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How to Write Every USC Engineering Essay

As an applicant to University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, you’ll have to write two USC engineering essays. (Yes, this is in addition to the rest of the required USC supplements.) It’s a little extra work, but it’s a great chance to dive into your passion for engineering and show readers why it’s such an important part of your life and future.

Let’s look at the two USC engineering essay prompts.


Viterbi School of Engineering

VSE: Why Engineering or Computer Science?

250 words max


What do you personally expect to get out of studying engineering or computer science in college? (250 word limit)

This calls for a different kind of response from USC’s general “Why Major” prompt (which you’ll also have to write!). Whereas in your “Why Major” essay you’ll cite specific USC resources that will help you pursue your engineering or computer science interests, here you’ll want to look beyond college and discuss how your studies will enrich your wider life and influence your choices going forward.

Here are some examples of things you might “get out of” studying engineering or computer science:

  • specialized knowledge that you’re keen to learn
  • personal satisfaction from helping others and improving the world
  • a career doing something that fascinates you
  • experience collaborating with others
  • interaction with experts in the field
  • exposure to cutting-edge technologies
  • research opportunities

Of course, these are pretty general areas; you’ll want to get really specific about what you hope to gain. However, rather than naming USC courses and resources here, explore how these potential aspects of your educational experience will enhance your life overall, in college and beyond. 


VSE: NAE Grand Challenges

250 words max


While the world as a whole may be more technologically advanced than ever before, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) has outlined 14 Grand Challenges that engineers should focus on to improve life on the planet. Learn about the Grand Challenges at and tell us which challenge is most important, and why. (250 word limit)

The first step for writing this USC engineering essay is pretty obvious: go and check out the 14 challenges! Do a bit of research on all or at least a number of them. (If your eyes start to gloss over, maybe skip that particular challenge.)

Next, pick the challenge that’s best for you. They’re all pretty important, so don’t worry about figuring out which one is objectively the “most important.” Readers really want to learn which is most important to you. If one of them touches on a central interest of yours, go for that one! For example, if you’re obsessed with computers and cybersecurity, you might pick the “Secure Cyberspace” challenge; if you grew up struggling to obtain safe drinking water (or perhaps had a penpal in this situation), your challenge might be “Provide Access to Clean Water.”  

If a whole bunch of them sound interesting and urgent, answer the following questions for each potential challenge:

  • Why does it matter to you to tackle this issue?
  • How does it personally impact your life or your friends’/family’s lives? (It’s okay if it doesn’t, but you’ll want to research to identify who it does impact.)
  • What do you already know about this topic, and in what ways have you already focused on it?
  • How does this challenge relate to your intended studies and future career goals?

The right challenge for you is the one for which you can best answer these questions. In your essay, be sure to support your choice with reasons that are well-researched (ie. don’t make wild, unsubstantiated claims) and that showcase how you think about the world (hopefully not based on wild, unsubstantiated claims). You’re a scientist—so think like one!

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