Today I had the pleasure of attending USC's annual counselor conference. In this post, I'll share (in no particular order) 8 things I learned about USC today.

  1. USC offers 7 B.S. programs you've probably never heard of. These majors include Policy, Planning, and Development, Real Estate Development (new for 2015), Health Promotion & Disease Prevention, Global Health, Human Development and Aging, Lifespan Health, and Occupational Therapy. Who might like these majors? You can't really lump them together. Two of these really stood out for me. First, Health Promotion & Disease Prevention is a great alternative to bio or chem; it includes all the pre-med requirements. Second, Global Health is a potential path for the student interest in preventive medicine and study abroad but who isn't pre-med.
  2. When picking a major, check out the upper division elective classes. Whether you're talking about USC or any other university, find that course catalog. The upper division electives are supposed to be the fun ones. If they look boring, then maybe that major just isn't for you!
  3. The USC Career Center makes it super easy for students to find internships and jobs. I can't overstate how awesome this is. Students have a variety of online career resources available for life, including connectSC. (Plus, for three years after graduation, they can come back to the USC Career Center for help at no charge.) So, what is connectSC? Oh, nothing much -- just a place where you can book appointments at the career center, find and apply to job opportunities (no need to go to a separate website), set up informational interviews with USC alumni in a field that interest you, do mock interviews (including recording and viewing yourself to see how you come across), watch video presentations from USC alums about their careers (and get in touch with them and ask questions), and access internship opportunities across the country through iNet (a consortium of 11 selective colleges across the country that shares internship opportunities with students at member schools). Really, I'm not sure how the internship and job search process could be more seamless.
  4. The three ideas behind a USC education are the Renaissance Ideal, Global Experiences, and Research & Discovery. The Renaissance Ideal means interdisciplinary study, something students can pursue through the Renaissance Scholars program. Global Experiences means gaining international perspectives, something students can pursue through the Global Scholars program. Research & Discovery means exploring new ideas, something students can pursue through the Discovery Scholars program. Why might you care about these three ideas? If these don't appeal to you, maybe don't apply to USC. If they do, then maybe, just maybe, consider addressing one of them in this USC supplemental essay: "Describe your academic interests and how you plan to pursue them at USC." When you connect your interests to USC's values, your essay makes a stronger case for why you're a good fit for USC. For whatever it's worth, this is the guidance I have given the 7 of my students who have enrolled at USC over the past 2 years.
  5. Don't lose yourself in the essay. At the info session about how USC reviews applications, Dean of Admission Tim Brunold and Director of Admission Kirk Brennan commented on the role of the application essay, a topic near and dear to my heart and to this blog. Their take? They know when the essay is over-edited. Students are afraid, and they seek too much advice from parents, teachers, and others. If the student isn't in the essay, then it's not a good essay. So not only is it unethical to write a student's essay, but it's also ineffective. The people in admissions offices are experienced. They have read thousands of essays. They know what a 17 year old's writing sounds like. That's why one of the ground rules I follow is no changing the student's words, even to say it "better."
  6. There is no formula to getting admitted. Yes, GPA and SAT matter, and they have to be good. But here's my paraphrased version of how Kirk and Tim described the process: Review the transcript. Looks good. Check the SAT or ACT score. Yep, it matches up with the transcript. Good. As Tim put it, "Don't make a career out of test prep. Take the SAT once and the ACT once. Whichever one you like better, take a second time." Kirk added, "Grades are more important." Why the seeming de-emphasis on standardized test scores? Tim observed that there would have to be a 200-point differential in SAT scores to create a difference in predictive validity. The take-away today is that those small differences don't have a material affect on the admissions outcome. And looking at the 2014 SAT Percentile Ranks, it makes sense, doesn't it? A 2050 on the SAT is 95th percentile, and a 2220 is 99th percentile. The message today is that difference doesn't matter as much to USC as it does to students and parents who want to get the 2100, the 2250, the 2300, or whatever next threshold they have fixated upon. And yes, USC is aware of the scoring patterns for students who take the test multiple times or come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Standardized test scores are not a magic key to the kingdom.
  7. The USC interview is optional. Really. If you do an interview, the notes will end up in your admission file. According to Kirk, "Three out of four times, the interview notes confirm what I already know." The rest of the time is a split decision. Some students present themselves better in the interview than they do in the Common App; some present themselves worse. So you know what? If you're a great interviewer, go schedule one. If you're a nervous wreck, skip it and don't worry about it.
  8. Inside the Common App, the colleges can view letters of recommendation by letter writer. Kirk mentioned one letter writer who submitted several recommendations to USC, each stating that the student was the "best" student he had. That's...impossible. Oops. Knowing that your teacher or counselor *could* negatively impact your application by using a form or template is hard to stomach. I know letters of recommendation are a huge source of stress for parents and students because, quite simply, the final result is beyond your control. But that doesn't mean there's nothing you can do. For some practical tips, take a look at our Parent Guide to Letters of Recommendation.

Well, I had hoped to write out 10 things I learned, but it's Friday evening, and I hit a wall. So 8 will have to do!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.