So you're applying to USC -- home of the Trojans and birthplace of one of the most famous baseball diddies of all time:
True story! This fanfare was written by Tommy Walker while a junior at the University of Southern California in the fall of 1946.
And if Tommy Walker can express that much in six little notes... you can knock your USC supplemental essays and short answers out of the park!
First, let's look at the super-short answers.
USC wants to know, in 100 characters or less:
Describe yourself in three words:
Admissions officers put these questions on the application to quickly get to know you better. They thought it would be fun! But students spend a lot of time stressing about this section.
But, personally, I love this section. It's a chance for you to show, not tell. It's a chance for you to stand out in a place where most people merely word vomit.
So here's my advice to students who need help with this section:
1. Think of it like an exercise in creativity. You will never stand out by being the same. It's a very small box -- try to think outside of it. And before settling on one answer, try to quickly come up with five answers, and then pick your favorite one. (See examples below.)
2. There are no right or wrong answers. Be genuine. Be authentic. Be you! There is not literally a greatest movie ever.
3. Don't limit yourself to a direct answer. If there's room to explain your choice, take advantage of it!
So how would I answer these questions? Take a look at the examples below. But please don't be an idiot and copy them. If you copy do, THEY WILL KNOW.
Just use these as inspiration to help you get started.
1. Describe yourself in three words.
Want to know a little secret? You can put up to 25 characters in each box. Meaning you can be a rule-breaker here, if you so choose. With that in mind, here is my brainstorm:
Strong. Sincere. Silly. :P
The first thing most of my students ask me when I make an out-there suggestion is, "Can you do that?"
The answer is yes. If they let you put it on the form, you CAN do that.
Should you? That depends on you. If you're a silly, colloquial person -- sure, why not? It's a risk, I suppose. Your reader might not be wild about seeing an emoji in your college application. But they might see it and think, "Wow, that's different!" Or maybe that silly tongue-sticking-out face will make them feel warmer, closer to you.
Personally, I'm not a huge fan of it for myself. So I might cross this one off my list.
Strong. Sincere. Silly! #alliterationFTW
Same for this option. I am a silly person who makes strange comments and requests to strangers all the time. This is totally the kind of thing I would say in real life, so maybe it makes sense for me to say it on my college application.
But if you're not the kind of person who would ever use an emoji or a hashtag, your college application isn't the place to start. If making a joke about alliterations isn't true to your personality, don't do it here. Remember: admissions officers are masters at detecting authenticity.
Intelligent. Athletic. Competitive. #BringItOn
What I like about this is that it's a pretty good summary of who I am. The addition of "Seriously - bring it on!" shows the silly, fun and creative side of me without me having to explicitly say it.
But... should I call myself athletic? That's pretty boring. Anyone could say that. But what does it mean? Maybe instead of "athletic," I could go with:
Intelligent. Record-breaker. Competitive. #BringItOn
Intelligent. Nationally-ranked. Competitive.
Intelligent. Stuff-blocker. #ROOF Competitive. #BringItOn
Intelligent. High-scorer. Competitive.
Intelligent. Ironwoman. Competitive.
Or whatever. Any of those synonyms is more interesting (though, also more specific, and therefor exclusive of other sports I'm good at) than athletic.
Same for intelligent, though. Anyone can say they're smart. How are you smart?
Problem-solver. Record-breaker. Competitive. #BringItOn
Mathlete. Stuff-blocker. #ROOF Competitive. #BringItOn
Media-maven. Ironwoman. Competitive. #BringItOn
Lectiophile. High-scorer. Competitive. #BringItOn
Book-bosomed. Nationally-ranked. Competitive. #BringItOn
This list is starting to look a lot more interesting. And it's starting to say a lot more about me. If you want, you can continue thinking about a better way of saying "competitive"... or you can mix it up with the hashtag.
Or! Maybe you've decided that you really want to expand on the "book-bosomed" nature of your intelligence. Perhaps you want to show your love of reading, language and words. You could go with:
Bibliophagist. Logophile. Sesquipedalian.
The first word means "devourer of books." The second means "lover of words." The third means "characterized by long words; long-winded". I like this -- it shows, rather than tells, a love of language and reading. But it also expresses self-awareness.
I'm just worried that the reader might not know the definition of one or more of these words, and might not take the time to look them up. Hence, before submitting this answer, I would get a second or third opinion.
