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4 Tips for Writing Perfect USC Essays


So you have your heart set on going to the University of Southern California. That's great—it's one of the best schools in the country! Unfortunately, that makes it tough to get into: only 10% of applicants are admitted each year.

But don't worry. This guide will teach you everything you need to know to write an outstanding USC Writing Supplement.

We'll answer all of your questions, including the following:

  • What is the USC supplement?
  • What are the questions, and how do I answer them?
  • Are there tips and tricks for knocking your USC essays out of the park?
  • What steps do I take to finish my USC application?

Let's get started!

Feature Image: Sitao Xiang / Wikimedia


What Is the USC Supplement?

The USC Writing Supplement is an additional part of the USC application that you fill out on the Common App website.

The supplement itself consists of two writing prompts (250 words each) and 12 short-answer questions (100 characters each). The word limits mean you'll have to cram a lot of information into a small amount of space.

Great USC essays are going to be concise, honest, creative, and engaging. Remember, USC designed the supplement to help admissions counselors get a better sense of your personality. Don't be afraid to embrace your individuality here! It's your chance to share aspects of yourself, your life, and your goals that aren't captured by the Common App.

In other words: this is your time to shine.



(Bobak Ha'Eri / Wikimedia)


Where Can I Find the USC Supplement?

The writing supplement is part of the USC Common Application. Once you've selected USC as one of your colleges, it should pop up in the application portal. If you're not exactly sure how to find it, don't worry ... here's a step-by-step guide!

    1. Log into the Common App website using your username and password.

    2. Click on the "College Search" tab and look for "University of Southern California."

    3. Select the search result and then click "add" to add it to your profile.

    4. Return to your dashboard and look for "University of Southern California." Click the label below the school that reads "Show more details."

    5. From there, click on the link titled "Writing Questions."

    6. You can also access the supplement by clicking on "University of Southern California" and scrolling down the school's home page on the Common App to find a link labeled "Writing Questions."


How Do I Answer the USC Essay Prompts?

The writing supplement contains two short writing prompts designed to showcase both your writing skills and your personality. But because you're limited to 250 words, you need to make every word count.

Here are some general strategies to keep in mind.


#1: Use a Standard Format

It's important that you aren't wasting precious space. A good strategy is to limit your intro/thesis statement and your conclusion to one sentence each. That lets you use the rest of the space to answer the prompt.


#2: Show, Don't Tell

Instead of giving run-of-the-mill answers, use stories and anecdotes to illustrate your point. Paint a picture for your audience when you can!

For example, say you're talking about your love of photography. Instead of writing, "I love to photograph people," see if you can capture the feeling of taking someone's picture.

A better sentence might read, "I love trying to capture people's personalities through my camera lens." The first answer tells us that you enjoy photography, but the second response shows us why you love it.


#3: Edit, Edit, Edit

Don't be disappointed if your first attempt at answering these prompts goes over the word limit. That's OK! Keep cutting and revising until you end up with something great.

Here are a few examples of how you can edit a sentence to make every word work:

  • Take out wordy phrases
    • OK: "It was the very best experience of my whole life."
    • Better: "It was the best experience of my life."
    • Best: "The trip was transformational."
  • Use the active voice
    • Passive: "Geology would be my preferred major."
    • Active: "I plan to major in geology."
  • Replace "is" and "was" with more descriptive verbs
    • With "is": "Researching cancer treatments is my ultimate career goal."
    • Without "is": "I plan to pursue a career in cancer research."


#4: Don't Wait Until the Last Minute

The USC supplement is short, so it's tempting to tackle it at the end of the application process. Don't! Writing short responses is harder than it looks, so give yourself plenty of time.




The USC Essay

USC is making things more streamlined this year: everyone answers the same question! Here's the prompt:

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.


What Is This Question Asking You to Do?

No option here: you're stuck with this prompt and limited to 250 words in your response. But that's OK because this is the "Why USC?" question. (It's a version of what we call the "why this college" around here.)

Why do you need to go to USC to fulfill your dreams? Or, put another way: why is USC the only school for you?

This means choosing and discussing your major (and your second-choice major if your program is very competitive). Remember that you're not committed to the major you pick. You can change majors after you've enrolled.


