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How to Respond to the University of Southern California Supplemental Essays

With the warm Cali weather and beautiful campus, it is no surprise that students are so eager to apply to USC in Los Angeles. The USC supplemental essays are a perfect way to stand out from the rest of the USC applicants. Keep reading this guide to learn more about how to make your responses to the USC supplemental essays the best they can be!

Breaking down the USC supplemental essays

Be prepared to write, because USC asks for a lot of USC supplemental essays responses! However, this should not deter you from applying, rather, it should make you more excited! Essays offer you the opportunity to show who you are to the USC admissions officers. 

Here is a list of essays to respond to:

  • 1 250 word essay
  • 1 250 word essay (with 3 options to choose from) 
  • 10 quick short answers
  • 1 optional 250 word essay
  • 1 Viterbi School of Engineering 250 word essay (with 2 options to choose from only for Viterbit students) 
  • 1 Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences essay (with 2 options to choose from only for Dornsife students)

If there is a list of options for a response, make sure you are choosing the option that most appeals to you. If one essay is not jumping out to you, select another! The most important thing is that you are being authentic and true to yourself. 

For the list of 10 short questions, they are almost rapid fire questions with a quick and easy response to a less open-ended question. For these, just be you and have fun! 

Now that you know what to expect from the USC supplemental essays, let’s take a look at them! 

Essay 1

“Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests at USC. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections. (250 word limit)”

Most college applications ask you to select a major, so take this question as an opportunity to explain and elaborate on the “why.” Why do you want to major in this topic? What do you hope to do with a degree in this major? How will this major help you pursue your dreams? 

Be specific

In addition to simply mentioning your major and reason behind selecting this major, you should also touch upon any courses or extracurriculars that will help you reach your future goals.

For example, if you want to major in biology, you can talk about how you are excited to be able to take the USC BISC 469L: Marine Biology course because you have always been fascinated by marine life. 

Being specific with the course names will prove to the USC admissions officers that you have done your research. They will recognize that you are truly passionate about furthering your education in this particular field. 

Still undecided?

If you are unsure about what you want to major in, do not worry! It is a big decision to make at this point in your life. Remember, a lot of applicants are feeling the same way. Therefore, you should not share a major and talk about a passion if you are not truly certain or interested in this major. 

Rather, you should be authentic and describe why you are unsure of what you want to major in. In addition, you should then detail what academic programs or clubs you hope to become involved in to find your true passion. The most important thing to do if you are taking the undecided major route is to detail how you will take advantage of USC to discover what you are truly interested in. 

Essay 2 – option 1

For Essay 2, you only need to select 1 of the essays from the following: 

“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. Please discuss the significance of the experience and its effect on you.” (250 words)” 

USC accepts applicants with different backgrounds from all over the world. Therefore, this question is trying to determine if the applicant is open to interacting with new people while attending USC. 

Ultimately, try to think of an instance in which you challenged a certain view or realized your view may have been wrong. To answer this question, you need not gone through a major life changing experience–smaller but meaningful instances work. 

It is recommended that you do not answer this question discussing your close-mindedness towards a certain group of people. This can reflect badly on your application, and is not necessary to answer this question successfully. 

Rather, you can discuss a time in which you read a book or watched a show that made you think about your views. Or you can recall a time when you attended a protest and learned from someone you met there. Even writing about how a new student from another country made you realize how privileged you are. 

Whether big or small or positive or negative, the most important thing is that you are detailing how you learned from the situation. You want to ensure that you are proving that you can learn, grow, and interact with people different from yourself. 

Essay 2 – option 2

USC faculty place an emphasis on interdisciplinary academic opportunities. Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning. (250 words)” 

Interests that do not align with your major

This is the perfect opportunity to touch upon some academic interests that have not yet been mentioned in your application. Remember, your intended major does not define you! Therefore, think about other academic interests you have that you want to look into while at USC. 

For example, if you are majoring in civil engineering but love to write, you can talk about your interest in joining the USC newspaper.

Interests that align with your major

In contrast, you can talk about interests that align with your future and career goals.

For example, if you are majoring in business, you can discuss how you want to learn Japanese because of your Asian heritage and your desire to do international business in Japan when you graduate. 

Explain why you have this interest!

  • How did you stumble upon this passion? 
  • Why are you not majoring in this? 
  • How does this interest help your goals? 

You should also be detailing how you go out of your way to learn new things. USC wants to see that their applicants will branch out and take advantage of all academic opportunities presented to them. 

