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Last updated March 21, 2024

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How to Get Into USC

Key Takeaway

Values, engagement, academics. These are the three pillars of USC admissions. You'll need to align your application with each to have a fighting chance of becoming a Trojan. Read on for a more detailed analysis of what each bucket means to your application. 

Ah, the palm trees, sunshine, and world-class education—with just a hint of admissions scandal. The University of Southern California is one of the best in the west (and in the world).

The acceptance rate is a modest 12.5%, so there are no guarantees, no matter how amazing an applicant you are.

To get into USC, you’ll need to put in the work.

In this post, I give you the run-down on USC admissions. We’ll talk about academics, extracurriculars, and that all-too-obscure concept of “application strategy.”

Let’s begin.

How to Apply to USC

If you haven’t already done so, the first step to applying to USC is to make your Common Application account. You’ll be applying through Common App, so that’s an essential first step.

Like the vast majority of other schools, you’ll need to submit information like your high school transcript, school report, letters of recommendation, and personal statement. If you’re applying to particular majors, you may also need to include additional writing samples or a portfolio.

USC Application Options

If you were hoping to ED to USC, sorry—you’re out of luck. They only offer Early Action and Regular Decision application plans, so you can’t opt into the binding Early Decision agreement. It does seem, however, that applying EA has a small statistical boost on your likelihood to get into the school.

USC Application Deadlines

Early Action: November 1

Regular Decision: January 15

Pretty standard stuff. There is a caveat, though. If you’re applying to a school with a portfolio review, your RD application is due December 1. See USC’s website for more details.

How hard is it to get into USC?

To put it harshly: getting into USC is pretty darn hard. At a 12.5% admit rate, USC ranks among the more highly-selective schools in the country. While the acceptance rate isn’t as low as Stanford’s or Duke’s, nearly 90% of applicants still get rejected from USC every year.

To be in that 12.5%, you’ll need to have the right application strategy. And to develop your own authentic strategy, let’s start by taking a look at what kinds of students USC wants in the first place.

What does USC look for in applicants?

Here’s the deal. USC, like all highly selective schools, gets way too many applications for the number of seats they have available. As of the most recent USC Common Data Set, USC received over 70,000 applications for a first-year class made up of 3,668 enrolled students.

And a great deal of those applications are from highly-qualified students just like you. So how do USC admissions officers decide who to admit? We’ve already covered the basics of the USC evaluation process in our USC Common Data Set post, but there are three more considerations for you to keep in mind.

  1. Values: Values underlie everything in college admissions. To write a successful application, you should understand the values of the institution you’re applying to. USC’s admissions office does you a huge favor in laying out some of these values, clear as day.

    As you can see on the USC website, USC students are successful because they hold similar values of ambition, participation, worldliness, perspective, and community service and engagement.

  2. Engagement: When USC admissions officers read your application, sift through your activities, and look to your letters of recommendation, they aren’t just looking to see what you’ve accomplished. They’re also extracting information about what kind of person you are.

    Are you able to take advantage of the opportunities you’re given? Do you contribute as much to your community as you take? Are you comfortable being a leader? What do you value spending your time on most? Answering these kinds of questions helps admissions officers assess whether you’d contribute to and benefit from the USC community.

  3. Academics: As you’ll see in the next section, USC students know how to do well in school. But with over 70,000 applications, you can guarantee that no matter how great a student you are, your application will be read alongside thousands of other students who are just as good. So what makes those 12.5% stand out?

    Return to the idea of USC’s values. How do your academics demonstrate those values? How can you write about your life, activities, or school work in a way that gives values-based meaning to your academic life?

As you’re developing your USC application strategy, these guidelines will help you figure out how to tell your story in a way that is both genuine and intentional.

USC GPA requirement

USC won’t automatically reject you if you don’t have a certain GPA, but USC applicants tend to be top students.

We’ve already gone through the nitty-gritty details of USC’s GPA breakdown in our USC Common Data Set post, so we’ll stick to the basics here. Almost 76% of all enrolled first-year students had an unweighted high school GPA above 3.75. A full 80% ranked in the top tenth of their high school graduating class, too.

