Categories:

How to Write the USC Supplemental Essays: The Perfect Guide

Apply to USC with powerful college essays. Stand out from competition. Apply to college with your admissions advantage by enrolling in one of our college application boot camps.


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

2018 introduced USC’s most selective freshman class, with a paltry acceptance rate of 13 percent, a full 3 points down from the previous year. As such, you need to make sure that your application is perfect before submitting it for review.

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 O.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 enough variety for the most curious students.

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

This guide will help you craft well-written responses for USC’s 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.”
  • For the second prompt, students must describe their intended major and what motivated them to make that choice.
  • USC also has a short answer section, in which you are expected to write extremely short, 1 sentence answers. These questions are designed to better showcase your personality.
  • For engineering and computer science students, you are expected to write two extra essays for your application. The first prompt asks about your ambitions in engineering or computer science, while the second asks your opinion on how engineers should improve life on Earth.

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

At a word limit of 250 words for each essay, you have, at most, 1,000 words to showcase your analytical and reflective skills. 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.

How to Answer the USC Diversity Essay

The first prompt states: “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.”

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

Not only do they value diversity, they 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.

Outside Intended Academic Focus Essay

The second prompt states: “Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning.”

USC wants you 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 a more well-rounded person on a personal level, and it can help you on a professional/academic level 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 want to be genuine.

You also don’t have to pick another academic interest. 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 other opportunities to learn at the university that may exist outside the classroom. That may mean researching the different clubs, activities, or events that exist or happen around campus.

For example, you may major in political science and love singing enough to want to learn how to sing better. You might sign up for a voice class at the university and join choirs and singing groups to improve your singing.

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

  • What are your other interests?

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 attempts 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 behind your interest will help you effectively use more of your 250-word limit.

Something Essential About Yourself Essay

The third prompt states: “What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?”

This is the equivalent of the “tell me about yourself” question that you will get asked during almost any interview.

This question is broad so you want to be particular. The best way to be particular is with a story you haven’t used in another part of your application that highlights 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 through this story.

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

A great way to approach this question is to engage in a question and answer free-write. That is, ask yourself a question. Examples of questions you could ask yourself:

  • “What do I value?
  • What does the 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 cost?
  • 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.

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.

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, think about it.

  • What do you enjoy studying?
  • Why do you enjoy studying it?

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 helps.

  • 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- or second-choice major will help you get there.

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. As always, have your response looked over by people you trust!

The USC Short-Answer Questions

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 – choosing something that you feel describes yourself, and answering generic “breaking the ice” kinds of questions.

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

If you are having a lot of trouble thinking of words that best describe you, and 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 they aren’t 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.
  • 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.

Engineering Questions

For those entering USC as an engineering or computer science major, you will have to answer two additional essay questions specific to your interest in engineering.

First Engineering Essay

“What do you personally expect to get out of studying engineering or computer science in college?” 

Before answering, check the differences and similarities between this question and the second essay prompt. The last thing you want to do is answer this question the exact same way as the last essay. If you do so, you won’t be contributing any new information to your application. 

While the second prompt asks you to explain your path and why you want to pursue your major, this prompt wants to know what your endgame is.

  • What do you expect to get out of your education?

 The obvious answer might be a well-paying career. While you can include career goals as a primary focus to your answer, imagine how many other engineering and computer science majors are also writing about job prospects. You should try to approach this question from a more interesting perspective.

  • Instead, you should think about how the skills you develop in college can then help improve or influence other people’s lives.
  • Maybe your dream job is working with NASA as an aerospace engineer.
  • You could then write about potentially discovering other solar systems, to be one of the pioneers expanding the general knowledge about our universe.

As a computer science major, you may plan to code an app, website, or game. Your essay could focus on the impact you hope to make with your users.

For instance, you may want to write an app that helps connect people who don’t speak the same language through writing an extensive translation algorithm. Maybe you’d like to create a better social media platform.

Second Engineering Essay

“While the world as a whole may be more technologically advanced than ever before, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) has outlined 14 Grand Challenges that engineers should focus on to improve life on the planet. Learn about the Grand Challenges at www.engineeringchallenges.org and tell us which challenge is most important, and why.”

For this essay, you’ll need to do some research before writing your response.

Read up on each of the challenges before tackling the essay. If you haven’t already, start thinking about what kind of engineer or computer scientist you’d like to be. Most likely, the challenge that stands out to you is one you’d like to solve yourself.

  • For instance, if you are interested in USC’s civil engineering program, you’re probably most interested in improving urban infrastructure, one of the challenges.
  • If you’re interested in biology or biochemistry, you might be interested in reverse engineering the brain or improving upon medicine.
  • Computer scientists may find interest in perfecting personal learning software or improving cybersecurity.

Now that you’ve identified the challenge, explain why that one is the most important, or at least the one you’re most interested in solving.

  • For instance, is it an urgent matter?
  • Will humanity suffer if it does not overcome this challenge in the next few decades?
  • On the other hand, will the standard of living drastically improve once this challenge is solved?

Throughout your answer, make sure that your ambitions and achievements are in line with the challenge you’ve chosen.

  • For instance, with cybersecurity, you might write about how you’ve been learning ethical hacking practices, so you know firsthand some of the problems cybersecurity faces.
  • With more information being stored on the Internet – banking information, health records, etc. – keeping this data away from criminals becomes more vital every day.
  • With your passion for cybersecurity, you hope to build a cybersecurity system that is virtually unhackable.

Remember, there are no wrong or right answers to this question. Just make sure to connect the challenge to your academic endeavors, and explain why that particular challenge matters more than the others.

Conclusion: Writing the USC Essays

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.

And if you’re interested in gaining an edge in college admissions, check out our college essay boot camp.