University of Southern California (USC)
University of Southern California (USC) is a private university in the heart of Los Angeles, California. USC is famous for its football program and tremendous school spirit, tight-knit alumni network, world class educational and lab facilities, and top-ranked Cinematic Arts college. Keck School of Medicine is well known for its high quality research and healthcare partnership with the County of Los Angeles. The university has other close ties with Los Angeles, and local corporations, institutions, and personalities, including influential leaders and studios in Hollywood.
USC offers a broad range of interesting, unique majors to undergraduates, including internship and other work opportunities in the industries they intend to join after graduation. Arts are woven through many of the university’s academic programs, including in STEM fields and social sciences. Its high quality programs and close connections to industry draw students from all over the world, especially from China. After years of fundraising and facilities renovation, USC now boasts some of the most impressive instruction, research, and art facilities of any university in the world.
The administration at USC has become embroiled in several widely-reported scandals in recent years, involving extreme misconduct by a former athletic director and coaches, admissions officers, multiple deans of Keck School of Medicine, and a gynecologist at the Student Health Center. These scandals, among others, have tarnished its reputation as a newly revitalized and competitive university, potentially giving the impression that university leaders have been more interested in climbing the rankings than ensuring ethical practices and student safety.
USC is located adjacent to Exposition Park and the LA Metro E Line (light rail) in Central Los Angeles. The area is known for crime, violence, and poverty, although the neighborhood has made substantial improvements in recent years, in part due to USC’s ongoing commitment to investing in the local community.
- Students who thrive
- Students who may have challenges
- Successful applicants
- How the application process handles majors
- Academic support
- Support for disabilities & learning differences
- Housing & transportation
- Social life, recreation & campus spirit
- Graduation requirements
Students who thrive
One of the biggest attractions at USC is its high-performing Division I sports programs and unrivaled school spirit. The community of USC students and alumni is bound by a shared love of the school and appreciation for its value as an institution. Football game days at USC are always a big event, especially against its historic rival UCLA. The rivalry is such an important aspect of USC and UCLA athletics that the two universities collaborated in a 2024 move from the Pac-12 to the Big 10. This controversial move is likely to impact the fan experience, given that many games will be played away from the West Coast.
Because USC is such a large university, students who are highly self-motivated academically and socially do the best here. Research-oriented and artistic students flourish with access to some of the most exceptional educational facilities in the world. All students, whether they are concentrating in an artistic field or not, will receive a robust liberal arts education woven through with the arts, as a result of the university’s strong focus on training students to understand and appreciate the arts. USC’s arts programs, especially the Cinema Arts and Performing Arts programs, are among the most highly respected in the country and offer students a focused education with opportunities to connect with and do internships at industry leading institutions in the LA area.
Similar to University of California campuses but unlike many other private schools, USC prioritizes transfer admissions for graduates of California Community Colleges, and has articulation agreements with many throughout the region. Transfer students also have access to merit scholarship opportunities that they might not find elsewhere. As a result, transferring to USC is a great option for many students.
Los Angeles is a hot city, and USC is located at its heart. Students who do well here are tolerant of the hot climate and sunny days, and are excited to take advantage of the university’s central location in the LA metropolis. Santa Monica and Venice beaches are accessible by rail: the LA Metro’s E Line has a stop right next to campus and terminates just three blocks from the ocean on the city’s Westside. Across the street from USC is Exposition Park, home to the LA County Museum of Natural History, California Science Center, California African American Museum, Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, and the historical Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Downtown LA (aka DTLA) is a short Metro ride away.
Students who may have challenges
Students who aren’t interested in a sports-driven campus culture of intense school spirit may have a harder time adjusting to Trojan life. It is hard to get away from USC school spirit in LA, even off-campus. The strong sports culture at the heart of USC identity may also not be appealing to students whose interests lie elsewhere.
The large size of USC will be difficult to navigate for students who are more comfortable with a small teaching environment where they know most of their classmates and teachers personally. It is possible to form close relationships with faculty at USC, but it requires more effort and motivation from students than at a smaller university. Students who require more assistance and support to navigate academic programs and stay on top of deadlines, coursework, and administrative tasks may also find USC to be challenging.
