August 8, 2013
Tips and Tricks for Tackling the Personal Statement
Calling all seniors! The school year is right around the corner, and that means it’s time to start thinking about college applications. While grades and test scores are definitely an important part of the application, at USC, we conduct a holistic review of files, meaning that we take all components of the application into account when making an admission decision.
Therefore, we expect you to put a fair amount of time and energy into the qualitative aspects of your application; namely, your essay and short answer responses. This year, the Common Application has changed the essay prompts to the following (you pick one):
Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
While there is not one topic that is better than another, we do expect a few things from you. Firstly, your essay should be free of grammatical and spelling mistakes. This may sound very obvious, but you would be surprised at how many personal statements we see that contain errors. While most are small, it does look careless and ultimately, does not reflect well on your application as a whole. Make sure you have a few people—parents, counselors, teachers, etc.—look over your writing to ensure that it is spotless!
Your writing should also be authentic and show your own unique voice. Do not try to impress us by using fancy words you found in a thesaurus. We want to hear your story, your struggles, your triumphs. You can share this while staying true to your writing style.
Do also remember that your personal statement is an opportunity to share something, well, personal about yourself, and to let an admission counselor know who you really are outside of your GPA and standardized test score. The writing components of the application are your chance to paint a complete picture of who you are– to highlight something that may not shine through elsewhere.
While admission counselors cannot review any personal statements before they are officially submitted, we are here to answer any questions you may have about the process. Happy writing!
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Brief Intro to USC
With a total undergraduate enrollment of 19,000, there is opportunity around every corner of USC’s beautiful campus. Academics at USC follow a Renaissance ideal, and the school emphasizes a unique undergraduate experience built around flexible academic programs and interdisciplinary research.
USC athletic teams boast a total of 123 national titles across various sports, and fans from across the nation often deck themselves out in cardinal and gold in support of the dominant Trojan football team. Athletics prides itself on this “fighting spirit,” and over 40 USC athletes participated in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.
The USC social dynamic is diverse and exciting, and if Greek life is your thing, about 25% of men are in a fraternity and 20% of women are in a sorority. With amazing academics and a gung-ho student culture, it’s no wonder that USC alum come away loving their four years as a Trojan.
Please respond to one of the (three) prompts below. (250 word limit)
Tell us about a time you were exposed to a new idea…
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.
As USC makes clear in this prompt, they are looking to add diversity and believe that their student body will thrive when members of different backgrounds interact. Thus, this prompt is best if you can write at length on your unique views and experiences, and how a new idea or puzzling belief uprooted your sense of self. It’s a chance to share your individuality, perspectives, potential flaws, and willingness to adapt and improve with the world around you.
There are many ways to approach this prompt, since diversity prompts are becoming common, but two strong ways would be to use a narrative before explanation or give a vivid character description of yourself and the fundamental change in your perspective.
Remember to speak about the belief that challenged you in a nuanced way — most competitive applicants share experiences in being challenged by new academic and ethical perspectives, so strive to leave the reader thinking, “I never thought about that or experienced that before.” The new idea or belief can range from a social issue you initially disagreed with, to views on daily habits and vices, and often times entertaining stories can be weaved around a challenging moment.
If using a narrative, focus on employing descriptive language and sensory detail to transport the reader into the moment, and center your narrative around the event that challenged your views. Follow up with an explanation of your reaction and change in perspective. This is a great opportunity to showcase your writing ability and intrigue your reader, but avoid overdoing it or making your story feel comedic. It might pay to use a twist introduction or hyperbole when expressing your revelation, but still avoid aggrandizing excessively.
If you choose to write a description of your character, use vivid language to describe what you were like before and after exposure to the unique perspective on which you’re writing. Then, explain what this perspective was and how you changed. For example, you may have once been rather timid but are now bold and venturous, which you can elaborate on before describing the new belief that challenged you to the core and caused this change in personality. It’s a gamble that may confuse the reader, but can also make for a very interesting and enjoyable read.
Describe something outside of your intended academic focus…
Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning.
This is a straightforward prompt, and the response can be equally straightforward. If you have some academic interest not related to your major, explain what that is, why it’s important to you, and how you will strive to learn more about it. It can be something you have no experience in so far and are interested in learning more. You want to avoid discussing an interest or topic that doesn’t expand upon your extracurriculars and activities — rather, talk about a hidden passion or growing field that you are dying to explore and learn more about.
An alternate approach is to employ an anecdote to describe this interest. For example, you can talk about how you’ve wanted to master chess after hearing about computer AI that beat the world’s best chess player, or how you play the flute but know nothing about music theory and would like to learn more regardless of your intended degree in mechanical engineering. Maybe you are passionate about tying knots after being an eagle scout, and would like to expand your knowledge of knots and start a club at USC. There are few clichés — what you choose to write about will most likely be unique to your interests, so don’t feel limited in terms of what you choose to reveal.
What is something about yourself that is essential…
What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?
