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4 Tips for Writing Perfect USC Essays

Posted by Ashley Robinson | Jan 3, 2019 12:00:00 PM

College Essays

 

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 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 accepted: only 13 percent of applicants are admitted each year.

To apply, USC requires you to submit both the Common Application and a school-specific writing supplement designed to “discover your individual story.” But what does that mean? And how can you make your USC essays stand out from the crowd?

We’ve got you covered. 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: 

  • What is the 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!

 

What Is the USC Supplement?

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

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

 

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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 search for “University of Southern California.”

  3. Select the search result, then click “add” to add it to your profile.

  4. Return to your dashboard and select the “University of Southern California.”

  5. From there, click on the link titled “Incomplete” next to the “Writing Supplement” label at the bottom of the box.

  6. You can also access the supplement by clicking on the “Writing Requirements” tab and clicking the “Writing Supplement” link.

 

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 introduction/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 saying “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 personality through my camera lens.” The first answer tells us 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 okay! 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. 
    OKAY:
    “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.

 

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The First USC Essay

For your first response, you’ll answer one of three prompts. Keep in mind that no prompt is better than the other, so go with the question that works best. We’ll talk about each question in depth, but here are some tips for choosing the best prompt for you:

  • Pick a question that lets you show a different side of yourself that you haven’t shared yet

  • Choose a topic that allows you to tell a story (remember: paint a picture with your words)

  • Avoid prompts that repeat what you’ve already said in your Common App.

The last point is particularly important since one of the writing questions on the Common App asks you to discuss a time when you questioned a belief or idea. It’s basically the same question as the first option below, so if you chose this prompt for your Common App, go with a different option for your writing supplement.



How to Answer Essay Option 1

“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. 



What Is This Question Asking You to Do?

This is a question about diversity. USC looks for students who are “interested in the world, in other peoples and cultures, and enjoy examining important issues from a global perspective.”  Your response should embrace USC’s core values by demonstrating your ability to participate in a diverse community.

 To do this, you should talk about a time you were challenged, not about a time you challenged someone else. This is a tricky, but important, distinction. Make sure you pick a story where you had to reconsider an idea because of someone else’s opinions.



How Do You Answer the Question?

  •  Tell a story with a central conflict, a climax, and a resolution. Think of a particular moment where someone questioned your beliefs. How did it begin? What did the other person say? How did you react? How did you change?

  •  Demonstrate a solid understanding of diversity. Merriam-Webster defines diversity as “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements, especially the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.” As you can see from this definition, diversity is about more than race—it also encompasses differences in things like class, culture, gender, nationality, religion, politics, and physical ability.

  • Talk about how your experience changed you. A good way to do this is to pretend this moment is a scene in a television show that you’re directing. How would you describe the event to the actors? What emotions would you ask the actors to portray? Use those details to tell a more complete story. 

  • Keep it positive. USC wants students who embrace diversity, so focus on the positives of your experience.

 

Now that you have an idea about what the prompt is asking you to do, here are a few examples to help get you started:  

  • You were trying to help a wheelchair user cross the street without asking them if they needed assistance. They explained that using a mobility device doesn’t mean they need help, and they challenged your ideas about disability. Since then, you’ve worked hard to become an ally for people with disabilities.

  • You believed that undocumented illegal immigrants should be deported until you realized that one of your best friends is undocumented. Learning her story—and confronting your own stereotypes about illegal immigration—has made you change your perspective and become passionate about helping undocumented students go to college. That’s why you and your friend organized your city’s first ever march to support immigrants.

 

How to Answer Essay Option 2

“Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning.”



What Is This Question Asking You to Do?

The admissions committee already knows what your passion is—that’s why you’ve chosen it as your major! Essentially, this question is just asking what else piques your interest. After all...you might want to be a doctor, but medicine isn’t the only thing you love. 

Also, this prompt wants you to think beyond your degree. For example, if you’re majoring in computer science, don’t talk about learning more about programming. Step outside your comfort zone! The admissions counselors want to see that you’re curious and well-rounded.

 

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How Do You Answer the Question?

  • Brainstorm a list of potential topics. Come up with a list of ideas you find fascinating and want to learn more about. If you’re stuck, try jotting down your hobbies. For instance, maybe you’re majoring in business but you play the piano, and you’ve always wanted to learn more about how pianos are made.

  • Connect the topic back to your major...or don’t! There are two ways to approach this question. You can pick an idea that compliments your field of study and explain how the two relate, or you choose a totally different topic to showcase your wide-ranging interests. Neither approach is better than the other, so go the direction that best fits your idea.

