USC Counselor Conference 2016

On September 9, I attended the annual USC Counselor Conference -- my fourth in a row! My purpose in writing this post is to help you better understand the USC undergraduate admission process.

The answers below come from notes I took during presentations by USC Dean of Admission Timothy Brunold, USC Director of Admission Kirk Brennan, and USC Dornsife Vice Dean for Academic Programs Steven Lamy. The questions are my own; I thought them up when I reviewed my notes because I thought a Q&A format would be more useful for parents.

Question #1: What is the goal of the USC Office of Admission?

The goal of the Office of Admission is to find students whom the faculty would enjoy teaching. The faculty have delegated this selection process to the Office of Admission. Though faculty members may make recommendations about applicants, the Office of Admission has the final say.

Question #2: What does the Office of Admission want to see in applications?

The USC Office of Admission wants to know who the applicants are, what is important to them, where they come from, where they are going, and how USC can help them get there.

Question #3: Which standardized tests does USC require?

USC requires the SAT (but not the optional SAT Essay) or the ACT (but not the optional Writing section). USC does not require any SAT Subject Tests. The reason USC does not require the SAT Essay, the ACT Writing, or the SAT Subject Tests is that USC has determined they have no validity; that is, they are not predictive of students’ first-year college GPAs.

Question #4: What is the role of standardized tests in the USC admission process?

Like many other colleges, USC engages in a holistic review. There is no predetermined weight for standardized tests or any other admission factor. Test scores are one part of figuring out what the student might contribute in the classroom. The USC Office of Admission understands that numbers reflect not only the student’s level of accomplishment, but also the opportunities available to the student and the family into which that student was born. (To me, this sounds like another way of saying, “There is a correlation between family income and test scores.”)

Question #5: What is the USC Office of Admission’s philosophy?

The Office of Admission is looking for reasons to admit students rather than reasons to deny students. Only after the Office of Admission has accepted enough students to fill its slots does it begin denying students. The Office of Admission trains its staff to treat each application with respect because it understands students have invested time, energy, and money in the application.

Question #6: Is “demonstrated interest” a factor in the USC admission process?

Though many colleges consider “demonstrated interest” -- for example, visiting campus or signing up for a mailing list -- to be a positive factor, USC does not. Rather, USC evaluates applications for “demonstrated understanding,” which is the degree to which a student has shown he understands USC’s culture and opportunities.

Question #7: What role do on-campus interviews play in USC admissions?

USC offers on-campus interviews to a limited number of students. These interviews are a chance for the Office of Admission and the student to learn more about one another. For most students, interviews are neutral and fail to reveal any new information. For as many as 15% -- for example, students who get nervous or go unprepared -- the interview is a negative. Because interview slots are limited, lack of an interview is not counted against the student in the admission process. In fact, because of the limited number of slots, USC is considering phasing out the interview.

Question #8: What is new with the USC application essay prompts for 2016?

USC will still require applicants to write a 250-word essay explaining her academic interest and how she will pursue it at USC. However, USC will no longer require students to write a 250-word essay about a significant extracurricular activity; instead, USC will require a 250-word essay about either (1) a time you were exposed to a new idea, (2) something beyond your intended major that you would like to learn, or (3) something essential to understanding you. The new prompts give applicants more flexibility to reveal who they are.

Question #9: Can USC applicants still apply "undecided"?

No. Starting in 2016, students will no longer be able to apply as an “undecided” major. In studying student outcomes, USC found that freshmen who had declared a major had higher engagement and higher graduation rates, perhaps because they had an academic “home” right from the outset. Though students may no longer apply “undecided,” USC fully understands and expects that students will change their minds; over 50% of USC students change their majors, and about 25% change their schools.

Question #10: When is the USC application deadline?

Technically, the application deadline is January 15, and that is the date you will see in the Common Application. But for many students, December 1 is the deadline that matters. December 1 is the application deadline for (1) students who want to be considered for merit aid and (2) students who want to submit artistic or research supplements, which require extra time to evaluate. Apply by December 1!

Question #11: Does it help to be a SCion (legacy student)?

A SCion is an applicant who has a grandparent, parent, or sibling who attended USC. Being a SCion is a minor positive factor, and 19% of the Fall 2016 Entering First-Year Class are SCions. Some SCions who receive denials but have strong academic records will receive letters inviting them to apply to participate in the Trojan Transfer Program at The American University of Paris, Franklin University in Switzerland, or Richmond University in London. If a student expresses interest in one of these overseas universities, USC will forward the student’s USC application so the other university can make its own admission decision. If admitted to the overseas university, the student has a strong chance of transferring to USC sophomore year if he meets certain course and GPA requirements.

Question #12: What do I need to know about the liberal arts at USC?

USC continues to add interdisciplinary degrees to reflect changing times. For example, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences offers a major in Narrative Studies and GeoDesign, and it will soon roll out a major in Quantitative Biology. Beyond adding new majors, USC Dornsife emphasizes experiential learning that allows students to build relationships with professors. Experiential learning programs include Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF), Student Opportunities for Academic Research (SOAR), Bridge UnderGraduate Science (BUGS) Program, Summer Humanities Research Experience (just funded, coming soon), Maymester, and Problems Without Passports. The goal of USC Dornsife’s interdisciplinary majors and experiential learning programs is to prove that students can prepare for a career without attending a pre-professional school. (As someone who majored in English, I think that’s great!)

Final Thoughts

As a Stanford alum, I am predisposed to dislike USC. But I have to set that aside. I left this year’s conference impressed by USC’s efforts to develop new interdisciplinary majors and to make its admission process transparent. For more info about applying to USC, visit the USC website.


P.S. If you have questions about this post or about anything college, join Free College Counseling, our private Facebook group for parents!