How to Answer the USC Short Answer Questions

Let’s start with the question you asked yourself that led you to this blog post: “WHAT DO THEY WANT TO HEAR?!” Here’s the answer: nothing. There isn’t one right answer. Repeat and internalize that. The purpose of these questions, like the Columbia short answer questions, is to get to know you. Think about it: if you heard someone’s favorite snack was a kale salad, you would think of them differently than someone who answered ‘Cheetos.’ Remember that everything you put in any application represents who you are, and while the admissions committee is going to analyze your answers to some extent, don’t freak out. These answers are just an extension of you. It’s not complicated, so don’t overcomplicate it, but by all means be thoughtful. As a rule of thumb, don’t try to stand out by being controversial, and definitely don’t lie. That being said, there truly is no wrong answer as long as you don’t go for the most boring/obvious/provocative option for everything.

In summary, we offer the following mantras:

  1. There is no right/wrong answer

  2. Trust your gut instinct

  3. Don’t take this too seriously

  4. Embrace your weirdness

Now let’s get going. Here are the USC Short Answer Questions with our explanations:

Describe yourself in three words.
First Word:
Second Word:
Third Word:

For this question, we have our students text a minimum of five friends and ask them for three adjectives they’d use to describe the student. Those adjectives always end up falling into a few categories, so we help our students take the answers they receive, and either select or brainstorm the best adjective in each category. For example, if a student receives texts from friends that say, “leader, over-achiever, hard-working,” we might suggest “ambitious.” This is just one of many ways to answer this short answer question, but we find it always produces well-rounded answers. We realize that this says “words” not “adjectives,” so we give you permissions to write “always eating tacos” if you feel that that’s more of who you are.

Rules to follow for this question:

  1. Don’t use empty words like ‘nice,’ ‘fun,’ or ‘outgoing.’ These words say nothing about you.

  2. Avoid most cultural references, particularly achingly timely ones that may be fleeting—i.e.: don’t write “young, scrappy, hungry” as your answer.

  3. If you’re going to go with a funny answer, make sure the answers to the following questions match your tonal mark.

What is your favorite snack?

Use this question to let the reader into your home. If you have an interesting background or tradition centered on food, this is a good time to show it. So, for example, if you’re Hungarian and your favorite snack is Chicken Paprikash, let them know. It’ll allow a small window into your life. Again, there is no wrong answer here, but again, don’t be boring. Everyone likes pasta. Everyone loves pizza.

Favorite app/website:

This is your chance to amplify one of your interests. Don’t try to sound smart—your favorite website is probably not The Economist. Go for niche or esoteric websites that they might not have heard of previously, but that you genuinely enjoy checking. We suggest avoiding Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook as answers for all of the obvious reasons.  

Best movie of all time:

Our students get very anxious about this answer in particular because everyone has opinions on movies and they don’t want their answer to seriously conflict with the opinion of the person reading it. Again, there is no wrong answer. Have we said that enough? Just make sure your answer says something about your personality and interests. Don’t overthink it. (If you’re wondering, we think Spy Kids 2 and Casablanca are the best movies of all time.)

Hashtag to describe yourself:

Full disclosure: this is the worst short answer question on USC’s application. Our advice here is to be as funny and quirky as possible. Keep it short and sweet, #becausehowcanyoureallydecipherwhichwordsarewhichwhenyouchoosealonghashtagitlookslikejibberish. Email us if you want help brainstorming.

Dream job:

This answer should be loosely tied to whatever your reasons are for attending USC because your application has to have continuity. So if you’re applying to the film school, follow that trajectory by saying you want to be a filmmaker or film editor. If you’re applying to the engineering school, maybe your dream job is to work at SpaceX. Don’t say you want to work in Private Banking for JP Morgan if you’re applying to be an English major.

What is your theme song?

We like to tie this answer to an extracurricular activity if possible. For example, we had one student who spent upwards of 20 hours a week at her Ballet Academy. As such, her theme song was Raymonda, Act Two: Variation IV by Alexander Glazunov. For this question, you should avoid current popular songs or historically overplayed songs. This question can help you stand out.

Dream trip:

Again, build off of an existing interest that you have or that you’ve already mentioned. If you’re a surfer, maybe you want to go to Australia. If you’re an admirer of French cuisine, maybe you want to go to Provence. Make sure this answer isn’t random.

What TV show will you binge watch next?

There is no real strategy with this question other than to not be vapid in your response. Unlike the other short answers, this question allows you to show a side of your personality as opposed to expand on an interest. There’s a difference in the type of person who wants to binge watch Chefs Table vs. the person who wants to binge watch Pretty Little Liars. If you’re genuinely lost, you might want to go with more critically acclaimed shows, like Breaking Bad, Stranger Things, etc.

Place you are most content?

This is the best question for you to get the reader to empathize with you. The place where you’re most content shows vulnerability and your true colors, so please don’t say “The Habitat For Humanity construction site” or the local soup kitchen. Our students have told colleges that the place where they’re most content is their bed, their couch, and their kitchen. You want a real, human answer for this. Think genuine, and go from there. On all counts, really.

We understand that these short answer questions are relatively daunting to answer because you don’t have room for an explanation. But fear not! We’re here to help if you need another set of eyes or a brainstorming partner.