Students who want to live in a quieter community, or outside of an urban core, will likewise feel out of place at USC. The campus is nestled between two freeways and sits only blocks away from Downtown Los Angeles. Urban development stretches for dozens of miles in every direction. Traffic, noise, air and light pollution, and high population density are some of the defining characteristics of University and Exposition Parks, where USC’s undergraduate campus is located.
Some students and families will also be understandably concerned about the many scandals that have rocked the campus in recent years. Multiple deans have been removed for unethical behavior, a president was forced to resign, and the student health office has been found to have failed to protect student-patients from assault at the hands of a gynecologist, for over two decades. We believe that, although these problems have now been brought to light and are now either addressed or in the process of being resolved, there has been a problematic institutional culture at USC’s highest levels of governance. Only time will tell, but we hope that USC will adopt a new governing model that incorporates institutionalized accountability for its decision-makers so that USC can fully and unconditionally achieve its great potential as a top-tier faculty- and student-centered research and teaching institution.
As USC’s academic programs have improved, its selectivity has increased and the admissions process for first-years is now fairly challenging.
Successful applicants are typically among the strongest academically in their high school graduating classes. They usually take the most rigorous courses offered, and they excel in those courses. They support their academic interests in many ways, such as through internships, self-study, enrichment programs, and college courses. They also tend to be “joiners” and leaders in their schools, getting involved in multiple activities, and their teachers and counselors speak highly of them and their behavior in and out of the classroom.
USC does not use waitlists, and does not evaluate applicants’ level of interest. USC is a test-optional university (for more information, see this article by Capstone’s Shelley Enger), so students may submit SAT or ACT scores if they choose but are not required to. However, individual colleges within the university may require test scores to be submitted, so it is very important for applicants to check what their intended college requires before deciding whether or not to take a standardized test. For students who choose to submit scores, the middle 50% of admitted students scored between 1330 and 1520 on the SAT composite and between 30 and 34 on the ACT composite. Three-quarters of admitted students had unweighted high school GPAs between 3.75 and 4.00, while 80% ranked in the top 10% of their graduating classes.
USC allows admitted students to postpone enrollment for one year in order to take a gap year.
USC gives extra consideration to certain groups of students. These groups include recruited athletes; children, grandchildren and siblings of alumni, faculty, and major donors; first generation college students; and students from historically underrepresented communities.
USC has a long history of weighting the admissions scales in favor of students whose families make large donations to the university or its programs. Since rising significantly in stature and making tremendous academic improvements in recent decades, the practice has become less visible. However, it has unfortunately persisted, as evidence by the recent college admissions scandal involving prosecution of several senior administrators on racketeering charges for fraudulently recruiting non-athletes to varsity athletic teams in exchange for large donations from their parents. New university leadership has pledged to end the practice and ensure that students are only admitted on their merits, an important cultural shift that we hope to see happen.
The Trojan Transfer Program exists to provide an alternate route to admission for students who are not strong enough academically to be offered admission as a first-year, but who are expected to perform well enough to be eligible to transfer to USC after a minimum of one year at a different institution. This program is only available to students who “have ties to the Trojan Family”, which means, in practice, children, grandchildren and siblings of USC alumni. Children of USC faculty and staff are also granted special consideration for admission and may have access to the Trojan Transfer Program. Please note, however, that the Trojan Transfer Program is only available to students who first applied as high school seniors and were denied admission by USC.
USC admits more than 2,000 transfer students each year, which is less than the number admitted by University of California campuses but 10- to 100-fold greater than many other equally selective universities. The university has articulation agreements with a large number of community colleges in California and Arizona, which ensure that transfer students from those colleges receive full credit for their courses upon admission to USC and promote on-time graduation. As well as offering tuition discounts to merit-qualifying transfers, USC funds extensive outreach programs to community colleges to recruit students, and ensures through class size management that it can admit a large number of transfers each year.