Creative. Curiosophile. Neologistic.
Another example of "showing, not telling" -- in 75 characters or less!
First of all, I'm pretty sure no one else is going to pick the last two words. For those who don't know, a neologism is a new (neo) word (log). A "curiosophile" is, presumably, someone who loves (phile) curiosity -- I've never heard it used, so I may very well have made it up.
You're definitely allowed to do that!
Which is why I think this answer is funny, and it reflects my love of both curiosity and word play.
Grit. Purpose. Passion.
This is a perfectly fine answer. Grit and purpose are pretty hot words in education right now, so it suggests I have something they want. But you're definitely telling, not showing.
Which, actually, could be fine. If THIS is the theme of your longer essays and you think it would strengthen your application to explicitly say that here, then do it.
Fun-loving. Creative. Indecisive. No -- wait...
It's fun -- I made a little joke at the end. Jokes are funny. Self-deprecation is often endearing. But indecisiveness isn't necessarily a good trait, so...
Second-person. Reflexive. Pronoun.
Although I like the idea of literally interpreting the question (again, something most other applicants probably would not do), I think doing so here may be a lost opportunity (unless you're applying for writing, literature or English programs).
The main point of including this suggestion is to demonstrate a way of thinking. How else could I answer or interpret this question?
1u2-3ov4ng. I2te334gent. Enigmatologist.
Okay, so this is pretty involved. But I wanted to give you another example of showing, not telling.
Say you're someone who loves puzzles -- in other words, an enigmatologist.
You can show this love of puzzles by making this section into your own substitution puzzle.
If they solve your puzzle, they'll realize that you are Fun-loving. Intelligent. Enigmatologist.
Chances are, you're not a puzzle-lover. So what are you? And how can you show that here?
What is your favorite snack?
For me, the answer is easy: burritos and Chinese food. BUT. In the name of good brainstorming, I would come up with at least five answers before picking one.
Burritos and Chinese food. What? You can't possibly expect me to pick between those!
Burritos and Chinese food. A meal and a snack. The cheaper, the better!
Burritos and Chinese food. I could eat only this for the rest of my life and always be happy.
Burritos and Chinese food. My best friends are the ones who accept that this is all I ever want to eat.
Burritos and Chinese food -- because OMG YUM!
So there are my five answers. Before picking one, I'd ask myself, "Are there any other foods I really like, that I could say something interesting about?"
Kombucha. Technically, it's a drink, not a food, but I'm pretty sure I drink my weight in it.
Kombucha. At first, I thought it tasted like the musty, standing water in my barn. But now, I'm hooked.
Not sure. But my favorite DRINK is kombucha. It's $4 per bottle at the store, so I brew my own.
I drink a gallon of kombucha per week! If I didn't brew my own, I definitely couldn't afford college!
Frosted Mini Wheats. But not the actual squares -- the sugary crumbles at the bottom of the bag.
Chocolate-covered almonds with sea salt. Psychology says feeling fancy helps you do homework!
You could even say something sentimental, personal or unique about yourself, like:
The catfish that I catch in the summer with my grandpa. Nothing says "family" like a good ol' North Woods sunburn.
The farm fresh eggs that I collect before school each morning.
The farm fresh eggs that I collect before school each morning. They're too good for ketchup!
Farm-raised chicken. Slaughtering animals isn't my favorite chore, but you can't deny how delicious it is.
Anything that comes out of my garden -- cherry tomatoes, purple beans, strawberries. You name it!
Anything I cook with my friend Lauren -- she's the Steve Jobs of the kitchen!
Notice that pretty much everything from the last two lists is better than everything in the first list. Burritos and Chinese food are great, but I can show/tell admissions officers more about myself.
I am all about authenticity. But... it's definitely okay to name one or two of your favorite apps/websites, rather than your number one absolute favorite. Think about what you like to do for fun. Think about your activities and interests. Now pick a website that allows you to emphasize something you do that is unique and interesting. For example:
Weebly. It's a drag-and-drop blogging platform, so I can focus on content, not debugging.
Weebly, the drag-and-drop platform that powers my blog. Because done is better than perfect.
Facebook. I'm a blogger! Social media is my best friend. If your readers can't follow you, they won't.
Strava. I love mountain biking for the pure joy of it, but it's still fun to set goals for yourself.