So it’s safe to say that successful USC applicants excel in their classes. If you’re a USC hopeful, you should be aiming for a 3.75 GPA or above.

USC SAT Scores

USC is still test-optional, so you’re not required to submit your scores unless you want to. I know that sometimes test-optional admissions can make the application process even more confusing because you have to decide whether submitting or omitting your scores is in your best interest.

We have an entire post dedicated to deciding whether to submit your test scores, but for now, what you need to know is USC’s middle 50% ranges.

If you’re feeling intimated by the statistics talk, don’t worry. The middle 50% is simply a measure of what scores students in the middle of the class earned.

Let’s take a quick look at USC’s:

SAT Composite: 1330-1520

ACT Composite: 30-34

So we can tell that the middle 50% of USC’s enrolled first-year students scored somewhere between a 1330 and 1520 on their SATs. By that logic, 25% scored at or below a 1330, and 25% scored at or above a 1520.

All this is to say that if your SAT score is above a 1330—or above a 1400, if you want to play it safe—you’ll likely be okay submitting your scores. Same goes for the ACTs.

There’s a lot more to talk about with test scores, so be sure to check out our more comprehensive post, too.

Does USC superscore?

If you weren’t able to get your best section scores during the same test date, don’t sweat it. USC superscores. They’ll take your highest score from each section of the SAT or ACT, regardless of the test date you earned them on.

What high school coursework do I need to get into USC?

Selecting your high school coursework is like cooking an egg. There’s not a singular right way to do it, but things can definitely go awry if you aren’t careful.

When it comes to choosing your classes, you should keep two things in mind: 1) your values, and 2) rigor.

Your values should guide your course selection because it’s important to engage yourself in material that feels interesting and fulfilling. In fact, USC explicitly tells us that “careful attention is paid to preparation for the intended major.” So pick a broad and thorough courseload, but don’t forget to pursue your passions. If you want to go into engineering, for example, an extra STEM class can do double duty in fulfilling your academic interests and showing USC that you’re prepared for their engineering program.

But, alas, you can’t only choose your classes based on your intellectual whims. You also need to be strategic. USC is all about academic ambition. That means that you should take on as ambitious a courseload as you can handle. Load up on any AP, IB, or dual-enrollment courses your school offers, and be sure to

For specifics, USC recommends this standard courseload—though specific schools and colleges may have more detailed requirements:

  • 4 years of English
  • 3+ years of math
  • 2+ years of foreign language
  • 2+ years of science
  • 2+ years of history and social sciences
  • 3 years of electives

But as a baseline, this courseload will get you started on the right track.

What extracurriculars do I need to get into USC?

I’m going to tell you something that might shock you. You don’t need any specific extracurriculars to get into USC.

USC admissions officers aren’t searching for that one magical extracurricular that will earn you a spot in their incoming class. Remember when MIT rejected the applicant who built a nuclear reactor? Yeah—no single activity can make or break your entire application. You have to be the whole package.

So instead of focusing on which of your extracurriculars will be “good enough,” you need to focus on your overall application narrative. What do your activies, essays, grades, and coursework say about who you are and who you’d become at USC? How do your activities show that you’ve engaged in those USC values we talked about earlier—ambition, community outreach, perspective?

I’m not just writing this advice because I like to read my own words. USC’s admissions office comes right out and says: “We pay close attention to your personal narrative[.]”

Throughout your application, write them a narrative that screams I belong at USC. Don’t just tell them what they want to hear, but make genuine connections between yourself and the school. Show them that their values are your values. Let your activities demonstrate that you’re ready to take on the challenge of being a USC community member.

Final Takeaways

Are your flip-flops ready? It’s time to get into USC.

Having read through this guide, you should have a better idea of what your chances are and what you can do to improve them. With your new application strategy in place, you’re ready to get to writing.

Next stop: supplemental essays. Application strategy won’t get you far without well-written, authentic, and strategic supplementals. Our USC Supplemental Essay guide will show you how to get started. See you there!