job: Founder/CEO of my assistive robotics technology company

9. What is your theme song: Believer – Imagine Dragons

10. Dream trip: Road trip on historic Route 66 from Chicago to LA with my friends

11. What TV show will you binge watch next: The Office

12. Which well-known person or fictional character would be your ideal roommate: Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings

13. Favorite book: Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

14. If you could teach a class on any topic, what would it be: Facing Your Fears: Public Speaking

Conclusion: Writing the USC Supplemental Essays

As we mentioned at the beginning of this guide, well-written responses to those prompts require self-reflection, critical self-analysis, and research.

Start early to give yourself enough time to research your intended majors, write high-quality responses, and have time for revisions.

You have a 250 word limit for each of the supplemental essays, so use them all to create a lasting impression on the admissions officer reading your application.

By following the above guidelines, you can create a shining admissions package that will set you apart from other applicants.

Don’t forget to have fun, be a little creative, and show the USC admissions team who you really are. Your best chance to get into USC depends on it.

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