  • Explain why you’re interested in this idea. How did this topic first spark your interest? Share a story that captures your “aha!” moment. For example, maybe you went camping and saw the Milky Way, so now you want to learn about space. Or perhaps you’re vegan, so you’re interested in sustainable agriculture. Telling a story shows the reader your passion, and it might even make them passionate about the subject, too! 

  • Address what (if any) study you’ve already done. Have you already dipped your toes into this topic? If so, share a little about what you’ve learned. (If not, that’s okay, too.) 

  • Connect your answer back to USC. Even if you aren’t tying your interest back to your major specifically, you should still discuss how going to USC will help you explore your topic. Perhaps USC offers related extracurricular clubs or service organizations you can join. Or maybe it’s USC’s location that’s important—if you’re a movie buff, there’s no better place to learn about film than Los Angeles.

 

How to Answer Essay Option 3

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



What Is This Question Asking You to Do?

This is a super open-ended prompt, which can be a blessing and a curse. Essentially, this prompt is saying, “Tell us something unique about yourself that helps us get to know you.” You have to do more than talk about your tattoo or your love of jazz; you have to tell your reader how that reveals an essential part of who you are.

 

How Do You Answer the Question?

  • Make a list of unique things about yourself. You’re not aiming for the best or craziest or most interesting thing about yourself. There are all sorts of unique things about you! Maybe you can say the alphabet backwards (which shows determination), or you stop to rescue turtles crossing the road (you’re soft-hearted). You don’t have to be an Olympian to have a great story to share. 

  • Choose something you didn’t talk about in the Common App. If you focus on a particular personality trait in your other responses, choose something different for this answer. Admission counselors will read your whole application, so try not to repeat yourself. 

  • Tell a specific story. Yeah, we know...you’re tired of hearing this. But we’re going to repeat it because it’s what works. Don’t just say you’re unique because you love to dance. Instead, tell your reader about your favorite performance.

  • Explain why this part of you is important to understanding who you are. Explain how your story demonstrates a fundamental part of your personality. For example, maybe you have a scar on your knee from where you jumped off a wall onto your trampoline and missed when you were four. This shows you love adrenaline and enjoy taking risks! 


Because you can be super creative, there’s a greater risk of missing the mark in this response. Here are some topics/pitfalls to watch out for:

  • Avoid mentioning USC. This prompt is about you!
  • Don’t focus on your family. Again, this prompt is about you!
  • Draw a conclusion. You need to explain how your story reveals a core part of your identity.

 

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The Second USC Essay

Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests at USC. 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 okay, because this is the “Why USC?” question. (It’s a version of what we call the “why this college essay” 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, you’re not committed to the major you pick. You can change majors after you’ve enrolled.


How Do You Answer the Question?

  • Research, research, research. Visit the USC website and get to know your college, department, and the classes they offer. 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 like 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 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.

 

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Special Engineering and Computer Science Prompts

If you’ve decided to major in computer science or engineering, you might have noticed you have a few extra USC essays to write. That’s not a mistake—the Viterbi School of Engineering asks potential engineering students to complete two additional short writing prompts.

Not sure how to tackle these questions? Don’t worry...we’ll walk you through the answers. 

 
How to Answer Question 1

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

 
What Is This Question Asking You to Do?

This prompt asks you to think about more than your four years at USC; it wants you to consider your future career, too. What does your engineering career look like? What do you want to accomplish? The answers to these questions will shape your response and show that you’re future-focused.

How Do You Answer the Question?

  • Mention specific professors and classes. Show that you’ve done your homework and are ready to hit the ground running.

  • Think beyond the classroom. Sure, you want to learn to be an engineer. But knowledge—also known as “hard skills”—is only one part of what you learn in college. You also make connections with your classmates, figure out how to collaborate on projects, and learn how to think outside the box. These are often called “soft skills.” Good answers mention both hard and soft skill sets. 

  • Consider your community. It’s tempting to focus on how your studies will affect you—after all, the question asks about what “you personally” want to get out of your degree! But part of USC’s mission is providing public leadership and service. The school wants its students and alumni to take their education and use it to help others. Connecting back to the university’s mission statement means you’re thinking about how you fit into the university’s community and its legacy.

  • Don’t repeat yourself. This prompt is very close to the second short writing prompt we discussed above. By talking about your career and helping others, you’ll keep your answer fresh.


How to Answer Question 2

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. 

 

What Is This Question Asking You to Do?

