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 11%—this means only about 1 in 9 students gets accepted.
Interestingly, this percentage has fallen by 5% since 2017, indicating a downward trend in USC's acceptance rate, which has decreased in recent years due to a growing number of applicants.
In the 2017-18 school year, 64,352 applicants applied to USC, out of which 8,339 were admitted. But just one year later, that number shot up to a record 66,000 applicants.
Here's how USC's official news website describes its student body:
"More than a third of the [fall 2018] admitted class are straight-A students, and 60 percent have standardized test scores in the 99th percentile."
Looking at this data alone, we can say with confidence that it's generally pretty difficult to get into USC—and it’s growing more difficult every year.
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, writing skills and test scores. 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 more than 65,000 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?
Unlike many other private and prestigious universities, USC does not offer an early action/early decision plan to first-year students. Therefore, anyone applying to USC must do so by the same deadline (refer to the next section for more information on important dates).
While you can’t apply early to USC, if USC is indeed your first-choice school, it's a smart idea to tell the admissions committee this so they can note it in your application.
Here's what USC admissions expert Joe Beltran recommends applicants do in the case USC is their first choice:
"Students often ask me how they can let the admission office know that USC is their first choice. It’s simple: Just tell us. Tell us in your application, over email, telephone or in person. And we make note of that. We add these things to your files if you ask us to, and we keep them in mind as well."*
*Bold emphasis mine
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)
- Official SAT/ACT test scores—applicants may also submit SAT Subject Test scores, AP 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
Portfolio, Architecture Writing Supplement
Art/Design Essay, list of creative experiences, portfolio
Proposal video, portfolio, interview (if selected)
Video introduction, World Bachelor’s Business written prompts (on USC Writing Supplement)
Personal Statement, writing sample, creative work sample/portfolio, creative portfolio list, video sample, image essay, audio portrait, autobiographical character sketch, creative challenges, "Most Challenging Moment" task, project questions
Portfolio, dance resume, short answer, additional information (optional), two video solos and descriptions, live audition (if selected)
Headshot, drama resume, "Take Three" image task, letter from drama teacher/coach, essay questions, creative submission, audition videos, live audition
Portfolio, music resume, repertoire list, introductory video (certain majors only), audition recording, live audition (if selected)
Essay questions, short answers, counselor nomination form
*Exact supplementary materials required for admission will vary depending on the major.
**This program is only open to high school juniors.
Now, let’s take a look at all the major USC deadlines, ordered from soonest to latest.
December 1, 2019
- Freshman application deadline for merit scholarship consideration (note that this is not an early action or early decision deadline)
- Freshman and transfer application deadline for the following schools/programs:
- Dramatic Arts (all programs)
- Cinematic Arts and Music (all programs)
- Kaufman School of Dance
- Iovine and Young Academy
- World Bachelor in Business (WBB) program
January 15, 2020
Freshman application deadline (this is the regular freshman application deadline without merit scholarship consideration)
February 1, 2020
(For freshman applicants) Last day by which merit scholarship notifications will be sent out
Transfer application deadline for all other programs
February 13, 2020
(For freshman applicants) Financial aid deadline for FAFSA and CSS profile applications
March 2, 2020
(For transfer applicants) Financial aid deadline for FAFSA and CSS profile applications
April 1, 2020
(For freshman applicants) Last day by which final admission notifications will be sent out
May 31, 2020
(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 2018 class, the average (unweighted) high school GPA was 3.79/4.00. 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 3.79, 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 well 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:
"No specific curriculum is prescribed or required, though students offered admission typically pursue the most rigorous program available to them in English, mathematics, science, social studies, foreign language and the arts. 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
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 2018 USC freshman class:
- Composite: 1400-1530
- Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW): 680-750
- Math: 710-790
- Composite: 31-35
- English: 33-35
- Math: 29-35
*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 1400, or the 94th percentile nationally.
Meanwhile, for the ACT, most applicants have a minimum score of 31, or the 95th percentile nationally. In other words, you’ll need to score in the top 5-6% 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 (1400 on the SAT and 31 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 two shorter essays as part of the USC Writing Supplement. Each essay must be no longer than 250 words, or about half the length of a typical college admissions essay.
For the first USC essay, you must choose one of three prompts to respond to:
Choose the prompt that appeals to you the most and that you'll be able to respond to easily and effectively.
For the first prompt, you should write about a specific incident in which a belief or opinion of yours was challenged. The key here is to focus on your reaction and what this particular incident taught you about yourself. This could be a political stance, a religious belief, or a personal opinion on a social issue.
The second prompt is all about a field outside your intended major that you’re also interested in studying. This is a great opportunity to discuss how you became interested in this particular field and what you might do with it in the future. For instance, perhaps you plan to major in computer science but have recently realized, by taking a required art class, that you also have a strong interest in learning about the history of paintings.
The third essay prompt is quite broad and allows you to talk about anything you feel is important for the USC admissions committee to know about you. You could introduce a specific interest, skill, or experience you have, or even offer an explanation for a problem in your academic record, such as a dip in your grades one semester or a below-average SAT score.
A great tip to remember as I write my best-selling novel you write your USC essays.
In addition to this first essay, you’ll have to write a second essay for the USC Writing Supplement. This essay only has one prompt (so you don’t get a choice here!):
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.
This essay prompt simply wants to know what you plan to major in at USC and how you'll achieve your academic goals as a student. Basically, what's the intellectual path you expect to take at USC?
For instance, if you plan to major in English, you could write about how you intend to take a more interdisciplinary approach by integrating foreign literature classes into your course load.
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 three 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
- 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!
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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.