How the application process handles majors
Applicants to USC are asked to specify a major in their application, which determines the college into which the student is admitted, but applying undeclared is also permitted.
The USC application process varies from college to college and major to major. As a result, it is very important for students to look up the specific requirements for the major and college they are interested in early in the application process, and structure their efforts around those requirements. For example, as noted above, standardized test scores are not required for general admission, but are required for some colleges.
Creative colleges, such as Cinematic Arts, Dance, Music, Architecture, and others, require auditions or portfolios as part of the admissions process. These must be submitted digitally through a specific portal given on the colleges’ individual admissions information pages.
Applicants to the Marshall School of Business are required to submit a résumé and standardized test scores, even though the central USC admissions program is test-optional.
USC is a large research university, which enables it to offer a broad range of majors, minors, and degree programs for students to take and specialize in. But the university also makes the liberal arts, with a particular focus on the arts and humanities, central to undergraduates’ general education program across departments and concentrations. The Arts and Humanities Initiative, for example, engages students in interdisciplinary events that “challenge students and expand their perspectives.”
The School of Cinematic Arts is the top-ranked department for film and television programs, and benefits greatly from its central LA main campus location and close proximity to Hollywood. As noted below, students can get to Hollywood by rail directly, without ever needing to step in a car. Many influential film and television industry veterans graduated from one of USC’s cinematic arts programs, and have given generously over the years to maintain the school’s excellence. Its facilities are world-class, giving students access to professional studies and equipment to learn and train on in preparation for careers in the industry.
The core of Cinematic Arts is its Film & Television Production Department, offering BAs and BFAs in a range of related majors. The Game Design major is particularly strong; students interested in a career in the gaming industry should put USC at the top of their college list. Animation + Digital Arts is another strong program that gives students the opportunity to collaborate closely with the Colleges of Dance and Music. Cinema-oriented students who are more interested in the academic study of cinema can take the Cinema & Media Studies major, while those interested in the business of Hollywood have access to the Business of Cinematic Arts program.
USC is respected for its Marine & Environmental Biology Department (MEB) with world-class facilities and a research vessel at the Wrigley Marine Science Center (WMSC) on Santa Catalina Island, just off the coast of Los Angeles and Orange Counties. WMSC provides the opportunity for more than 1,000 undergraduates each year to participate in marine science research, a truly hands-on experience.
Marshall School of Business is also highly regarded and offers undergraduates the opportunity to take business classes as early as their first year at the university, in Business Administration, Accounting, and a unique World Bachelor in Business program. In the World Bachelor program, students study at three top business schools around the world, including Marshall, and receive a bachelor’s degree from each institution.
Keck School of Medicine at USC is a large, well-funded, and well-respected medical school that provides critical public health and hospital services in LA County and a four-year MD program for aspiring doctors, as well as an undergraduate program for pre-med students. Keck offers a BS in Global Health and another in Health Promotion & Disease Prevention, as well as several minors. Although the school has experienced some turmoil in recent years as multiple deans have been removed or resigned for unethical behavior, new university leadership appears to be invested in stopping that cycle.
USC is a good school for pre-med students. Its programs are challenging enough to push students to develop an excellent foundation for success on the MCAT and in medical school, but it does not create academic barriers that are exceptionally difficult for motivated students to overcome. Like many large universities, its lower division pre-med courses are rigorous and can result in “weeding out” students who don’t have the academic strength or focus to succeed in the upper division coursework, but many students choose to switch away from pre-med at that point in the program.
Students have several unique opportunities to study abroad through the USC Global Engagement programs, including the World Bachelor in Business mentioned above. Students interested in traditional study abroad programs have access to over 100 different opportunities at universities on every continent except Antarctica.
This section only covers a fraction of what USC has to offer. Capstone recommends that you do lots of research on your own to learn more about the programs and opportunities USC has to offer if you are interested in attending, and be sure to visit the campus in person if you can!
