Some classic questions from previous years…
Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment, location, or occupation, and tell us their story.
—Inspired by Drew Donaldson, AB'16
Alice falls down the rabbit hole. Milo drives through the tollbooth. Dorothy is swept up in the tornado. Neo takes the red pill. Don’t tell us about another world you’ve imagined, heard about, or created. Rather, tell us about its portal. Sure, some people think of the University of Chicago as a portal to their future, but please choose another portal to write about.
—Inspired by Raphael Hallerman, Class of 2020
What's so odd about odd numbers?
–Inspired by Mario Rosasco, AB'09
Vestigiality refers to genetically determined structures or attributes that have apparently lost most or all of their ancestral function, but have been retained during the process of evolution. In humans, for instance, the appendix is thought to be a vestigial structure. Describe something vestigial (real or imagined) and provide an explanation for its existence.
—Inspired by Tiffany Kim, Class of 2020
In French, there is no difference between "conscience" and "consciousness." In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.
– Inspired by Emily Driscoll, Class of 2018
Little pigs, French hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together.
– Inspired by Zilin Cui, Class of 2018
The mantis shrimp can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images; they have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Human eyes have color receptors for three colors (red, green, and blue); the mantis shrimp has receptors for sixteen types of color, enabling them to see a spectrum far beyond the capacity of the human brain. Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp: mantisshrimp.uchicago.edu What might they be able to see that we cannot? What are we missing?
–Inspired by Tess Moran, AB'16
How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.
–Inspired by Florence Chan, AB'15
The ball is in your court—a penny for your thoughts, but say it, don’t spray it. So long as you don’t bite off more than you can chew, beat around the bush, or cut corners, writing this essay should be a piece of cake. Create your own idiom, and tell us its origin—you know, the whole nine yards. PS: A picture is worth a thousand words.
—Inspired by April Bell, Class of 2017, and Maya Shaked, Class of 2018 (It takes two to tango.)
"A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies." –Oscar Wilde. Othello and Iago. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. Autobots and Decepticons. History and art are full of heroes and their enemies. Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis (either real or imagined).
–Inspired by Martin Krzywy, AB'16.
Heisenberg claims that you cannot know both the position and momentum of an electron with total certainty. Choose two other concepts that cannot be known simultaneously and discuss the implications. (Do not consider yourself limited to the field of physics).
–Inspired by Doran Bennett, BS'07
Susan Sontag, AB'51, wrote that "[s]ilence remains, inescapably, a form of speech." Write about an issue or a situation when you remained silent, and explain how silence may speak in ways that you did or did not intend. The Aesthetics of Silence, 1967.
"…I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present." –The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern
1. Something that is offered, presented, or given as a gift.
Let's stick with this definition. Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.
—Inspired by Jennifer Qin, AB'16
So where is Waldo, really?
–Inspired by Robin Ye, AB'16
–Inspired by Benjamin Nuzzo, an admitted student from Eton College, UK
Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?
–Inspired by an alumna of the Class of 2006
How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.)
–Proposed by Kelly Kennedy, AB'10
Chicago author Nelson Algren said, "A writer does well if in his whole life he can tell the story of one street." Chicagoans, but not just Chicagoans, have always found something instructive, and pleasing, and profound in the stories of their block, of Main Street, of Highway 61, of a farm lane, of the Celestial Highway. Tell us the story of a street, path, road—real or imagined or metaphorical.
UChicago professor W. J. T. Mitchell entitled his 2005 book What Do Pictures Want? Describe a picture, and explore what it wants.
–Inspired by Anna Andel
"Don't play what's there, play what's not there."—Miles Davis (1926–91)
–Inspired by Jack Reeves
University of Chicago alumna and renowned author/critic Susan Sontag said, "The only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions." We all have heard serious questions, absurd questions, and seriously absurd questions, some of which cannot be answered without obliterating the very question. Destroy a question with your answer.
–Inspired by Aleksandra Ciric
"Mind that does not stick."
–Zen Master Shoitsu (1202–80)
Superstring theory has revolutionized speculation about the physical world by suggesting that strings play a pivotal role in the universe. Strings, however, always have explained or enriched our lives, from Theseus's escape route from the Labyrinth, to kittens playing with balls of yarn, to the single hair that held the sword above Damocles, to the Old Norse tradition that one's life is a thread woven into a tapestry of fate, to the beautiful sounds of the finely tuned string of a violin, to the children's game of cat's cradle, to the concept of stringing someone along. Use the power of string to explain the biggest or the smallest phenomenon.
–Inspired by Adam Sobolweski
Have you ever walked through the aisles of a warehouse store like Costco or Sam's Club and wondered who would buy a jar of mustard a foot and a half tall? We've bought it, but it didn't stop us from wondering about other things, like absurd eating contests, impulse buys, excess, unimagined uses for mustard, storage, preservatives, notions of bigness…and dozens of other ideas both silly and serious. Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard.
–Inspired by Katherine Gold
People often think of language as a connector, something that brings people together by helping them share experiences, feelings, ideas, etc. We, however, are interested in how language sets people apart. Start with the peculiarities of your own personal language—the voice you use when speaking most intimately to yourself, the vocabulary that spills out when you're startled, or special phrases and gestures that no one else seems to use or even understand—and tell us how your language makes you unique. You may want to think about subtle riffs or idiosyncrasies based on cadence, rhythm, rhyme, or (mis)pronunciation.
–Inspired by Kimberly Traube
The Requirements: 2 essays of up to 250 words; 2 short-answer lists.
