How to Get Into USC: Admissions Data and Strategies
In the wake of the Varsity Blues scandal of 2019, it wouldn’t be hard to come up with a number of cynical, mocking responses on the topic of “How to get into USC.” Such a list would likely include:
- Hire someone else to take the SATs for you.
- Photoshop your way to a becoming a rowing team recruit.
- Pay 1.3 million dollars directly to a water polo coach.
- Publicly state that you “don’t really care about school” but you want to go to football games and parties.
Okay, that’s enough for now. Despite these embarrassing and deplorable incidents of last year, the University of Southern California remains one of elite private universities in the United States, with countless world-renowned academic programs. They hit an all-time high of selectivity for the Class of 2023, receiving over 66,000 applications and accepting only 11%. Post-scandal, applications declined and the acceptance rate spiked accordingly, hitting 16% for the Class of 2024. Still, the overall trajectory at this school is in the increasingly-selective direction; close to the turn of the millennium, USC still accepted 45% of those who applied. The number of applications has tripled since that time.
Given this meteoric rise in prestige, aspiring Trojans need to be well-informed and understand the level of competition at this university in the year 2020. Toward that aim, this article will give you:
1) A full grasp of the challenge of gaining acceptance into USC.
2) Data to help you more accurately assess your chances of admission.
3) How the USC admissions committee evaluates applicants and tips on how to create a winning application.
To accomplish these goals we will touch on the following topics:
- USC’s Class of 2024 acceptance rate
- SAT, ACT, and GPA of accepted USC applicants
- Admissions trends from the Class of 2024
- The demographics of current USC undergraduates
- USC’s yield rate
- How USC’s admissions officers evaluate candidates
- Tips for applying to USC
- How to assess whether applying to USC is even worth the $85 application fee (for you)
Let’s begin with an examination of the most recent admissions data.
USC’s: Overall Acceptance Rate – Class of 2024
Out of approximately 60,000 applicants, 9,500 were offered admission for the 2020-21 academic year. This acceptance rate of 16% represents a massive increase from the previous admissions cycle when only 11% were accepted.
This institution does not offer any type of Early Action or Early Decision option. All applicants seeking merit scholarships face a December 1 deadline; all other first-year applicants must submit their materials by January 15.
USC Admissions – SAT, ACT, and Class Rank
Those enrolled in the Class of 2023 sported middle-50th percentile standardized test scores of 1370-1520 on the SAT and 31-34 on the ACT. The average unweighted GPA for an admitted freshman was 3.81. The middle-50th percentile GOA was 3.72-3.99 and one-quarter of this group earned a perfect 4.0 GPA.
Admissions Trends & Notes – (Class of 2024)
- The percentage of admitted first-generation students increased from 15% (Class of 2023) to 17% for the Class of 2024).
- California residents comprised 40% of admitted students compared with 36% the previous year.
- 17% of the Class of 2023 are legacy students (a family member attended).
- 39% of the Class of 2023 hailed from the Golden State.
- Only 14% of students accepted for the 2020-21 school year were international students compared to 17% the previous year.
- Those admitted in the 2019-20 admissions cycle took an average of 7-8 AP courses in high school.
Who Actually Gets Into USC?
Let’s now look at the demographics of the USC Class of 2023.
The states producing the greatest number of 2019-20 freshmen were:
- New York
The countries producing the greatest number of 2019-20 international freshmen were:
- United Kingdom
- South Korea
As at any highly-selective university, competition is toughest among those residing in states with thousands of qualified applicants (the entire Northeast & the West Coast). If you hail from a less populated state like Alaska, North Dakota, or Montana, your location is more likely to provide a boost to your admissions chances. USC does like to have a substantial percentage of students from its home state of California (typically close to 40%).
Within the state of California, there are a number of high schools that send a large number of students to USC each year. These are the high schools that sent the most graduates to USC in 2019:
- Canyon Crest Academy (San Diego): 24
- Foshay Learning Center (Los Angeles): 20
- Arcadia High School (Arcadia): 14
- La Canada High School (La Canada): 14
- Loyola High School (Los Angeles): 14
- PV Peninsula (Rolling Hills Estates):13
- Harvard-Westlake (North Hollywood): 12
- South Pasadena (South Pasadena): 12
- Troy High School (Fullerton): 12
- Mira Costa High School (Manhattan Beach): 12
Looking at ethnic identity, the breakdown of members of the Class of 2023 was as follows:
- Asian American: 23%
- Hispanic: 14%
- African American: 6%
- International: 15%
- White: 32%
- Multiracial: 6%
The breakdown by gender of the Class of 2023 notably favored women:
- Male: 45%
- Female: 55%
The academic schools in which the Class of 2023 were enrolled was distributed as follows:
- Dornslife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences: 39%
- Marshall School of Business: 19%
- USC’s Schools of Visual and Performing Arts: 17%
- Viterbi School of Engineering: 13%
- Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism: 5%
USC’s yield rate—the percentage of accepted students who elect to enroll, divided by the total number of students who are admitted was 42% for the Class of 2023. For comparison, many other top private universities have superior yield rates such as Northwestern (56%), Duke (55%), and Georgetown University (49%).