USC offers more academic support options for undergraduates than many other comparable universities. Three dedicated learning centers, for Language, Math, and Writing, offer specialized support in their areas of focus. The American Language Institution (ALI) offers language acquisition and fluency support for non-native English speakers, of whom USC enrolls many each year.
Students who are exploring their major options or otherwise undeclared, can find advising with the Academic Exploration Advising team. The program reduces academic uncertainty and helps students find suitable, fulfilling majors when they need extra support in making a choice.
Students in the biological sciences, math, physics, and chemistry can sign up for Supplemental Instruction (SI) through the campus’s Peer Tutoring network, while Marshall and Viterbi students have access to tailored resources through their own colleges.
USC also offers an online program called Advisor Connect, which allows students to make quick inquiries of academic advisors online without having to schedule in person appointments.
Support for learning differences
USC has high-quality support for students with learning differences and offers some important and hard-to-find services to students with learning differences for free, but has not appeared to fulfill all of the high standards it has set for itself.
For students who already have a diagnosis, the first step in receiving support is to request accommodations through the Office of Student Accessibility Services (OSAS). For those who don’t have a diagnosis, the Kortschak Center of Learning and Creativity (KCLC) offers psychoeducational assessment to help identify areas of need for students who think they may need additional educational support. Once the assessment is complete, students can take it to OSAS to receive accommodations. The list of accommodations includes priority registration, reduced course load, curriculum substitutions, and, with the agreement of faculty, attendance and deadline modifications.
At the KCLC, students can find high-quality, one-on-one academic coaching, tutoring, and learning strategy sessions. Academic coaching helps students to establish and maintain routines, schedules and priorities, understand procrastination and stay on track, develop task management and study strategies, and prepare for exams with test-taking strategies. Students work with a small dedicated KCLC staff, as well as an annually-rotating roster of psychologists and therapists-in-training from Keck School of Medicine, including MFTs and OTs, Master’s students, doctoral residents, and postdoctoral fellows. Some services, including particularly clinician referrals, are available on a reduced-fee basis, though the core program offerings appear to be free of charge at the point of service.
USC's extra coaching, tutoring, and learning strategy services for students with learning differences are hard to find at other universities, so it is especially meaningful that they are offered for free here. Most universities do not offer these services; the ones that do often charge extra fees to make use of them.
The KCLC was founded in 2010 with a generous grant from the Kortschak family with the goal of providing exceptional services for the USC students who have learning differences of some kind. Unfortunately, it appears that, beyond academic coaching, the wide range of psychoeducational support options that were announced upon its founding do not appear to be available at the present time. For inquiries about specific services, support offerings, and programs, you can reach out to the Kortschak Center at email@example.com or +1 213 740 7884.
Navigating the application and admissions process for students with disabilities or learning differences can be especially challenging. If you need guidance and support, Carolyn Weirick and the other admissions consultants at Capstone offer personalized, expert admissions services for students with a wide range of differences, disabilities, needs, and challenges. Contact us today for a free consultation.
USC is an expensive university, putting it out of reach financially for many middle-income families. Admitted students from families making less than $80,000 per year receive a full tuition waiver, while students from wealthy families, of whom there are many at USC, may be able to afford the full cost of tuition and fees. But for families in the middle, USC is less generous with financial aid than many other universities. It is harder to access scholarships than at some other private schools. Awards may vary widely in amount, and are usually quite small—between $1,500 and $5,000 per year. Many students with financial need will be expected to apply to several different scholarships each year in order to meet their needs. Only around 20% of all students receive merit aid each year, making that process stressful for those who undertake it.
The campus is, however, quite generous for students from low-income families. USC accepts, meets the need for, and retains a larger proportion of low-income students than most other private schools, both through its tuition waiver program and its generous 25% tuition discount for transfer students who qualify on merit.
Housing & transportation
USC offers a wide variety of housing options for students, including traditional dorms, housing for married or disabled students, international housing, Greek houses, co-ops, themed housing, wellness housing, and more. First year students live in Residential Colleges modeled after Ivy League and British universities, where faculty live in residence and programming is offered to build community in the student body and expose students to new opportunities in the community.
