How to Answer the USC Long-Answer Supplements

USC’s supplement is not the easiest to tackle, but it’s also not hard if you look at the prompts from an objective perspective. That said, if you are applying to USC you’re going to have to do some work. Like most other top-tier colleges, they have a few supplemental questions for you to answer. We happen to love the USC long-answer supplements because they make you interrogate your reasons for applying more so than other universities. USC has two longer supplements to tackle. The first is:   

Please respond to one of the prompts below. (250 word limit)

  • 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.
  • Describe something outside of your academic focus about which you are interested in learning.
  • What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?  

There are many ways to answer all three of these, but let’s break them down. If you go with #1, you need to make sure that your answer hits a few key marks.

  1. Smaller is better: We strongly recommend against writing about topics that are broad and tough to tackle in a succinct manner. Read: Genocide, Climate Change, Donald Trump, and so on. The issue you choose needs to be incredibly personable so that the person reading your supplement understands why you connect to the issue in the first place. Smaller issues that really hit home for you are easier to engage with—your passion will come through and the reader will be able to tell—and consistently more relatable.
  2. Tell a story: Don’t just expand on an idea—take us through the beginning, middle, and end of the time when you were exposed to the new idea and your beliefs were challenged. For example, don’t say that your ideas about gender were once challenged and explain the before thought process and after conclusion. Tell us the story about when you met your friend who is gender-nonconforming and how their lived experienced called your opinions into question. By illustrating your thoughts with a story, you’re creating a dynamic piece of writing that the admission officer will actually enjoy reading.
  3. Add a character: Presumably if you’re answering this question, then someone, a human person, said or did something to challenge you. Everyone prefers to read stories about people rather than stories narrated exclusively by your internal monologue. The admissions officer will have been read hundreds of applications by the time they get to yours. Make it interesting by adding a character. If you’re a particularly gifted writer, we encourage you to mirror a side of your personality in your secondary character. Be sure not to make it about the other people involved. This is your story, not your chance to tell their story. Keep the focus on you, but incorporate others.
  4. Don’t get preachy: We often say that there is nothing worse than a teenager on a soap box. It sounds harsh, but we continue to drive this point because it’s all about tone. We know that you are passionate, but there is a way to express your intensity with nuance, consideration, and intention. Whatever issue you write about needs to be tackled with humility and grace, not self-aggrandizement and gusto.

Prompt #2 is a great way to illustrate and expand upon a dynamic interest. If you can’t think of any interests that you have outside of your academic concentrations, think again. If you’re still drawing a blank, either we can help you with that or it might not be the prompt for you. If you choose this question, remember the following:

  1. Don’t choose something in the Activities section of your Common App: This is not the time to talk about something they already know from glancing at your application. Remember that they’re viewing your application holistically, which means if something is already in your Common App, you don’t need a repeat mention. This is your chance to tell them something more. Surprise them. Think of it as a bonus portion.
  2. Choose something that illustrates a personality characteristic: Whatever trait you think is most important to highlight, whether you’re funny, outgoing, empathetic, strong-willed, or introverted, figure out a way to shed light on that quality through your answer to this prompt. There are very few times throughout the application process where readers get to know the human side of you, and this is one of them. Capitalize on this opportunity.
  3. As always, tell a story: We listen more intently and thoroughly to stories than we do to explanations or bland answers. Try to figure out how to tell a story that highlights and features the interest you’re discussing.

Prompt #3 is our favorite because it’s so open-ended. It’s also daunting for the same reason. Think about it this way: it leaves infinite room for creativity. There are so many ways to answer this, and we’d be happy to help you brainstorm, but in the meantime here are a few creative ideas:  

  1. Make a list: There are a few things (qualities, passions, projects) that are essential to understanding who you are, so make a list of what they are and then expand on a few. If done correctly, this approach is incredibly dynamic and fun. You’ll also learn some great highlight items that will be useful once it comes time for admissions interviews.
  2. Write a series of poems that illustrate personal characteristics: This question invites you to do some introspective thinking about yourself. Take that opportunity and run with it. If you don’t know where to begin, text five of your friends and ask them to describe you with three adjectives. Then write individual poems about those traits.
  3. Tell a story about seemingly nothing: For this prompt, it’s important that you have some character traits in mind that you want to get across. For example, you can tell a story about making pasta that exemplifies your perfectionism and humor, as well as illustrates your love for cooking all at once.

With this prompt, there are also a few things to avoid:

  1. Extracurricular activities
  2. Talking about your family
  3. Mentioning USC
  4. Anything you’ve done over a summer

A cause you care about that has little (or nothing) to do with who you are

The second supplemental question is the classic “why our school” prompt, but in this case it is phrased slightly differently:

  • 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)

Our advice for this prompt is simple: be as specific as possible. If you’re undecided on what you want to study at USC, which most applicants are, figure out the two majors you’re most interested in. Remember that whatever you choose to write about is an indicative interest but is by no means a prophecy. You won’t be forced to major in English even if you write about it in your application. Once you’ve chosen a concentration or department, dive into the majors. You want to write in specifics, not generalizations. If you’re interested in business, talk about an elective within the Dr. Dre Entrepreneurship program and the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Yougn Academy and how it will help you achieve your goals. Maybe you’re interested in the Renaissance Scholars program or a specific film seminar. Whatever you decide, there are two parts of discussing a class and major: 1. what it is and 2. why it matters to you. After you’ve discussed what you’ll study, research the culture, traditions, and history of the school, and figure out what you’ll do on the weekends and in your free time. You need to tell them why you’re a good fit for USC and how you’ll add to the community. At the end of the day, this is about proving you know what you’re talking about.

And remember, above all, #FightOn.