The University of Southern California (USC) is a highly-ranked private school located in Los Angeles, and, as a result, it draws thousands of qualified applicants each year. If you're applying here, you are probably wondering what the USC admissions requirements are and what you'll need to stand out as an applicant.
In this article, we explain how to get into USC, offering you specific tips for what you can improve in your application. But first, how hard is it to get into USC?
Feature Image: Ken Lund/Flickr
How Hard Is It to Get Into USC?
USC is a very selective university with an acceptance rate of just under 12%—this means fewer than 1 in 8 students gets accepted.
Here's how USC's official news website describes its student body:
"The average unweighted GPA is 3.91, which represents a historic high. Diversity and access continue to take priority, with the percentage of first-generation college students notching just above 20%, its highest-ever rate.”
Looking at this data alone, we can say with confidence that it's generally pretty difficult to get into USC.
So what kind of applicants is USC looking for? Let's take a look.
What USC Looks For in Applicants
Because USC is so competitive, and because there are so many applicants applying each year, this school is looking for the best of the best when it comes to applicants.
"We look for those students we believe will thrive at USC. Our application process is designed to discover your individual story, so that we might see how you would take advantage of the many opportunities available at USC. … We will review your performance in school, the rigor of your program, your writing skills and any test scores you choose to submit. We also consider personal qualities, as revealed in community involvement, leadership and achievements."
In addition to strong numbers (i.e., test scores and grades/GPA), USC wishes to admit applicants with strong "personal qualities." These qualities can be illuminated through either academic or non-academic accomplishments, community service/volunteer efforts, or leadership experiences (for example, maybe you're the captain of the track team or you once organized a successful food drive at your school).
As PrepScholar co-founder and perfect SAT/ACT scorer Allen Cheng discusses in his detailed guide to getting into Harvard, USC, like Harvard and other top schools, prefers applicants with "spikes" in their extracurriculars—those with strong passions for specific activities or interests.
After all, with USC's over 70,000 applicants each year, you'll definitely need something to help your application stand out!
Here's how USC describes its most successful students to give you more of an idea of what they're looking for in applicants:
"USC students pursue ambitious intellectual and professional goals by studying across disciplines and taking advantage of the diversity of programs available. 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."
As you can see, USC is looking for applicants who aren't just academically gifted but who are also willing to challenge their limits, learn about new fields, and assume a global perspective.
Can You Apply Early Action or Early Decision to USC?
Like many other private and prestigious universities, USC offers an early action consideration plan to first-year students for most majors. USC Admissions says this about applying Early Action to USC:
“Early Action (EA) is non-binding, non-restrictive, and is not available for majors requiring a portfolio or audition. Students must apply EA in order to be considered for USC Merit Scholarships, unless their intended major does not participate in Early Action. Students applying to majors requiring a portfolio or audition (see below) will be considered for USC Merit Scholarships as part of their Regular Decision process.”
Although you can't apply early to USC to demonstrate your interest in attending the university, you can (and definitely should) let the admissions committee know about your interest in it so they can take this into consideration as they sift through the thousands of applications they get.
Don't hide your true feelings—if USC is your first choice for college, let them know!
Getting Into USC: Logistics and Deadlines
All freshman applicants to USC must apply through the Common Application. Here's a checklist of all the major USC admission requirements:
- Common App
- USC Writing Supplement (on Common App)
- records the highest scores for those who have taken tests more than once. For the SAT and ACT, the highest scores for each section of the exam will be recorded, even if achieved in different sittings. USC does not require the writing section for either the ACT or the SAT. Applicants may also submit AP test scores, IB test scores, and TOEFL scores (if international)
- Transcripts showing all high school coursework and any college coursework completed
- Letter(s) of recommendation—the number of letters you must submit to USC depends on the program/school you're applying to
- Additional materials, such as a portfolio, writing sample, or resume (only if required by your specific program/school)
- Fall grades—these can be submitted via the Mid-Year Report Form on the Common App
As indicated above, certain schools and programs at USC require additional materials from applicants. The following table shows the schools and programs that require supplementary documents and information (in addition to all the components listed above):
|Required Supplementary Materials
|School of Architecture
|Portfolio, Architecture Writing & Video Supplement
|Roski School of Art and Design
|Art/Design Essay, list of creative experiences, portfolio
|Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation
|Proposal video, portfolio, interview (if selected)
|Marshall School of Business — World Bachelor in Business Program
|Video introduction, World Bachelor in Business written prompts (on USC Writing Supplement)
|USC School of Cinematic Arts*
|Cinematic Arts Personal Statement, writing sample, creative work sample/portfolio, creative portfolio list, video/photo sample, video introduction, aspirational portfolio, image essay, audio portrait, autobiographical character sketch, creative challenges, "Most Challenging Moment" task, project question, collaboration question
|Glorya Kaufman School of Dance
|Portfolio, which includes: dance resume, short answer, video response to a question, two video auditions and descriptions, three video demonstrations, two photographs (a head shot and an action shot), live audition (if selected, depending on COVID-19 situation)
|USC School of Dramatic Arts*
|Headshot, drama resume, "Take Three" image task, letter from drama teacher/coach, essay questions, creative submission, pre-screening audition videos, “Who Are You?” video, portfolio, live audition (depending on COVID-19 situation)
|Thornton School of Music
|Portfolio, statement of purpose, music resume, repertoire list, introductory video (certain majors only), project video (certain majors only), supplemental essays (certain majors only), audition recording, live audition (if selected, depending on COVID-19 situation)
*Exact supplementary materials required for admission will vary depending on the major.