Sophomore students who want to remain in university-provided housing are guaranteed a place as long as they meet certain deadlines for applying. Other continuing and transfer students may apply for on-campus housing through a lottery, which does not guarantee a housing placement. A waitlist is offered for students who aren’t placed in housing through the lottery. Most upper-division students live off-campus.
Off-campus options include houses and apartments in the local community, student-run co-ops, and Greek houses for pledged members. Unfortunately, housing off-campus can be hit-or-miss, both due to LA’s general housing shortage, and because of the often low quality of housing stock in the communities around USC.
LA Metro has three E Line light rail stops right next to USC’s campus on Exposition Blvd and Flower Street (Jefferson/USC, Expo Park/USC, Expo/Vernmont). The E Line terminates in downtown LA to the east and Santa Monica to the west, giving students an easy route both to the beach and to downtown cultural opportunities like the Music Center and Little Tokyo. At the E Line’s downtown terminus, travelers can connect to several other Metro lines, enabling travel to Hollywood, Pasadena, Long Beach, and more by rail. Soon, the K Line will open along Crenshaw Blvd and enable a rail journey from USC to LAX airport, SoFi stadium in Inglewood, and the South Bay communities of Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach. Students can also take LA Metro buses to local destinations or areas not served by Metro Rail.
Although LA is a car-centric city, USC is conveniently positioned at the heart of its growing rapid transit network, enabling students to attend the university without ever owning a car. A car may still be required for trips farther afield, but for nearly all journeys students will need to take while enrolled, the transit network will meet their needs.
USC is a quintessential school spirit university. Students here love their university and celebrate its colors, sports teams, and competitive academic programs. Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is the home field for USC football and is located immediately adjacent to campus. Every home football game is awash in tradition, with tailgate parties surrounding the Coliseum and students making the easy walk across campus to the Coliseum to cheer on their team. Although at many schools high levels of spirit go hand-in-hand with Greek life, at USC it forms a relatively minor part of campus culture except for students who actively choose to participate in it. Only about 10% of all students are pledged to a fraternity or sorority, but because of the large campus size, this comes to around 2,000 students.
The campus is home to over 1,000 student clubs and organizations, including over 100 cultural organizations and communities. Religious or spiritual students can choose from among 80 different student groups, and are supported by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and the Interfaith Council.
USC offers Army, Navy, and Air Force ROTC programs on campus.
With easy access to LA Metro’s rail network (see Housing & Transportation above), USC students can travel to Santa Monica and Venice beaches, Hollywood, Pasadena, Downtown LA, and Long Beach, and more. At the Music Center downtown, students can see plays, music performances, and operas, and visit Grand Park stretching down the hill to City Hall. Little Tokyo will be accessible on the soon-to-open A and E Line connection to East LA and the San Gabriel Valley. For trips to Ventura, Orange County, or San Diego, travelers get to Union Station for their Metrolink and Amtrak connections without ever getting in a car.
USC is home to several nationally-recognized NCAA Division I athletic programs, most notably in football. The university competes in twenty-one varsity sports at the highest levels of performance and skill. Although these programs are mostly only accessible to elite student athletes, the culture of sport and spirit permeate the whole campus and every aspect of student life. Students who want to attend a school where they can cheer their teams on to national victories and celebrate athletic events and sports seasons with thousands of other students and alumni will feel right at home here.
For students who want to play more recreationally, USC offers over 50 active club sports and a broad range of intramural sports coordinated by student players. Over 80% of undergrads at USC participate in sports to some degree, either as varsity student athletes or on a club or intramural team. Among all American universities, USC boasts the most Olympic medal winners among its students and alumni.
Student health services are provided through the Keck School of Medicine, USC’s award-winning medical school, and funded by mandatory fees. They include general medical care, counseling & mental health, relationship & sexual violence prevention and services, and a student health insurance plan. The student health insurance plan is available to and required for students unless they waive out of the requirement by showing proof of comparable private insurance. USC Student Health offers both in-person and remote visits via TeleHealth, and provides an online-based central system for student healthcare management through My Student Health Record (MySHR). The university has two health center locations: one on the main campus in University Park, and one at the Health Sciences campus.