How Do You Answer This Question?

  • Research, research, research. Visit the USC website and get to know your college, your department, and the classes offered. Also, take a close look at your major's course of study. If you're going to take classes from other departments, figure out which ones and why. For example, if you're majoring in international relations and want to work in China, you'll probably take foreign language/culture courses (like Advanced Modern Chinese) and political science courses (like Chinese Foreign Policy). Research the professors in the department and mention them by name.

  • Seize the day. There's more to college than going to class. Making the most of USC means getting involved and taking advantage of opportunities such as internships and study abroad programs. There are over 100 international fellowships and programs available through different colleges, so be sure to look into them. Mentioning programs like the Global Fellows Internship (available to all students) or the Maymester, which is a major-specific opportunity, shows that you're serious about making the most of your education at USC.

  • Focus on USC. Your job is to show why USC and nowhere else can help you achieve your dreams.





Optional Essay: Explaining Your Education Gap

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. (Approximately 250 words)


Who Is This Question For?

First thing's first: not everyone needs to answer this question. Only respond to this prompt if you took a semester or more off between high school and enrolling in college, or if you took time off while enrolled in high school.

So if you took a gap year (or two, or three), you should answer this question.


What Is This Question Asking You to Do?

This isn't a trick question. Admissions counselors genuinely want to know why you took time off between high school and starting college. And don't worry if your reason isn't "sexy," like you were rescuing sea turtles off the coast of Argentina or teaching English to underprivileged students in Iowa. For most people, the answers will fall along the lines of getting a job, financial difficulties, or helping out their family.

In short: this question is asking you to honestly explain your education gap so that admissions counselors have a better idea of you and your story.


How Do You Answer the Question?

  • Keep it short and sweet. It's tempting to give admissions counselors every detail of your situation. But the truth is, they only need to know the most pertinent information while still being honest. Remember: you only have 250 words!

  • Explain why you're choosing now to return to school. Counselors are also going to be interested in why you want to go to college now. Be honest about this, too! It's okay to say that you wanted to take some time off to really figure out what you wanted to do with your life, and now you're prepared and excited to throw yourself into your studies. Whatever the case may be, make it clear that you're ready to be an engaged and dedicated student regardless of your education gap.

  • Don't make excuses. This isn't a "woe is me" section. While taking time off between high school and college may have been out of your control, this isn't the time to air your grievances. The best answers to this question will keep things as honest and positive as possible.



Your answers in the next section might be small, but they're mighty.

Freddie Alequin/Flickr


The USC Short-Answer Questions

On the surface, the short-answer questions seem simple, but many students find this section the hardest part of the supplement . That's because these responses are limited to 100 characters or less—shorter than a tweet!

Here are some general tips to make tackling the USC short-answer questions a breeze:

#1: Maximize the space you have. There's room to elaborate on your answers a bit, and you should.

#2: There are no right answers. Admissions counselors don't have specific responses in mind. This is their way of trying to get to know the person behind the application.

#3: You're more than a major. It's tempting to make every answer tie into your major or future career in some way; instead, your answers should capture who you are as a person and hark back to your academic goals only if it makes sense for them to.

#4: Don't be afraid of a little humor. Embrace being funny but not at someone else's expense. 

#5: Avoid clichés.

#6: Keep it tasteful. If you wouldn't say it to your parents, don't say it to an admissions counselor!

Now that you have some solid strategies, let's look at each question individually.


Questions 1-3: Describe Yourself in Three Words

A good way to tackle this question is to ask your friends and family to text you their responses, and look for patterns. For example, if five people say you are nice and caring, combine those into one idea, such as "empathetic."

Adjectives are the most common words to use, but you can pick nouns, too! Just stick to ones with personality (like "bookworm" if you love to read, or "shutterbug" if you're a photographer). Choose words that are highly descriptive (e.g., "enthusiastic" instead of "fun") and avoid clichés as much as you can.

Oh, and the supplement breaks this response into three separate fields, so make sure you don't type all three words on one line! Also, note that there's a 25-character limit per word, so think "antidisestablishmentarian" or shorter.

Here are some sample responses:

  • Whimsical, artistic, collaborative
  • Competitive, thoughtful, engaging
  • Loquacious, jovial, encouraging
  • Reserved, compassionate, giving


Question 4: What Is Your Favorite Snack?

