How to Get Into USC: 5 Expert Admissions Tips


The University of Southern California (USC) is a highly ranked private school located in Los Angeles, and, as a result, it draws thousands of qualified applicants each year.

If you’re applying here, you are probably wondering what the USC admissions requirements are and what you’ll need to stand out as an applicant.

In this article, we explain how to get into USC, offering you specific tips for what you can improve in your application. But first, how hard is it to get into USC?

Feature Image:

Ken Lund


How Hard Is It to Get Into USC?

USC is a very selective university with

an acceptance rate of just under 16%

—this means fewer than 1 in 6 students gets accepted.

Interestingly, this acceptance rate has actually


for the first time since 2017, mainly due to a smaller applicant pool (fewer than 60,000 students in 2019-2020, as compared to around

64,352 in 2017-2018


66,000 in 2019-2020


Here’s how

USC’s official news website

describes its student body:

“Straight-A students make up 38% of the fall admits. The average admitted student had test scores in the 97th percentile and enrolled in six to seven Advanced Placement courses in high school.”

Looking at this data alone, we can say with confidence that

it’s generally pretty difficult to get into USC.

So what kind of applicants is USC looking for? Let’s take a look.

What USC Looks For in Applicants

Because USC is so competitive, and because there are so many applicants applying each year,

this school is looking for the best of the best when it comes to applicants.


what USC writes about applicants on its website


“We look for those students we believe will thrive at USC. Our application process is designed to discover your individual story, so that we might see how you would take advantage of the many opportunities available at USC. … We will review your performance in school, the rigor of your program, writing skills and test scores. We also consider personal qualities, as revealed in community involvement, leadership and achievements.”

In addition to strong numbers (i.e., test scores and grades/GPA),

USC wishes to admit applicants with strong “personal qualities.”

These qualities can be illuminated through either academic or non-academic accomplishments, community service/volunteer efforts, or leadership experiences (for example, maybe you’re the captain of the track team or you once organized a successful food drive at your school).

As PrepScholar co-founder and

perfect SAT



scorer Allen Cheng discusses in

his detailed guide to getting into Harvard

, USC, like Harvard and other top schools, prefers

applicants with “spikes” in their extracurriculars—those with strong passions for specific activities or interests.

After all, with USC’s 60,000 applicants each year, you’ll definitely need


to help your application stand out!

Here’s how USC describes its most successful students to give you more of an idea of what they’re looking for in applicants:

“USC students pursue ambitious intellectual and professional goals by studying across disciplines and taking advantage of the diversity of programs available. They are willing to venture outside their comfort zones. They are interested in the world, in other peoples and cultures, and enjoy examining important issues from a global perspective.”

As you can see, USC is looking for applicants who aren’t just academically gifted but

who are also willing to challenge their limits, learn about new fields, and assume a global perspective.

Can You Apply Early Action or Early Decision to USC?

Unlike many other private and prestigious universities,

USC does not offer an early action/early decision plan to first-year students


Therefore, anyone applying to USC must do so by the same deadline (refer to the next section for more information on important dates).

While you can’t apply early to USC,

if USC is indeed your first-choice school, it’s a smart idea to tell the admissions committee this so they can note it in your application.


what USC admissions expert Joe Beltran recommends applicants do

in the case USC is their first choice:

“Students often ask me how they can let the admission office know that USC is their first choice. It’s simple: Just tell us. Tell us in your application, over email, telephone or in person. And we make note of that.

We add these things to your files if you ask us to, and we keep them in mind as well.


*Bold emphasis mine

Although you can’t apply early to USC to demonstrate your interest in attending the university, you


(and definitely should) let the admissions committee know about your interest in it so they can take this into consideration as they sift through the thousands of applications they get.


Don’t hide your true feelings—if USC is your first choice for college, let them know!

Getting Into USC: Logistics and Deadlines

All freshman applicants to USC must apply through the

Common Application


Here’s a checklist of all the major USC admission requirements:

  • Common App
  • USC Writing Supplement (on Common App)
  • Transcripts showing all high school coursework and any college coursework completed
  • Letter(s) of recommendation—the number of letters you must submit to USC depends on the program/school you’re applying to

  • Additional materials

    , such as a portfolio, writing sample, or resume (


    if required by your specific program/school)
  • Fall grades—these can be submitted via the Mid-Year Report Form on the Common App

As indicated above,

certain schools and programs at USC require additional materials from applicants.