Essay 2 – option 3

What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?  (250 words)

This essay is an opportunity to share something about yourself that you have not been able to touch upon yet. You can discuss your passions, hobbies, background, identity, and much more. 

Questions to help you brainstorm 

  • What have you not covered in your application that you want to share with the USC admissions officers? 
  • What makes your background and experiences so different from others? 
  • Is there anything you “nerd out” about? 
  • Are there any qualities that stand out about yourself? 
  • If someone close to you had to describe you, what would they say? 

Once you have brainstormed these ideas, write about the aspect of yourself that you most want to disclose to USC. The best way to go about this is by writing a narrative or telling a story. 

This will provide valuable background information as well as capture the reader. It will help emphasize what makes you unique and yourself. 

Do not repeat yourself! If you have already written about an aspect of your life, do not choose to answer this question about the same thing. 

Essay 3 – OPTIONAL

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 (250 words). (250 words) 

Only answer this essay if you have a gap in your education. If this does not apply to you, you do not have to answer this question. However, if it does apply to you then you should answer this question as truthfully as possible. 

Questions to consider

  • Why did you choose to take a gap year or semester? 
  • Did you even choose to take off? 
  • What external factors affected your education? 

While this is a more serious and specific question, you can still be creative in your response. Meaning, rather than stating why, you can tell the personal  story that led you to make this decision. This can lead the USC admissions officers to empathize with your situation.

Essay 4 – short answer questions

The short answer questions ask you to answer in 100 characters or less, unless otherwise directed. This means these questions should be rapid fire responses. Do not overthink these! This is a fun section that allows the reader to get to know you and your opinions better! Just be sure to not answer a response in a way that has already been revealed in your application. 

1. Describe yourself in three words. (25 characters each)

Think about your most defining characteristics. If someone close to you had to choose 3 words to describe you, what would they say? 

2. What is your favorite snack?

Don’t think, just answer! What are you craving? Do you have a sweet tooth? If you were given the choice to pick one snack from the grocery store what would you pick? 

3. Best movie of all time

Try to think of a movie that is not typically picked to be the best movie of all time! You want your uniqueness to shine through! Be sure you are selecting a movie you have actually seen and enjoyed. 

4. Dream job

What are you working towards in college? What do you “want to be” when you graduate? You can choose to go the serious or silly route for this question. So, you could make up a job such as “Chocolate taste-tester because the decadence of creamy milk chocolate is my favorite thing on Earth.”

5. If your life had a theme song, what would it be?

This is a creative question! Therefore, try to pick a creative answer. Find a song that has meaningful lyrics that can relate to your life. 

6. Dream trip

Try to avoid cliches with this answer such as Disneyworld – remember, you are trying to stand out from the rest of USC applicants. Think of somewhere you have always wanted to visit. Be specific! Do not just mention the city, state, or country, but rather, mention the specifics. 

7. What TV show will you binge watch next?

What TV show do you love? What TV show could you watch without getting sick of it? 

8. Which well-known person or fictional character would be your ideal roommate?

This question allows you to have a lot of fun, so dig deep into your imagination! Try to write a quick reason as to why they would make a good roommate. For example, maybe Harry Potter because you know he is used to sharing small quarters!

9. Favorite Book

What is your favorite book? What book changed your life?

10. If you could teach a class on any topic, what would it be?

What are you passionate about? What can you nerd out about? What would you love to speak to people about? You can also be creative with this answer and choose a course that does not exist! For example, the “psychology of aliens” which requires a trip to outer space! 

Essay 5: Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences applicants only – option 1

The word “education” can take on a variety of meanings. To some, receiving a high school or college diploma is the ultimate mark of being “educated,” while others take a different view. Looking past receiving a diploma, what does it mean to you personally to be “educated”? What standards will you put in place to define whether or not you’ve obtained a great education? (250 words)

Define what education means to you

This question may be difficult to answer. You should answer this question if you have personally thought about what education is and what it means to you. 

If you choose to select this essay, your response should not be “to receive a degree.” It needs to be a deeper reflection on what education truly is and means to you. 

Define what makes an education great

In addition to just describing what education is, you should then define what makes an education great. Then you should critique if you have received a great education, Or use this definition you have created to reveal this is how you measure learning. 

For example, a journalism major may recognize they received a great education when they can easily read an article and recognize if the journalist was reporting transparently and without bias. Or, a journalism major may recognize their great education when they write articles in their heads while viewing an event. 