This prompt’s theme is similar to that of the first Common Application essay prompt: “Some students have a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful, they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.” If you wrote an essay for that prompt, it may be wise to select one of the other two options, unless you have something important and lengthy to write about here that is not otherwise discussed in your Common Application essay.
Admissions at USC can most likely gauge who you are as an academic and hard-working individual through the rest of your application, especially in terms of scores and extracurricular activities. Thus, when revealing something about yourself that is fundamental to understanding who you are, try not to talk more about traits involving your academics, i.e., traits that explain why you are so hard-working. If you do, it may be at the expense of being cliché and limiting the perspective of yourself lent to the admissions committee.
Also, essays on the experience of being a first-generation student, immigrant, or dedicated athlete have been rendered cliché by the frequency with which students write about them. Avoid these topics or take a nuanced approach that will distinguish you from other applicants.
The approach is simple, and you can use an anecdote here for a vehicle. You could talk about how growing up with synesthesia explains your love for music or how your uncle’s work as a surgeon has inspired you in many ways. Understand that no matter what you write about, it should inherently reveal something the admissions needs to know about you as a person.
Describe yourself in three words.
This part is simple, so don’t overthink it, but avoid being generic. It is a tendency to put words like generous, trustworthy, persevering, focused, diligent, etc., because it is natural for a student to convey their hard-working attitude and model-citizen personality. However, even if those do apply to you, USC wants to see you describe yourself as who you are, not who the student side of you is.
Whether you are quirky, amenable, inquisitive, gullible, compassionate, etc., it’s important to accurately portray your personality type. Be honest (even at the expense of mild self-deprecation, though it should be in good humor — nothing negative and contradictory), and use sophisticated diction.
Rapid fire – Personal Questions
What is your favorite snack?
Best movie of all time:
Hashtag to describe yourself:
What is your theme song?
What TV show will you binge watch next?
Place you are most content?
These are all personal questions that have no wrong answer, so feel free to answer what your actual likes and preferences are, whether your dream job is to be a freelance photographer (even though you’re applying as an electrical engineer), your theme song is the Pokémon theme (because you’ve been playing way too much Pokémon Go), your favorite website is The New Yorker, and you are most content people-watching on a park bench.
For some questions, such as the favorite TV show, students often feel compelled to portray themselves as a cultured and conscientious person and may elect to write down some documentary series or history show that they don’t actually watch, but this is the wrong approach. Admissions can often see through false answers when looking at your application as a whole. Be honest, even if that show is Game of Thrones, because it can reveal that you are in sync with modern culture and trends.
Writing the School of Engineering Prompts
If you plan on applying to the School of Engineering:
While scientists yearn to discover the world that exists, Engineers and Computer Scientists seek to create the world that never was. Our faculty and students believe collaborative teams are the key to great accomplishments. Please describe a time in your life (academic, co-curricular, or otherwise) where you had to collaborate to accomplish more than you could alone. (250 word limit)
Collaboration is important in the world of science and engineering, so USC wants to see the role collaboration has played in your past experiences. While most students will opt for the cliché “important group project in APUSH that you guys got an A on,” it’s important to give a nuanced approach to the topic of collaboration and how you collaborated.
You can really drive a narrative here, starting by describing a conflict in the realm you collaborated in, whether that was a small business you started with two friends or a research project during a summer program, then explaining how it was resolved and what you learned from that experience.
You could also reveal some vulnerabilities, stating how you had always been independent-minded and had done all work yourself, until you came across a daunting academic or extracurricular challenge so vast that you had to sacrifice your pride and collaborate to achieve more than you could have alone. The word count is limited, but it is important to use a good anecdote and clearly communicate the personality traits this collaboration reveals about yourself.
Your browser history says a lot about you. Take a moment to think about the time you spend online. Whether it’s browsing an Instagram account, listening to your favorite podcast, subscribing to the best web series on YouTube, or even addressing questions on tech-help forums, we want to know where you spend the most time online, and why. Please share your favorite online destination (via a web address, specific app, social network, etc.) — and describe why in a few sentences. (250 word limit)
Like the question you answered on your favorite website, this is a chance to reveal your personal style and preferences. Of course, you don’t want your favorite online destination to be Facebook or Twitter, unless there is a special reason why, such as using that site as a marketing platform for your budding tech startup, or using them to spread awareness for events at a local shelter.
Since this is your application to the school of engineering, they naturally want to see that where you end up online tends towards your STEM interests. On the flip-side, they don’t want to see you as a purely academic type who only reads nature publications every week — reveal who you are as a person through your web history in a way that ties in your desire to enter engineering.
Maybe you use your Instagram account to follow major companies and the kind of the things they are building, and you then post your own inventions to garner feedback and a following. Or perhaps you enjoy online tutorials and engaging science lectures on YouTube, or use Reddit to crowdsource massive amounts of polling data for a personal social psychology experiment. Similar to previous questions, there are few clichés because this is very personal, so have fun with your response!
Get your essay reviewed by our expert team before submitting. For more help and guidance through the admissions process, sign up for our distinguished application guidance services. Good luck with admissions, and fight on!