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DEC 15, 2019 • 15 min read
Ranked as one of the best public universities in the US, University of Southern California boasts a competitive admissions process, with an acceptance rate of just 11%, meaning only about 1 in 9 students gets accepted.
The USC application has quite a few essay prompts, especially short answer questions. Knowing how to approach the supplemental questions for the USC application can be difficult. The various questions, ranging from short-answer offerings to short essays, ask a lot about your personality and academic or personal aspirations respectively. But if you’re not careful, you can easily end up answering these prompts with answers designed to impress evaluators, but that are in reality either transparently insincere, or otherwise simply an emphasis of a resume-style accomplishment expressed elsewhere on your application.
Supplemental questions are designed for you to be able to demonstrate genuine passion, personality, or growth in your personal and academic life that arises directly from lived experience, and suggests an apt fit for USC. Below are several strategies or ideas for each prompt, both short answer and essay, to avoid common mistakes and stereotypical answers, and create responses that can help you present yourself most authentically to the admissions office.
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The short answer questions can be the easiest place in the supplement to fall into the trap of trying to impress examiners instead of giving a genuine representation of yourself. The challenge of thinking of three words to best describe yourself is perhaps the hardest place to avoid this temptation. Firstly, avoid descriptors like “ambitious” or “hardworking” outright. There are far better forums in your application to express your academic accomplishment and drive. Secondly, spend time reflecting on the qualities forged by your experience. If you find a quality, like humor or levity, immediately comes to mind in that it affects the lens through which you approach the world, of course include such a quality. But otherwise, think about the activities you most often engage with and what type of qualities they foster. Maybe your experience doing debate after school has made you “community-minded,” or your growing interest in doing live DJ sets has made you more “adaptable.” Whatever your experience may be, finding descriptors to match your experience will help you avoid overly generic descriptions and stand out from other applicants.
For the preference-based short answer questions, dwell similarly on your genuine experience, especially pivotal moments of growth, sidestepping the temptation to answer simply to impress. It may be hard to think of the most technically proficient movie you’ve ever seen, but it will be easy to remember movies that have had a big impact on your life or personal development. Chances are, unless you’re an established film academic, you probably can’t humbly claim you think the best movie of all time is Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane or Godard’s Breathless. It’s more likely you really feel that it’s a movie you used to watch with your family when you were sick, or an accessible old classic that opened your eyes to the aesthetic possibilities of cinema in a new way. The character limits are hugely restrictive, but don’t limit you to one word; begin the question with your single or few-word answer, then use your remaining space to offer a brief piece of context for the preference that speaks to your background or passions.
The first supplemental essay (and its three options of prompt) asks you to speak from experience about a non-academic moment of growth or the formation of a certain value. While the first prompt is the only one that demands you narrate a specific experience, a strong response to any of the three prompts should narrate a certain instance before unpacking its implications. In generating a topic, the experience you choose does not have to be overly serious, but the analysis you do should show how it speaks to your growth in a substantial way that does not feel too grandiose. USC admissions officers are looking for applicants to demonstrate their knowledge that the educative process does not consist wholly of sitting in class and pursuing a narrow academic vision, but is greatly impacted by personal growth and the transformation of values.
In responding to the first prompt, consider the different circumstances that can cause you to change your way of thinking about a particular issue—examples include a passing conversation with a stranger or friend, an experience engaging with a social or civil issue in your community, or even a slightly more rigid debate or academic setting. Whatever topic you choose, vivid language that examines how events made you feel in the moment is essential to drawing out moments of true growth. Remind yourself that truly changing an established view is hard work, and examine the severity of these implications without being overly dramatic. Whether you write about how your experience attending a protest deepened your empathy for a certain cause, or how a dare with your friend that caused you deactivate Facebook and rethink the role of social media in your life, try to craft a narrative story with clear consequences in the few words you have.
A response to the second prompt should demonstrate that your intellectual curiosity goes beyond the bounds of your professional aspirations. Try to recall a time you were surprised by the beauty or impact of knowledge, either experiential or academic, in an area outside of your expertise. While the topic itself could be anything from how your experience on a safari led to an unexpected interest in endangered species preservation to finding meaning in a collection of poetry you were required to read (or something more mundane than both), your essay should construct a narrative demonstrating genuine intellectual curiosity in an area that is separate from your prospective academic focus.
A response to the third prompt can take on a variety of topics. Whether it is explaining the influence of a familial structure, a hobby, an experience as part of a larger community, or some other unusual facet of your experience entirely, your narrative should discuss how this influence has shaped you positively. Again, this is not a spot for arrogant essays about accomplishments and ambition, but instead is a place for examining a topic that will lead the committee to a fuller understanding of you, and how you would hope to make use of a USC education. Ideally, the topic will be distant from your Common App topic (which can be of a similar nature), and explain an aspect of your thinking or reasoning that would not otherwise be communicated to evaluators.
The second supplemental essay question, required of all students, is a transparent way for the admissions committee to understand why you are interested in USC instead of another school. To that end, the question requires you to conduct some research into USC’s specific offerings. You’ll then use this specific knowledge, after language that introduces your main academic interests and their origins, to explain why USC is an especially good fit for you. Evaluators want to see a response that makes it seem like you are attracted to their school because you have thought deeply about the particular ways that USC would help you realize your academic goals. Would attending USC help you realize an academic or career aspiration in a way that would be difficult were you to attend another school?
Again, you should first set the stage by introducing your academic interests in an anecdotal way. You could talk about how your struggles with precalculus and the extra time spent working with a teacher sparked a blooming interest in mathematics, or how your experience watching the nightly TV news with your family sparked your interest in interning for a political campaign and learning historically about international relations just as easily. Once that framework is established, however, you should begin to reference specific USC resources — classes, notable professors or researchers, proximity to certain professional opportunities, or extracurricular frameworks — that will help you pursue your interests most effectively.
A good place to start is by checking the extensive list of possible majors posted on the USC website, and identifying departments that closely match your academic preferences. Then, going to departmental websites to identify compelling class offerings and professors is the next step. Maybe resources like the Undergraduate Research Program in the School of International Relations, or the chance to work with a figure you admire in a certain field, are ideal to help you realize certain career aspirations. Finally, relate the USC resources back to your interests — perhaps if you began by writing about watching the news, you can describe how the “Visual and Popular Culture” within the “American Popular Culture” major is primed to help you answer questions about the power of television news you’ve had since you were young.
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Writing supplemental essays for USC, as with any school, is an attempt to present the sense of a complete, ambitious person engaged in the business of thinking about the world, one who goes beyond grades and a resume, to the admissions committee. When writing, always remember what you are trying to communicate yourself, and rewrite or remove anything that feels extraneous or inauthentic. If you follow the tips above, you should be well on your way to generating a USC supplement that you can be proud of — best of luck!