Now, let's take a look at all the major USC deadlines, ordered from soonest to latest.
November 1, 2022
- Freshman application deadline for Early Action (EA) consideration and merit scholarship consideration
- Students must apply Early Action to be considered for USC merit scholarships, unless their intended major does not participate in Early Action
- Students applying to majors requiring a portfolio or audition will be considered for merit scholarships as a part of their Regular Decision application
December 1, 2022
Freshman and transfer application deadline for Regular Decision
Freshman and transfer application deadline for the following majors requiring a portfolio or audition:
Dramatic Arts (BFA programs only)
Cinematic Arts and Music (BFA programs only)
Kaufman School of Dance
Thornton School of Music
Iovine and Young Academy
January 9, 2023
Deadline to submit the FAFSA and CSS Profile for Early Action applicants who wish to be considered for need-based financial aid.
January 15, 2023
Freshman application deadline for all other majors (without merit scholarship consideration)
Mid- to Late-January 2023
Applicants selecting Early Action will be notified of their admission or deferral to Regular Decision
February 10, 2023
Deadline to submit the FAFSA and CSS Profile for Early Action applicants who wish to be considered for need-based financial aid.
February 15, 2023
Transfer application deadline for all other majors (without merit scholarship consideration)
March 2, 2023
Transfer Priority Deadline to submit the FAFSA and CSS Profile for need-based financial aid consideration
Cal Grant application deadline (for California residents)
Freshman Regular Decision applicants will be notified of their admission decision
May 31, 2023
(For transfer applicants) Last day by which final admission notifications will be sent out
(For transfer applicants) Last day by which scholarship status notifications will be sent out
Heed these next tips so you can be the happy face.
USC Admission Requirements: 5 Tips for Getting In
Now that you know the logistics of applying, let's take a look at how to get into USC. What do you need in your application to increase your chance of getting into USC, one of the most prestigious colleges in the country?
#1: Get a High GPA
Admitted applicants to USC typically have very strong GPAs.
For the fall 2022 class, the 25th/75th percentile high school GPA range was 3.82-4.0. This means that the majority of admitted applicants had relatively strong grades, getting mostly or all As and possibly a few Bs.
If your GPA is below 3.8, you'll most likely have a more difficult time getting into USC. Therefore, it's best to aim as high as you can, preferably at least around a 3.85, so you will be above average but won't suffer too badly if you get a B in one or two classes.
If you're having trouble maintaining a high GPA, figure out which classes are bringing down your grades and then consider spending more time studying for those classes or hiring a tutor to give you the extra support you need.
#2: Have a Rigorous, Challenging Course Load
Another important aspect USC wants to see in applicants is evidence of a strong and challenging course load. Ideal applicants will have taken a fair share of AP, honors, and/or IB classes.
Here's how USC describes its ideal applicants on its undergraduate admissions website:
"Outside of mathematics, no specific curriculum is prescribed or required, though students offered admission typically pursue the most rigorous program available to them in English, science, social studies, foreign language and the arts. Students are expected to have earned a grade of C or better in at least three years of high school mathematics, including Advanced Algebra (Algebra II). Careful attention is paid to preparation for the intended major."
In addition to doing well in classes, strong applicants will have excelled in a rigorous academic program, particularly in classes relevant to their intended majors.
If you're a junior or younger and haven't taken any challenging courses yet, try to sign up for some AP, honors, or IB classes the following academic year and for each subsequent year you're in high school.
It's best to choose challenging classes that focus on the fields in which you're already strong or have a large interest in studying. For example, if you're a science buff, you could take AP Bio or AP Physics.
While you don't need to make every class you take a super hard one, aim to take about three to five upper-level classes each school year, at the very least starting your junior year. This doesn't necessarily mean you must take the AP tests that go with these courses, though it's not a bad idea to do so since it might earn you some college credit!
Strong test scores—and possibly super strong back muscles—will definitely catch USC's eye.