First, go to the National Academy of Engineering website and pick the challenge that resonates most with you. Don’t try to pick “the best” challenge. All the challenges are equal, so don’t try to guess what the admissions board wants to hear! Honesty is key.

 This prompt also asks you research and understand your challenge. The National Academy of Engineering website provides in-depth looks at each problem, so start there. (Here’s the write-up explaining why providing access to clean water is important, for example.) Do additional research to see what solutions are on the horizon, too. 

You also need to argue in favor of your choice. Yep, that’s right: this is a persuasive essay. Your job is to convince the reader—in 250 words!—why the challenge you’ve chosen is most important. Go through your research and pick out the two most convincing pieces of information. This will help you build your argument.

 

How Do You Answer the Question?

  • Jump right in. Use your first sentence or two as your thesis, just like in English class. This helps save space for your argument. Your thesis should be clear, specific, and grab your reader’s attention. Here’s a sample thesis for the “Make Solar Energy Economical” challenge: “Solar energy usage has increased 20% in the last 15 years due to lowering costs. Embracing the “Make Solar Energy Economical” challenge will give more people easy access to clean energy, which will have a major impact on climate change.

  • Show that you’ve thought—and read—about the problem. In order for your response to persuade your reader, it should be well-informed. Use one or two compelling facts to support your point, and paraphrase the information to save space! 

  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew. You only have 250 words, so you can’t make a three part argument like you would in an essay. Focus on your most persuasive argument.

  • Make an emotional connection. Appealing to emotions like hope, happiness, and fear have a powerful impact. A good way to do this is by talking about how your challenge will change people’s lives in your conclusion sentence. For instance, if you’re writing about engineering better medicines, talk about the lives your research can save.

 

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Image credit: Freddie Alequin 


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 short answer questions a breeze:

  1. Maximize the space you have. There is 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 tie them back to your academic goals only if it’s a good fit.

  4. Don’t be afraid of a little humor. Embrace being funny, but not at someone else’s expense. (Don’t put people, things, or ideas down in your responses.)

  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, like “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 (like “enthusiastic” instead of “fun”) and avoid clichés if 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!


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 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—like hot Cheetos with nacho cheese on top—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.”



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Question 5: Favorite App/Website

This is one of the trickier short answer questions. To tackle it, connect your response to one of your interests. If you’re a movie buff, you could mention a movie site. If you love to cook, maybe you mention your favorite food blog. The average person spends about 24 hours a week online, so if you check your browser history, you’ll find a few good options.

But whatever you do, don’t pick a website because you think it makes you look smart. Remember: be sincere! (Admissions counselors will be hard pressed to believe anyone’s favorite website is cnn.com.)

We also recommend that you avoid mentioning social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat unless they’re pertinent to your major in some way. These responses will be a dime a dozen, and they don’t tell your reader much about you.

Here are some sample responses:

  • “BirthMoviesDeath.com. (I’m a movie buff!)”

  • “Behance.net because I’m inspired by other people’s creativity.”

  • “Epicurious.com—cooking is my favorite hobby, and the recipes here are the best.”

  • “AtlasObscura.com, which is definitely the smartest, strangest place on the web.”

 

Question 6: 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 you either give a serious answer or embrace 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 is clearly discriminatory, like 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.”

 

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Question 7: 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.) 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 U.S. Courts of Appeals.”

 

Question 8: What Is Your Theme Song?

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. Also, 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.

Here are some sample responses:

  • “Beautiful Day” by U2

  • “My Shot” from the Hamilton soundtrack

  • “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey



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Question 9: Dream Trip

There’s no special trick to answering this question. Just be honest and specific! Also, 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 10: 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 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)

  • The Good Place because it combines comedy and philosophy!

  • Friends because it helps you understand interpersonal relationships.

  • I’m binging RuPaul’s Drag Race and learning a lot about drag culture and inclusivity.



Question 11: Place You Are Most Content?

We all have a happy place. Close your eyes and imagine the place you’re most at ease. What does it look like? Smell like? Feel like? Use that picture as inspiration for your response, and don’t be afraid to share the descriptive details.

Avoid reiterating your community service or extracurricular activities. While you might really enjoy volunteering at your local Boys and Girls Club, it’s probably not the place where you’re most relaxed and comfortable.

Here are some sample responses:

  • “Curled up in bed with a good book.”

  • “Hiking through the woods with my dog, Lola.”

  • “Napping in the hammock in my backyard.”

 

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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, like 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:


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Need Some Extra Help?

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

 


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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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