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How to Write the USC Supplemental Essays

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. (Approximately 250 words)*

All prospective USC students must answer USC’s version of the classic “why school” essay. Note that with this question, the admissions committee does not necessarily look for an explanation of why you’re drawn to your academic interests or what originally excited you about your passions, but wants to know how you plan to pursue your academic interests at USC specifically. As such, in your USC supplemental essay, you can discuss your approach to your education, the vocational or service-oriented goals you’re working toward, and the USC-specific coursework and opportunities that you can see yourself taking advantage of on and off campus.

For instance, if you’re a literature buff applying to USC, rather than spending half of the essay discussing your love of reading and writing, you might instead bring up the fact that you want to read as widely as possible while getting a great grounding in business, so that you can pursue a career in which you’d promote diverse stories in the publishing world. You then might cite unique resources at USC–the Narrative Studies degree, the minor in Business at Marshall, the Progressive MA program in Literary Editing and Publishing, and the Air/Light Magazine run by the English Department–to help you make your case that USC is the right place for you.

As you write your USC supplement, keep in mind that USC looks for students who are globally conscious, interested in multiple disciplines, community-minded, and vocal about the causes they care about. Implicitly weaving in evidence throughout your “why USC” essay that your values align with the school’s will also help you produce a stronger essay.

Short Answers

Describe yourself in three words.
What is your favorite snack?
Best movie of all time:
Dream job:
If your life had a theme song, what would it be?
Dream trip:
What TV show will you binge watch next?
Which well-known person or fictional character would be your ideal roommate?
Favorite book:
If you could teach a class on any topic, what would it be?

To better understand students outside of an academic context, the USC admissions committee also requires all applicants to answer this set of short questions. Just as with any essay, you’ll want to keep your topics appropriate, genuinely authentic to you, and where applicable, aligned with the rest of the content in your application. For some of the more light-hearted questions (e.g. TV show, dream trip, favorite book), you should be mindful to strike a balance between lowbrow and highbrow (Judy B Jones may not be the right choice for the book, but there’s no need to list an obscure, 500-page novel that you haven’t read) and avoid uber-generic answers that won’t convey much information about your passions and personality (e.g. listing any book that’s on every high school’s syllabus, like the Great Gatsby). Even with a highly limited word count, you can also get detailed and specific with your writing to showcase your voice and individuality; “Chocolate” as a favorite snack is good, but “Trader Joe’s knockoff Reese’s cups” is a little more lively. For the more intellectually-geared questions about your dream career, potential class, and even your words to describe yourself, reflect back on what you’ve already shared in your application essays, and make sure that your answers are clearly consistent with your other writings. Suddenly sharing that you want to be a doctor when you’ve just written all about your interest in pre-law and politics might raise a red flag in a reader’s mind, so aim to make your responses genuine yet believable and cohesive.

For Dornsife applicants:

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)

USC wants to come to your TED Talk! In a change from past years, Dornsife is no longer giving its applicants a choice of multiple prompts, and now requires all students to respond to this topic. Boiled down, this USC supplemental prompt is essentially asking you, “What matters to you?” If there’s a social cause you care deeply about, or an academic question that you find invigorating, these would make for a strong foundation for your essay. If no topic immediately comes to mind, you might take time to do a little more reflection. You can consider questions such as: What change do you wish to see in society? What keeps you up at night? What do you feel is underrated, and not enough people know about?

As you’re brainstorming and drafting your Dornsife supplement, make sure that you avoid overlap with the Common App personal statement, especially if you chose prompt #6 (“Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?”). You’ll want to take advantage of the opportunity to show as many dimensions of yourself as possible.

For Viterbi applicants:

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 words)

With this supplement, Viterbi’s admissions committee is essentially looking to understand how your background, and the world you come from, influence your perspective and goals as an engineer and/or student. A great answer will require a good amount of introspection and should give the reader a deeper glimpse into who you are. To begin tackling this prompt, you can take time to reflect on the essential parts of your identity and on your formative experiences or memories. Then, consider how your identity ties into your priorities as a student. For instance, perhaps having grown up with a disabled family member, accessibility is paramount to you, evident in your aspirations of becoming a biomedical engineer, but also in your desire to ensure that classrooms and labs are inclusive spaces where all your peers can speak and contribute.

Some students might think that if they haven’t had unique life experiences or struggles with aspects of their identity and background, they might not have a compelling response to this prompt. If you have similar apprehensions, you might approach this prompt by considering your traits, skills, and personality, and still aim to convey what makes you uniquely you. As an example, as a future environmental engineering major who spends most weekends in the kitchen, you might write about your desire to partake in agricultural science research and found a molecular gastronomy club/pop-up restaurant for your USC classmates. This essay would highlight a love of systematic yet creative thinking, a sense of playfulness, and an appreciation for engineering applications beyond the classroom. Overall, your response should help Viterbi readers understand what niche you would fill within the USC class, what you value, and what you view as the core pieces of your identity.

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 words)

For the purposes of this USC supplement, there is no challenge that is inherently superior to the rest. You should select the challenge that aligns most with your genuine interests, intended major, career goals, and “hook.”

There are two main pitfalls that you’ll want to watch out for when writing this essay. First, be careful that your Viterbi supplements don’t overlap with each other too significantly, or with your main “why USC” essay. While this is a difficult task, and there may be some inevitable redundancies, you’ll want to showcase different parts of your identity and intellectual interests to the extent that you can. Carefully plotting out different topics for each essay in advance of starting your draft work should help mitigate this challenge.

Secondly, you should avoid centering the essay around the challenge itself, or more broadly, around the issues that society is facing–in fact, the less that is actually said about the challenge and society, the better. Instead, you’ll want to spend as much time as possible addressing the second half of the prompt, and explaining why the challenge is important to you specifically. You might consider past academic, extracurricular, or personal experiences that have led you toward your interest in engineering and in the particular challenge. For example, if you’re a prospective CS major who’s struggled with a learning difference and has worked a lot with younger students as a tutor and mentor, the goal of “Advance Personalized Learning” might be closest to your heart. Rather than getting into the nitty-gritty of ed tech, explaining your own journey and giving insight into your story will be key for this essay. Best of luck with your USC supplements!