Supplemental Essay Type(s):Why, Oddball, Short Answer
University of Southern California 2017-18 Application Essay Questions Explained
There’s no nice way to say this: the USC application is kind of all over the place. It kicks off by asking applicants to choose one of three prompts, two of which overlap with the Common App, and it just gets stranger from there. You’ll be asked about everything from your academic interests to your personal hashtag, so our best piece of advice is, buckle up. Oh, and also remember that you should use every essay as an opportunity to showcase something different about yourself. 😉
Please respond to one of (the three) the prompts below. (250 word limit)
1. 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.
To rephrase the question: What experiences have exposed your personal blindspots? When have you been forced to admit that you were wrong? This first option may be the most challenging of the three because it requires a great deal of self-awareness and introspection. A successful essay will showcase your humility, intelligence, and adaptability. Maybe you never used to think of your teachers as people with lives outside of school until the day your family put your dog down and your English teacher offered you some words of comfort. How did your perspective change? What did you learn about the universal nature of grief? Don’t limit yourself to stories about conflict and don’t worry about being right or wrong. The most interesting essays will focus on small, personal moments that have shaped the way you see the world.
And finally, a warning: this prompt is very similar to the third prompt on the 2017-18 Common App, which asks students to reflect on a time when they challenged a belief or idea. If you chose this prompt #3 for your Common App personal statement, you might want to steer clear of this particular USC prompt in order to avoid redundancy. If you picked a different Common App prompt, feel free to refer to our prompt #3 guide for more inspiration!
2. Describe something outside of your intended academic focus about which you are interested in learning.
If you already have a major in mind, chances are your application is bursting with supporting evidence. So you want to be an English major? We bet you’ve served on the board of your literary magazine, entered writing competitions, and aced your Literature AP. This is your shot to show USC that you’re well-rounded! Maybe you’ve always wanted to study physics, but were intimidated by the math. Perhaps the field of astronomy has piqued your imagination as much as your academic interest. Don’t be afraid to get a little out there! The prompt never says you have to choose another academic topic, so if you’d like to go for a quirkier answer, maybe you could focus on a new skill you’d like to gain: Woodworking? Orienteering? You should avoid being weird for weird’s sake, but we encourage you to think outside the box and be genuine about your interests and passions! Make sure to explain why you haven’t yet studied the topic you propose and describe the specific reasons for your interest. Maybe a recent debate you got into with a friend sparked an interest in philosophy. On the other hand, you might just be daydreaming about what your life would be like if you could speak Japanese, where you’d go, and who you’d meet. The point is, don’t just explain why the subject is worth studying in general. Render it specific to your life and personality.
3. What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you?
Here’s your free-for-all prompt! With a question this broad, you can write about pretty much anything as long as it tells a story about you and your life. (Sorry, that treatise on wide-legged pants will have to wait.) Our three primary pieces of advice are the same as always: (1) Pick a story rather than a fun fact. Give yourself the opportunity to really write in your own voice. (2) Use a topic that hasn’t shown up on your application before. (3) Make sure no one else could put their name on your essay.
Similar to the first USC prompt, this one also mirrors a Common App prompt, so we’d recommend nixing this option if you wrote your Common App personal statement on prompt #1. If not, hit up our Common App guide for more brainstorming tips!
Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests at USC. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections. (250 word limit)
Unlike the second prompt above, this one is all about your enduring academic interests and passions, but it’s not really about you. Rather, it’s not about you alone. This is USC’s take on the classic Why essay. In asking how you plan to pursue your interests, admissions is really trying to suss out your core reasons for choosing USC. While college will offer you a wealth of social and professional opportunities, its primary function is academic — and your primary role is as a student. So, what kind of student do you hope to be? Where do you hope your studies will take you? What resources and opportunities does USC offer that will meet your needs and guide you towards your goals?
To answer these questions, set aside an hour or two to pore over the USC website (there’s no hack, you’ve just got to put in the time). Beyond the basic departmental listings, look up information about news and research coming out of your department, the kinds of courses available, the opportunities that other undergrads have had studying in your area of choice. Even if you have a wide array of interests, consider explaining how two to three departments might complement each other or foster your interest in a larger idea or theme. Your ultimate goal is to show that your interest in USC (just like your intellectual curiosity) runs deep!
Describe yourself in three words (25 characters).
When the challenge is pith, the opportunity is humor. We rarely offer an across-the-board directive to be funny because humor writing is hard — and sometimes it just simply isn’t appropriate for the story you need to tell in a longer essay. But with lists and short answers, it’s wit that will make you stand out. Your answer doesn’t need to be laugh-out-loud funny, but it should avoid the generalities that so often populate these questions: loyal, kind, smart… you get the idea. We’re sure you are all of these things — and they are lovely qualities to showcase in the stories you tell elsewhere in your essay — but these sorts of terms can ring hollow if you aren’t able to back them up with evidence. A good place to start might be to examine your contradictions (you’re mostly easy-going, until you start playing Scrabble) and craft an essay that showcases some funny irony about your personality. Think about how different people in your life would describe you, and then think about order. Can you make it read like a very short story? Can you make it rhyme? Though this assignment is short, you may need to spend some time wordsmithing different combinations. When the prescribed format is a list, order matters just as much as content, so use every element of the assignment to your advantage!
The following prompts have a 100 character limit:
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?
Behold! USC’s attempt at being quirky! You’ve been limited to less than the length of a tweet for each answer, so you’d better make every word (and character) count! These prompts don’t have time for generalities or gentle introductions, so you’ll have to cut straight to the point. The more specific your words are, the more memorable your answers will be. Favorite snack? Don’t just say, “popcorn and Junior Mints.” How about, “A box of junior mints melting over hot popcorn as I watch a horror movie” (72 characters). If you can paint a funny picture or display a knack for wit, take this chance, but don’t force it. You also don’t exactly have to think of this as filling in the blanks, but more as filling in any blanks in your application. Anything that doesn’t feel like it merits a full essay can go here as a tweet, hot take, punchline, or elegantly-worded sentence.