In a situation that is unfortunately not unique to USC, in 2021, USC paid $1.1 billion to former students in a settlement of claims against the university for the sexual misconduct of the sole full-time gynecologist employed in the Student Health Center, alleged to have assaulted numerous student-patients over a period of decades. A criminal case against the gynecologist is currently making its way through Los Angeles Superior Court. Former USC President C.L. Max Nikias was forced to resign his leadership, in part due to the fallout from this scandal, and subsequent university leadership has promised a cultural shift and to make the safety of students and patients a top priority.
USC requires all its students to complete a General Education requirement, a Gateway Course, a first-year General Education Seminar, and all major and minor requirements. Students must have a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.0 in order to graduate.
The General Education requirement covers Core Literacies—eight foundational courses across the liberal arts—and two courses in Global Perspectives. Some requirements may be fulfilled by major coursework or other requirements.
The Gateway Course is a mandatory lower-division introductory course to a student’s chosen field of study. It is designed to help prepare students for the type of work they will be expected to complete in their major and help them to assess whether the major is a good fit for them.
Specific requirements may vary by college with the university, and high school applicants can learn a lot about a university and be clear about what it will take to graduate from that university by reviewing its graduation requirements, overall and by college and major.
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Los Angeles, California
Motto: Palmam qui meruit ferat
(Let whoever earns the palm bear it)
Mascot: Traveler; Tommy Trojan
NCAA Division I FBS
Private research university
29,000 graduate students
3,400 full-time faculty
9:1 student-faculty ratio
26 average class size
299 acre campus
Mediterranean climate with hot summers, warm winters, and a high proportion of sunny days
High school GPA
Test scores (SAT/ACT)
Letters of recommendation
Talent or ability
Character or personal qualities
Race or ethnicity
Does not evaluate
Early Action & Scholarships:
Annenberg School of Journalism
Davis School of Gerontology
Leventhal School of Accounting
Keck School of Medicine
Marshall School of Business
Ostrow School of Dentistry (grad only)
Price School of Public Policy
School of Law
School of Pharmacy
Viterbi School of Engineering
Regular Decision & Scholarships:
All programs requiring portfolios
Iovine & Young Academy
Kaufman School of Dance
Roski School of Art & Design
School of Architecture
School of Cinematic Arts
School of Dramatic Arts
Thornton School of Music
All programs, except those requiring portfolios;
Applicants will not be considered for merit scholarships
Some programs requiring a portfolio:
Iovine & Young Academy
Kaufman School of Dance
School of Cinematic Arts (BFA only)
School of Dramatic Arts (BFA only)
Thornton School of Music
All other majors/programs
$86,000 / year
$60,500 / year
Housing & Meal Plan
$17,500 / year
$1,300 / year
Personal & travel expenses
~ $3,500 / year
Student Health Insurance Plan
Additional $2,300 / year if not waived
Percent of financial need met (average)
$17,900 / year
Amount of merit aid awarded to students without financial need (average)
Percent of undergraduates without financial need receiving merit aid
Notable Majors & Programs
Business Programs at Marshall School of Business
Game Design (ranked #1 in North America)
Animation + Digital Arts
Film & Television Production, BA / BFA
Cinema & Media Studies
Writing for Screen & Television
Business of Cinematic Arts Program
Equity & Inclusion
- Transfer housing guaranteed: No
- Separate transfer housing available: No
- Transfer merit scholarships: Yes
- High transfer acceptance rate
- Prioritizes CCC transfers
- Articulation agreements with many CCCs
Top photo: VKC Center by Sitao Xiang.
Bottom photo: Iovine & Young Hall, USC, 2019. Photo by Gus Ruelas.
Wikimedia images displayed under Creative Commons license; other images displayed under fair use.