Here's a chance to showcase your personality by being specific. Let's say that you love peanut M&Ms. A specific answer might say, "Eating peanut M&Ms while watching a scary movie."

You can also touch on your personal history, especially if you come from a diverse background. You could say something like "My abuela's enchiladas" or "Almond Crush Pocky" as a nod to your heritage.

Finally, lean into your weird. We all have strange snacks that somehow hit the spot (we're looking at you, hot dog buns dunked in hot chocolate). If there's a bonkers food you enjoy—such as dipping tater tots in soft-serve ice cream—this is your time to shine. An added bonus? It will definitely make an impression.

Here are some sample responses:

  • Perfectly toasted marshmallows while sitting around a campfire.
  • A hot dog and soda from Fenway Park.
  • Homemade apple pie with melted cheddar cheese on top!
  • A package of Digestive Biscuits (they're cookies!) and a glass of milk.


Question 5: Best Movie of All Time

This question can make applicants anxious because people are passionate about the movies they love ... and the movies they love to hate! That's why we recommend that you either give a serious answer or embrace your silliness.

This goes without saying, but make sure your movie choice is appropriate. If you wouldn't watch it with your family, don't list it here. Also, steer clear of any super-controversial picks—don't pick a film that's clearly discriminatory, such as Birth of a Nation.

Here are some sample responses:

  • Serious: Blade Runner because of its influence on sci-fi film.
  • Serious: Saving Private Ryan. It reminds us that war is hard, dangerous, and tragic.
  • Silly: The Lion King. We should all "hakuna matata" a little more!
  • Both: Legally Blonde—I love stories about women chasing their dreams.



What is your ideal job? Maybe it's making mini beach dioramas in vintage suitcases.


Question 6: Dream Job

Obviously, this answer should roughly align with your major. (Don't say your dream job is to play Aaron Burr in Hamilton if you're majoring in computer science.)

You should also think big and think ahead. For instance, if you're a computer science major, maybe you want to start a company that develops assistive AI for people with disabilities. Embrace big goals!

The more specific you are, the better. Don't just say you want to be a veterinarian. What kind of animals do you want to work with? Will you specialize in something? Do you want to own your own practice? Adding detail will make your answer stand out.

Here are some sample responses:

  • A large-animal veterinarian that helps rural farmers care for their livestock.
  • The owner of a non-profit that helps women of color succeed in corporate America.
  • A judge appointed to the US Courts of Appeals.


Question 7: If Your Life Had a Theme Song, What Would It Be?

Everyone needs a little walk-in music. As you think about yours, choose a song with a title that makes a point. It's tempting to pick a song with a specific lyric that speaks to you, but your admissions counselor might not be able to make the connection. Think more along the lines of "I Won't Back Down" by Tom Petty or "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves" by Aretha Franklin and the Eurythmics.

Be careful that your song title can't be misconstrued. "I'm Too Sexy" by Right Said Fred might seem like a funny choice to you, but it could also come across as cocky or overconfident.

Additionally, keep your choice appropriate. Look through the song lyrics to make sure they aren't offensive.

And whatever you do, don't say the Trojan Fight Song. That's probably the most popular—and most clichéd—answer you could possibly give!

Here are some sample responses:

  • "Beautiful Day" by U2
  • "My Shot" from the Hamilton soundtrack
  • "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey



Maybe your dream trip is a mix of adventure and van life.


Question 8: Dream Trip

There's no special trick to answering this question. Just be honest and specific! And feel free to focus on experiences as well as destinations. Maybe you want to snorkel with stingrays in the Caribbean or visit the Lord of the Rings set locations in New Zealand. Share that here!

Here are some sample responses:

  • Letting a lantern go during the Floating Lantern Festival in Thailand.
  • Hiking to the top of Machu Picchu.
  • Driving from California to Illinois on Route 66 with my best friends.
  • Eating paella from a street vendor in Barcelona.
  • Visiting Zimbabwe and bungee jumping off the Victoria Falls Bridge.


Question 9: What TV Show Will You Binge Watch Next?