The following table shows the schools and programs that require supplementary documents and information (in addition to


the components listed above):


Required Supplementary Materials

School of Architecture
Portfolio, Architecture Writing Supplement

Roski School of Art and Design
Art/Design Essay, list of creative experiences, portfolio

Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation
Proposal video, portfolio, interview (if selected)

Marshall School of Business — World Bachelor in Business Program
Video introduction, World Bachelor’s Business written prompts (on USC Writing Supplement)

USC School of Cinematic Arts

Cinematic Arts Personal Statement, writing sample, creative work sample/portfolio, creative portfolio list, video/photo sample, video introduction, aspirational portfolio, image essay, audio portrait, autobiographical character sketch, creative challenges, “Most Challenging Moment” task, project question, collaboration question

Glorya Kaufman School of Dance
Portfolio, which includes: dance resume, short answer, video response to a question, two video solos and descriptions, three video demonstrations, two photographs (a head shot and an action shot), live audition (if selected, depending on COVID-19 situation)

USC School of Dramatic Arts

Headshot, drama resume, “Take Three” image task, letter from drama teacher/coach, essay questions, creative submission, pre-screening audition videos, live audition (depending on COVID-19 situation)

Thornton School of Music
Portfolio, music resume, repertoire list,

introductory video

(certain majors only), audition recording, live audition (if selected, depending on COVID-19 situation)

*Exact supplementary materials required for admission will vary depending on the major.

Now, let’s take a look at

all the major USC deadlines


ordered from soonest to latest.

December 1, 2020

  • Freshman application deadline for

    merit scholarship consideration

    (note that this is


    an early action or early decision deadline)
  • Freshman and transfer application deadline for the following schools/programs:

    • Dramatic Arts (all programs)
    • Cinematic Arts and Music (all programs)
    • Kaufman School of Dance
    • Thornton School of Music
    • Iovine and Young Academy
    • World Bachelor in Business (WBB) program

January 15, 2021

  • Freshman application deadline (this is the

    regular freshman application deadline


    merit scholarship consideration)

February 1, 2021

  • (For freshman applicants)

    Last day by which merit scholarship notifications will be sent out

  • Transfer application deadline for all other programs

February 13, 2021

  • (For freshman applicants)

    Financial aid deadline for FAFSA and CSS profile applications

March 2, 2021

  • (For transfer applicants)

    Financial aid deadline for FAFSA and CSS profile applications

April 1, 2021

  • (For freshman applicants)

    Last day by which final admission notifications will be sent out

May 31, 2021

  • (For transfer applicants)

    Last day by which final admission notifications will be sent out

  • (For transfer applicants)

    Last day by which scholarship status notifications will be sent out


Heed these next tips so you can be the happy face.

USC Admission Requirements: 5 Tips for Getting In

Now that you know the logistics of applying, let’s take a look at how to get into USC. What do you need in your application to increase your chance of getting into USC, one of the most prestigious colleges in the country?

#1: Get a High GPA

Admitted applicants to USC typically have

very strong GPAs.

For the fall 2019 class,

the 25th/75th percentile high school GPA range was 3.72-3.99


This means that the majority of admitted applicants had relatively strong grades, getting mostly or all As and possibly a few Bs.

If your GPA is below 3.72, you’ll most likely have a more difficult time getting into USC. Therefore, it’s best to

aim as high as you can, preferably at least around a 3.85,

so you will be well above average but won’t suffer too badly if you get a B in one or two classes.

If you’re having trouble maintaining a high GPA, figure out which classes are bringing down your grades and then consider spending more time studying for those classes or hiring a tutor to give you the extra support you need.

#2: Have a Rigorous, Challenging Course Load

Another important aspect USC wants to see in applicants is evidence of a strong and challenging course load.

Ideal applicants will have taken a fair share of AP, honors, and/or IB classes.


how USC describes its ideal applicants

on its undergraduate admissions website:

“No specific curriculum is prescribed or required, though students offered admission typically pursue the most rigorous program available to them in English, mathematics, science, social studies, foreign language and the arts. Careful attention is paid to preparation for the intended major.”

In addition to doing well in classes,

strong applicants will have excelled in a rigorous academic program, particularly in classes relevant to their intended majors.

If you’re a junior or younger and haven’t taken any challenging courses yet, try to sign up for some AP, honors, or IB classes the following academic year and for each subsequent year you’re in high school.

It’s best to

choose challenging classes that focus on the fields in which you’re already strong or have a large interest in studying.

For example, if you’re a science buff, you could take AP Bio or AP Physics.

While you don’t need to make every class you take a super hard one,

aim to take about three to five upper-level classes each school year,

at the very least starting your junior year. This doesn’t necessarily mean you must

take the AP tests that go with these courses

, though it’s not a bad idea to do so since it might earn you some college credit!


Strong test scores—and possibly super strong back muscles—will definitely catch USC’s eye.

#3: Earn Strong SAT/ACT Scores


: For students applying during 2020-2021, USC is


However, you may still want to consider submitting test scores if you have particularly high scores, or if you feel your scores represent your abilities better than your GPA.

In general, USC expects

fairly high SAT/ACT scores

from strong applicants.

Below are the

middle 50%, or average, score ranges


for both the SAT and ACT for the fall 2019 USC freshman class:


  • Composite: 1420-1520
  • Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW): 670-740
  • Math: 690-790


  • Composite: 31-34
  • English: 32-35
  • Math: 28-34

*The lower score in each range is the 25th percentile (meaning 25% of applicants or fewer got this score), and the higher score is the 75th percentile (meaning 75% or fewer got this score).