#3: Earn Strong SAT/ACT Scores
Note: For students applying during 2022-2023, USC is test-optional. For the 2021-2022 application year, 47% of applicants submitted SAT or ACT scores. However, you may still want to consider submitting test scores if you have particularly high scores, or if you feel your scores represent your abilities better than your GPA.
In general, USC expects fairly high SAT/ACT scores from strong applicants.
Below are the middle 50%, or average, score ranges* for both the SAT and ACT for the fall 2021 USC freshman class:
- Composite: 1330-1520
- Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW): 650-740
- Math: 670-780
- Composite: 30-34
- English: 32-35
- Math: 28-34
*The lower score in each range is the 25th percentile (meaning 25% of applicants or fewer got this score), and the higher score is the 75th percentile (meaning 75% or fewer got this score).
Clearly, you'll need to have a pretty high SAT/ACT score in order to be considered a competitive applicant to USC. For the SAT, most applicants have a minimum score of 1330, or the 90th percentile nationally.
Meanwhile, for the ACT, most applicants have a minimum score of 30, or the 93rd percentile nationally. In other words, you'll need to score in the top 5% of test takers in order to meet just the 25th percentile score at USC.
Although getting a score below USC's 25th percentile threshold doesn't automatically mean you'll be rejected, it does indicate that it'll likely be harder for you to get into USC unless you have other significantly impressive qualities.
If you don't meet this "minimum" threshold (1330 on the SAT and 30 on the ACT), the best course of action is to try to raise your SAT/ACT score. One way to do this is to make an SAT/ACT study plan that caters to your weaknesses. I also recommend checking out our guides for some tips on how to increase your SAT or ACT score.
If you prefer having more hands-on guidance in your test prep, consider using our online SAT or ACT prep program, which is 100% customized to your test-prep needs and includes realistic questions written by real top scorers.
#4: Write Excellent Essays
In addition to the Common App essay, you're required to write one shorter essay as part of the USC Writing Supplement. Your essay must be no longer than 250 words, or about half the length of a typical college admissions essay. Also, you have the chance to respond to a second, optional essay, which also has a 250 word limit.
The required and optional prompts are as follows:
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. (Optional)”
The first prompt is a version of the very popular “why this college” essay. USC wants to see that you’re thinking about how you’ll be an active and engaged academic citizen, and, most importantly, why you want to study your areas of interest at USC specifically. Consider mentioning professors you’d like to study with, research projects you’d like to participate in, or specific programs, seminars, or study abroad opportunities you’d like to take advantage of at USC.
Then there’s the second USC supplemental essay prompt, which is optional. However, if there is a gap in your enrollment in school (besides a summer break), it’s a really good idea to respond to this prompt as well. You’ll get the chance to provide an explanation for an anomaly in your academic record and make a case for yourself as an applicant. To the extent that you feel comfortable, explain the circumstances that led to the gap in your enrollment, what you spent that gap time doing, and what you learned from it.
Overall, in order to ensure you're submitting excellent essays to USC, be sure to use specific details, be honest about your experiences and feelings, and edit and proofread each essay before sending it in. Get more expert tips by reading our guide to the USC supplement.
A great tip to remember as I write my best-selling novel you write your USC essays.
Overall, in order to ensure you're submitting two excellent essays to USC, be sure to use specific details, be honest about your experiences and feelings, and edit and proofread each essay before sending it in. Get more expert tips by reading our guide to the USC supplement.
It's also important to note that some programs and schools require additional essays or short answers. For example, those applying to the School of Architecture must answer extra questions in the Architecture Writing Supplement.
These school-specific essays are just as important as, if not more than, the general USC essays you must write. Why? Because these essays ask you even more specific questions that relate to your intended field of study. Thus, you'll need to be able to clearly explain exactly why you're interested in the field/program/school you're applying to.
#5: Craft an Impressive Portfolio (Required for Certain Programs)
Some programs at USC require the submission of creative portfolios along with the more general requirements listed above.
If a portfolio is required, it'll likely be one of the most important parts of your application. Make sure your portfolio follows all instructions, is 100% original, and is emblematic of your own creative mind, abilities, and goals.
Here are all the schools at USC that require the submission of a portfolio:
- School of Architecture
- Roski School of Art and Design
- Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation
- USC School of Cinematic Arts
- USC School of Dramatic Arts
- Glorya Kaufman School of Dance
- Thornton School of Music
USC is a great college in California, but it's not the only one there! If you want to attend college in the Golden State, you'll benefit from learning how to apply to the UC schools and getting info on the cheapest colleges in California.
How does USC's selectivity compare with those of other top colleges? Get the answer in our guide to the most selective schools in the nation!
Want to get into USC or your personal top choice college?
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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.