Whatever your personal definition of being educated is, write about it! Just be sure to justify your reasoning. 

Also see: How to respond to the Common App prompts

Essay 5: Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences applicants only – option 2

Many of us have at least one issue or passion that we care deeply about — a topic on which we would love to share our opinions and insights in hopes of sparking intense interest and continued conversation. If you had ten minutes and the attention of a million people, what would your talk be about? (250 words)

The first thing that came to your mind when reading this essay- that’s what you should write about! You’ll want to select a topic that really fascinates you. You should be able to talk about this for hours and hours – not just 10 minutes. 

This is an extremely open-ended essay, so there are an infinite number of topics you could choose to write about. When deciding what to choose, remember to select something that has not already been shared on your application. 

Some ideas of things to write about for this essay: 

  • A social issue 
  • A book 
  • A lesson you have learned 
  • Other cultures
  • A controversial take (do not select something too controversial!) 

These are just a few examples to get your mind turning. Remember, there is a lot of freedom here, so you can pick any topic you want! Just be sure to use narratives and anecdotes to make your story shine through. After all, you want the USC admissions officers to learn why you are passionate about a topic, not just what the topic is. 

Essay 6: Viterbi School of Engineering applicants only – option 1

The student body at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering is a diverse group of unique engineers and computer scientists who work together to engineer a better world for all humanity. Describe how your contributions to the USC Viterbi student body may be distinct from others. Please feel free to touch on any part of your background, traits, skills, experiences, challenges, and/or personality in helping us better understand you. * (250 word limit)”

To answer this essay, you need to select a personal characteristic that distinguishes you from the other engineering students. Therefore, this trait or aspect of yourself should connect back to Viterbi and how you will make a difference in the school. Start out by brainstorming and asking yourself some questions.

Questions to consider

  • What aspect of yourself have you not mentioned so far in your USC application? 
  • What are you passionate about? 
  • When you have free time, what are you doing? 
  • How have you prepared yourself to become an engineer? 
  • Why does engineering interest you? 
  • Why USC? Why USC engineering? 
  • What makes you feel inspired? 

Essentially, you want to write to USC detailing how you are a stand-out applicant who is different from the rest. So, narrow in on what makes you special. However, it is important for the Viterbi supplemental essay that you are also acknowledging how you will thrive in this environment because of your uniqueness. 

Essay 6: Viterbi School of Engineering applicants only – option 2

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and their 14 Grand Challenges go hand-in-hand with our vision to engineer a better world for all humanity. Engineers and computer scientists are challenged to solve these problems in order to improve life on the planet. Learn more about the NAE Grand Challenges at and tell us which challenge is most important to you, and why.* (250 word limit)” 

For this response, you should be sure to read through the NAE Grand Challenges. This will provide you with valuable background information. Once you have read through all of the NAE Grand Challenges, think about the challenge you find to be the most important. The most important thing about this response is not what challenge you choose to write about. Rather, it is the way you justify your response. 

For example, you can choose “provide access to clean water,” however, you need to be creative in your justification. Start out by making a quick list of questions to ask yourself. 

Questions to consider

  • Everyone wants clean water – so how will accessing clean water affect you? 
  • What would you do if you could create an invention that gives everyone access to clean water?
  •  Why is clean water important? 

It is critical that you are creative in your justification, no matter which challenge you deem the most important. 

Final thoughts on responding to the USC supplemental essays

We understand that the USC supplemental essays can be quite overwhelming. Therefore, just take it one essay at a time and space out writing your responses. Figure out which options most interest you and select those. 

After you write your USC supplemental essay responses, ask a trusted individual to read over your responses before you submit your application. Ask them to check for any spelling errors and also  that you have not repeated yourself at all. Remember, each USC essay is the opportunity to reveal more about yourself. 

Take a deep breath! You got this. Remember to have fun in your responses and remind yourself of what you are working towards… a great education located in sunny California! 

Next steps after applying to USC

Congratulations! It is time to submit your flawless USC application! Now that your application is submitted, be sure to check the following for any updates to your application status: 

  • Your Email 
  • USC portal
  • Any USC social media accounts

Additional resources

Scholarships360 is here to help you navigate the challenging terrain of the college admissions process. Are you curious about what looks good to submit to colleges? We have a guide for that. Wondering if you should send your SAT/ACT scores? We have a guide for that. Confused on how many schools to apply to? We have a guide for that too! 

Also see: How to choose a college

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