Clearly, you’ll need to have a pretty high SAT/ACT score in order to be considered a competitive applicant to USC.

For the SAT, most applicants have a minimum score of 1420, or

the 95th percentile nationally



for the ACT, most applicants have a minimum score of 31, or

the 95th percentile nationally


In other words, you’ll need to score in the top 5% of test takers in order to meet just the 25th percentile score at USC.

Although getting a score below USC’s 25th percentile threshold doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be rejected, it


indicate that it’ll likely be harder for you to get into USC unless you have other significantly impressive qualities.

If you don’t meet this “minimum” threshold (1420 on the SAT and 31 on the ACT),

the best course of action is to try to raise your SAT/ACT score.

One way to do this is to

make an SAT


ACT study plan

that caters to your weaknesses. I also recommend checking out our guides for some

tips on how to increase your SAT


ACT score


If you prefer having more hands-on guidance in your test prep, consider using our

online SAT


ACT prep program

, which is

100% customized to your test-prep needs and includes realistic questions written by

real top scorers


#4: Write Excellent Essays

In addition to the

Common App essay

, you’re required to write

two shorter essays as part of the USC Writing Supplement.

Each essay must be no longer than 250 words, or about half the length of a typical college admissions essay.

For the first USC essay, you must

choose one of three prompts

to respond to:

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.
USC faculty place an emphasis on interdisciplinary academic opportunities. Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning.
What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?

Choose the prompt that appeals to you the most and that you’ll be able to respond to easily and effectively.

For the first prompt, you should

write about a specific incident in which a belief or opinion of yours was challenged.

The key here is to focus on your reaction and what this particular incident taught you about yourself. This could be a political stance, a religious belief, or a personal opinion on a social issue.

The second prompt is all about a field


your intended major that you’re also interested in studying. This is a great opportunity to discuss

how you became interested in this particular field and what you might do with it in the future.

For instance, perhaps you plan to major in computer science but have recently realized, by taking a required art class, that you also have a strong interest in learning about the history of paintings.

The third essay prompt is quite broad and allows you to talk about anything you feel is important for the USC admissions committee to know about you.

You could introduce a specific interest, skill, or experience you have, or even offer an explanation for a problem in your academic record,

such as a dip in your grades one semester or a below-average SAT score.


A great tip to remember as

I write my best-selling novel

you write your USC essays.

In addition to this first essay, you’ll have to write a second essay for the USC Writing Supplement.

This essay only has one prompt

(so you don’t get a choice here!):

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.

This essay prompt simply wants to know what you plan to major in at USC and how you’ll achieve your academic goals as a student. Basically,

what’s the intellectual path you expect to take at USC?

For instance, if you plan to major in English, you could write about how you intend to take a more interdisciplinary approach by integrating foreign literature classes into your course load.

Overall, in order to ensure you’re submitting two excellent essays to USC, be sure to

use specific details, be honest about your experiences and feelings, and edit and proofread each essay before sending it in.

Get more expert tips by reading

our guide to the USC supplement


It’s also important to note that

some programs and schools require additional essays or short answers.

For example, those applying to the School of Architecture must answer extra questions in the Architecture Writing Supplement.

These school-specific essays are just as important as, if not more than, the three general USC essays you must write.

Why? Because these essays ask you even


specific questions that relate to your intended field of study. Thus, you’ll need to be able to clearly explain exactly why you’re interested in the field/program/school you’re applying to.

#5: Craft an Impressive Portfolio (Required for Certain Programs)

Some programs at USC require the submission of creative portfolios along with the more general requirements listed above.

If a portfolio is required, it’ll likely be one of the most important parts of your application.

Make sure your portfolio follows all instructions, is 100% original, and is emblematic of your own creative mind, abilities, and goals.

Here are all the schools at USC that require the submission of a portfolio:

  • School of Architecture
  • Roski School of Art and Design
  • Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation
  • USC School of Cinematic Arts
  • USC School of Dramatic Arts
  • Glorya Kaufman School of Dance
  • Thornton School of Music

What’s Next?

USC is a great college in California, but it’s not the only one there!

If you want to attend college in the Golden State,

you’ll benefit from learning

how to apply to the UC schools

and getting info on the

cheapest colleges in California


How does USC’s selectivity compare with those of other top colleges?

Get the answer in

our guide to the most selective schools in the nation


USC likely isn’t the only school you’re applying to.

Check out our guides to learn more about

how to get into Columbia


how to get into NYU


Want to get into USC or your personal top choice college?

We can help.

PrepScholar Admissions

is the world’s best admissions consulting service. We combine

world-class admissions counselors

with our

data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies

. We’ve overseen thousands of students get into their

top choice schools

, from state colleges to the Ivy League.

Learn more about PrepScholar Admissions

to maximize your chance of getting in.

Get Into Your Top Choice School