Dognition. I improved my relationship with my dog -- WHILE participating in citizen science.
Coursera. I take two languages in school, so I don't have time for many electives. This is how I compensate.
Coursera. Because my school doesn't have an elective in Tropical Ecology.
Best movie of all time:
Remember: be authentic. Don't be like, "Oh, this super dry and boring documentary was the best thing ever" -- unless you actually thought it was, and can explain why.
Either way, don't just tell me what. Tell me why.
Back to the Future II. By rewriting the script to include a trip back to 1955, the Bobs did something no one else could.
Back to the Future. I've seen it a million times, been it for Halloween, AND read 2 books about its creation.
Back to the Future II. Its version of 2015 is THE perfect example of MAYA: Most Advanced But Acceptable.
Back to the Future. Recasting Marty as Michael Fox after filming almost the whole movie was clutch.
Clueless, a feminist icon (Hollywood wasn't into movies about women) and timeless adaptation of Emma.
Clueless. This punchy adaptation of Emma is just as timely and relevant now as it was in 1995.
Pick a movie you love, and pick it for a reason.
Hashtag to describe yourself:
Okay, look. YOU'RE the young person. You're way better at social media than I am. (But, while we're on the topic, go ahead and follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.) I don't even know how to make that little "laughing at you so hard I'm crying" face, though I would very much like to.
The fact that they're asking you to use a hashtag here only confirms what I've already said: it's okay to be modern, outside-the-box, and uniquely you.
Some students run into trouble because they don't use social media much. So what, though? Just use your imagination.
I might go with something like:
#Playful #Smart #TooBigForOneHashtag
This can be real, or completely made up. If you know what you want to be when you grow up, say it here! There's nothing wrong with, "Software engineer at Video Game Company." If you don't know yet, give a few ideas. Show something about yourself.
Remember: no right or wrong answers.
Here's my brainstorm:
Self-Help Travel blogger. I'd teach the world to heal itself through travel.
NYT Bestselling Author, The Happy Talent: Improving Your Life Through Playfulness.
NYT Bestselling Author, Everything I Need to Know About Life, I Learned from Basketball.
Marine Biologist in the Cocos Islands, studying hammerheads and turtles.
Founder and Principal of The Traveling School, a 9-12 grade school that's always on the move.
Again, each says something about me, my interests, and my possible future goals. Yours should, too.
What is your theme song?
Don't worry about your choice being "sophisticated" or whatever enough for USC. As I wrote in 6 Lessons Entrepreneurs (and Writers! And EVERYONE!) Can Learn from Back to the Future (I told you I was obsessed!), two of USC's most successful alumni were guys who loved watching movies for the average Joe.
Here's my brainstorm:
Red Riding Hood's jingle from Into The Woods. Imagine hearing that every time you skipped onto the stage!
"I Know Things Now," from Into the Woods. It's all about real life, optimism, realism, and risk-taking.
"I Know Things Now," from Into the Woods. "Scary is exciting," but "nice is different than good."
I Know Things Now, from Into the Woods. "Isn't it nice to know a lot/And a little bit not!" = me losing sleep over climate change.
Suite: Judy Blues. It's influenced my songwriting AND my motto (“Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now.”)
Suite: Judy Blues. Fun and upbeat, with a message. It's influenced my own songwriting.
Spice Up Your Life, by the Spice Girls. It's all about positivity -- and you can dance to it!
Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again, because life doesn't always make sense!
Again -- this shouldn't be too hard. Where do you want to go? Real or imaginary. Why?
Remember: it doesn't have to be a city or a country. It can be anything you want.
Secret Knock. It's THE "can't miss" conference for entrepreneurs. It's exclusive, though, so I've got my work cut out!
A Taylor Swift concert in Fiji. That way, I can experience the best scuba diving in the world AND meet my songwriting inspiration.
Disneyland. As a budding engineer and designer, there is no better place to witness genius "user interface".
Machu Picchu. After taking History of Mathematics, I'm a little obsessed with how ancient people knew so much.
Check back soon for my advice for the last two short answers:
What TV show will you binge watch next?
Place you are most content?
And don't forget to check out my rates and services page and contact me if you want further help with your application!
Eva Glasrud completed her B.A. and M.A. at Stanford. She is now a college counselor and life coach for gifted youth.