How USC Rates Applicants
This school gives a genuinely comprehensive and holistic review of each application. They pay close attention to an applicant’s “performance in school, the rigor of your program, writing skills and test scores” and “also consider personal qualities, as revealed in community involvement, leadership and achievements.” They are looking for people who are ambitious intellectually and professionally but also bring a global perspective, show a history of getting involved in their community, and “are willing to venture outside of their comfort zones.”
There are five factors that USC officially ranks as being “very important” to their admissions process: rigor of secondary school record, GPA, standardized test scores (test-optional for Class of 2021 only), the essays, and recommendations. The three factors that rate as “important” are extracurricular activities, talent/ability, and character/personal characteristics. “Considered” factors include first-generation status. Legacy status, race/ethnicity, volunteer work, and paid work.
It definitely helps if you are recruited as an athlete to join one of USC’s 23 NCAA Division I sports teams. USC recruits (particularly non-Photoshopped ones) are given preference, as the school has the best (or at least one of the best) athletic programs in the entire country.
Tips for Applying to USC
If you plan on joining the 60,000+ Trojan hopefuls for the next admissions cycle, you should know the following:
- USC expects to see evidence of advanced coursework in high school. Taking multiple advanced classes, particularly within your area of academic interest is a must. A minimum of 7-8 AP courses is a good target to aim for.
- You must list your “first-choice major” on the Common App and have the option of selecting a second-choice major or pre-professional emphasis.
- USC does not conduct admissions interviews of any kind so your best way to connect with admissions officer on a personal level is via your Common App and supplemental essays/short answers.
- USC does not weigh “demonstrated interest” in the admissions process. Therefore, you will not be judged on whether or not you made a campus visit (in non-pandemic times) contacted an admissions officer, etc. Still, if this school is your first choice, it is important to communicate that, particularly since no Early Decision option is available.
- Make sure to dedicate sufficient time and effort to the supplemental essays required by USC. In the 2020-21 cycle they are as follows:
All applicants must respond to one of the prompts below in 250 words.
1A) 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.
1B) USC faculty place an emphasis on interdisciplinary academic opportunities. Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning.
1C) What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?
There is no “best” prompt to choose here. Your decision process for selecting one should involve asking questions like: Which prompt allows me to share something about myself that is not included elsewhere in my application? Which prompt genuinely reveals something about myself that is unique, unusual, or admirable? Which prompt would elicit an essay that has a chance to be compelling and perhaps unpredictable?
The rest of the prompts are mandatory. They are as follows:
2) 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. (Approximately 250 words)*
The key to answering #2 is to learn everything you can about USC and communicate genuine reasons why it is the right place for you. Do your research and show those reading your application how passionate you are about the school’s unique opportunities. For more, read of blog entitled Mastering the “Why This College?” Essay.
3) Short Answers
Describe yourself in three words. First Word:*
What is your favorite snack?*
Best movie of all time:*
If your life had a theme song, what would it be?*
What TV show will you binge watch next? *
Which well-known person or fictional character would be your ideal roommate?*
If you could teach a class on any topic, what would it be?
There are no secrets to these short and sweet questions. It’s not a contest to see whose tastes most mirror that of a middle-aged man or woman or who has the most eclectic collection of vintage vinyl records. Your answers can be 100% honest here. If you find Taylor Swift more entertaining than Jonathan Swift, that’s really okay!
Should I Apply to USC?
With acceptance rates of 11-16% in recent years, USC is a school that is looking for students who sit among the very top of their high school class and have posted SAT/ACT scores in at least the 90th percentile.
With such a competitive admissions process, all students need to make sure that they, in conjunction with a counselor, formulate an appropriate college list, containing a complement of “target” and “safety” schools. Hopefully your dream of becoming at USC Trojan becomes a reality, but, in the event that things don’t unfold as hoped, you’ll still end up an institution with comparable attributes and opportunities.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).