USC Admissions

I love spending time on college campuses and today was no exception. Wandering through the University of Southern California’s busy campus and finding a brand new Trader Joe’s within its recently opened University Village was a great way to spend my Friday. It’s even better when I get to gain insight from USC’s admissions team. Whether you’re a Senior applying or younger student gaining information, take a look at some helpful insight into the admission process.

Before we begin: Although I’ll list some numbers below, it is important to read through the process of reviewing admission. Numbers can be contextualized and not always disclose the end all be all. So be MINDFUL as you read through this, utilize it as a gauge or a guide, but be sure to note, there is no formula, there are no tricks and there’s no one perfect application.


As similar to a number of institutions, this has been the most selective year of admission with over 56,000 applications, roughly 9,000 students admitted with an admission rate of 16% overall. Admission to USC is selective and competitive.

Fall admits averages (as of September 2017):

  • Unweighted GPA 3.77-4.0 (middle 50%)
  • SAT Evidence-Based Reading & Writing 670-740
  • SAT Math 680-780
  • ACT English 32-36
  • ACT Math 29-35
  • If your school utilizes Naviance Scattergrams you can use this to find the average admitted GPA/test scores of admitted students specifically within the context of your high school 

Contextualizing the GPA: Your GPA isn’t an automatic “in.” Consider this: Two students attend the same high school that offers a wide array of APs and Honors courses. Student 1 gets straight As and never takes an AP/Honors class (and they don’t provide a significant reason as to why they did not take the tougher class) vs. Student 2 who has a 3.8 and has taken multiple Honors and APs and higher levels within subject areas. Which student is more competitive academically? Student 2. Take the GPA averages as a gauge to see if you’re academically competitive, however be mindful if your personal academic narrative.

Admissions will consider the curriculum available at your high school and what courses you choose to take (for example; excelled in English and continued to take AP or Honors, level of math, science, years of foreign language, taking advantage of curriculum and tougher courses within your high school)

Admissions will also consider any context you provide within the application (Challenges and/or disruptions in high school that stopped you from taking advantage of a more rigorous course load that was accessible to you)

How Applications Are Reviewed 

  • Every application gets fair consideration, a thorough review and will be read multiple times
  • There is no sort of set formula choosing students which can make this process an unknown one! What can you do? Present a strong, authentic application, take the time to describe your personal impact within your extracurricular activities rather than listing a resume, write and re-write your essays
  • USC reviews students holistically and will look at all of the pieces throughout the entire application
    • Academics: Courses, grades, rigor, test scores
    • Character (your strengths and interests): Letters of recommendation, essays, extracurricular, additional information

Applying through an “easier” major…can this help? No. There are no tricks, or games or back doors. USC is admitting students who they feel are a good fit for the university. It will serve you best if you are authentic in your application. 

  • The best applications are written when you’re talking about something you care about. If you’re applying to Business and everything you love and do has clearly shown Business, don’t just throw in something random because you think it’ll help your chances. You could actually be hurting yourself in doing so!
  • Students have the opportunity to list two major choices on their application. The first choice cannot be undecided (Don’t worry you are not locked into a major, but if you’re truly undecided you most likely have an idea of where your strengths and interest lie, so research your options and choose a first-choice major for some direction)
  •  If you’re not admitted to your first choice major, admissions will consider second choice and all students will automatically be considered for undeclared

Completing the Application, Tips, Dates and Deadlines

  • Complete new Courses and Grades section (Report all courses and grades EXACTLY as they are on your transcript, don’t guess!) Print out a transcript and have it next to you as you complete this section. Admission officers will see your course history in chronological order as well as separated in subject areas to see your level of depth within a topic
  • The more you complete the Common App the more new questions can pop up, input your major choices and see if there are more supplemental questions (don’t wait to the last minute!) 
  • CollegeWise, an independent college counseling organization, put together an incredible Common Application Guide accessible HERE

December 1, 2017 Priority/Scholarship Deadline 

  • Deadline for audition/portfolio based programs and scholarship consideration
  • Scholarship Consideration
    • Quest Bridge Applicants
    • Full, half and quarter tuition scholarships 
    • USC will identify the best candidates who will make the biggest impact within the school (not a set academic metric based scale)
    • National Merit Finalists (eligible for half tuition scholarships)
    • USC will identify 2,000 finalists to be interviewed to compete for full or half scholarships (note: students who are not selected for an interview are still eligible for admission) 
  • Around 30,000 applications are received in this round

January 15, 2017 Regular Decision Deadline

  • Around 26,000 applications are received in this round
  • Students will hear back around mid-March

To Note

  • Academic departments can contribute recommendations for admissions to take into consideration, however admissions make the ultimate decision
  • No waitlist option, applicants are either Admitted, Denied or offered Spring Admit
  • Students can appeal however it is unusual for admissions to overturn a decision
  • Application decisions are mailed home

Optional USC Interview Process: USC cannot interview all students, in fact they can only interview about 7% on a first-come first-serve basis. What this means is that the interview is optional and do not have a negative impact on students do not interview.

  • Interviews are done by admission staff or USC staff in other departments 
  • The application itself is a sufficient instrument to helping the admission team make a decision
  • Nothing can replace a strong application (if you don’t have an interview, but you have taken the time to present a strong application…rest in that!)

Remember, apply to a balanced list of colleges and take the time to present strong applications. Write and re-write your essays, be thoughtful of why USC is a good fit for you, not because it is an incredible and selective institution, but why you would thrive there, why you can be academically successful there and what things you could accomplish by attending USC. 

Published by Casey Barneson

Author of The College Wellness Guide. Beverly Hills High School College Counselor.

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