This is another question designed to reveal something about you, your likes, and your dislikes. We suggest that you pick a show you like, as long as it isn't completely without substance. If you're having a hard time choosing, try narrowing it down to your favorite genre first.

Here are some sample responses:

  • I'll binge Making a Murderer because I'm interested in how the justice system works (and doesn't work).
  • The Good Place because it combines comedy and philosophy!
  • Friends because it helps you understand interpersonal relationships.
  • I'm bingeing RuPaul's Drag Race and learning a lot about drag culture and inclusivity.


Question 10: Which Well-Known Person or Fictional Character Would Be Your Ideal Roommate?

This question essentially wants to know who you could see yourself living with on a daily basis, whether it's a fictional character from a TV show or book you love, or a real-life celebrity, such as a movie star, singer, scientist, activist, writer, or historical figure.

The prompt doesn't limit you to living celebrities, so feel free to write about somebody who passed away recently (think Stephen Hawking) or even centuries ago (such as Jane Austen).

Make sure that you're choosing a person who will reveal something positive and/or unique about yourself. It's also OK to throw in a little humor! For example, if you're a huge Renaissance-period buff, you could talk about how you'd love to live with King Henry VIII because he'd entertain you every night with stories of his marriages.

Regardless of who you choose to write about, remember that the admissions committee wants to learn something about you through the person you pick to be your roommate, so be sure that you can clearly tie them back to yourself and your own interests somehow.

Here are some sample responses:

  • Marie Curie because we could conduct experiments together after class every day.
  • Hermione Granger! She'd be a great study buddy and could teach me magic on the side.
  • David Sedaris. We could write stories together and he'd never fail to make me laugh!




Question 11: Favorite Book

This is a pretty straightforward question that's similar to the "favorite movie" one above. Be honest—don't try to pass off a book as one of your favorites just because it sounds impressive or is highly intellectual. The admissions committee will likely be able to tell if you're trying to show off!

At the same time, don't write about a book that's overly childish or inappropriate, or that fails to reveal anything interesting or impressive about you. For instance, even if you really love Twilight, unless you can say something a little more intellectual about it, such as how you enjoy analyzing its portrayal of codependency in teenage relationships, this book likely won't leave much of a positive impression on the USC admissions committee.

Here are some sample responses:

  • Wild because this book inspired me to be courageous and go on a three-day hike by myself.
  • Lolita is my favorite book because it's downright disturbing yet hauntingly beautiful.
  • Definitely The Hobbit. It was the first book I read that showed me the power of taking risks.


Question 12: If You Could Teach a Class on any Topic, What Would It Be?

This final question from USC is truly a thought-provoking one. Basically, the admissions committee wants to know what kind of class you'd teach if you could choose any topic of interest to you.

While the topic you write about doesn't need to directly relate to your major, it should definitely be something you're deeply passionate (and, ideally, fairly knowledgeable) about. Are you really into horror movies and enjoy dissecting their depictions of female characters? Then perhaps you'd like to teach a class on women in horror.

Be as specific as you can be. Don't just say you want to teach a class on the environment because you're committed to combating climate change. What specific topic concerning the environment or climate change would you like others to learn more about, and why?

Here are some sample responses:

  • A creative writing class that would focus on writing stories from the perspective of children.
  • Women of color in astronomy. Too few know about the accomplishments of Beth Brown and Mae Jemison!
  • The Navajo language. Not enough schools teach it and we Native Americans must strive to preserve it.


Finishing your supplement is like climbing a really tall flight of stairs. Just put one foot in front of the other! 


Next Steps for Your USC Supplement

Even once you've finished and submitted your Common App and USC essays, you're not quite done. Most of USC's colleges require you to submit additional materials, such as portfolios or writing samples, before your application is considered complete.

Visit the links below to view each college's supplemental application requirements and submission deadlines:




Need Some Extra Help?

The USC application process can be overwhelming, but PrepScholar is here to help you succeed! Check out our resources below for more information about how our experts can help you achieve your dreams.

Haven't started your Common Application yet? No problem! We've got you covered with tips and tricks to make your application stand out from the crowd.

Start learning more about USC! Check out their admission requirements, mission statement, admission website, and this great blog post about getting to know USC without leaving your couch.

Still stressed about your supplement? Get in touch with PrepScholar's college admissions team!



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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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