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How to Write Every USC Engineering Essay for 2020-21

Bex Ehrmann
Bex Ehrmann

    As an applicant to the 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.

     Applying to the World Bachelor's in Business (USC WBB) program? See our guide to writing the USC WBB essays here.

    VSE: Traits

    Engineering and Computer Science students are sometimes assumed to have personalities with shared traits or characteristics. What is a trait or characteristic you believe you share with other engineering and computer science students and another where you differ? Please tell us about these two traits and why you chose them. (250-word limit)

    You probably have a mental image of a stereotypical engineer or computer scientist! But rather than focusing on this stereotype, it’s best to start by identifying the personality traits that make you well-suited to engineering and computer science.

    After you’ve listed out these traits, you can choose one that you feel many engineering and computer science students share, such as being curious, collaborative, or analytical. How do you currently demonstrate this trait? Why is it a valuable trait for engineers and computer scientists to possess?

    Then, you can choose a trait that may surprise the average reader, such as being charming or sentimental or literary! First, you’ll describe how you currently demonstrate this trait. Then, you’ll look to the future. How will this trait make you a better scientist, collaborator, and member of the VSE community?

    VSE: NAE Grand Challenges

    At USC Viterbi, we endeavor to engineer a better world for all humanity. This vision goes hand-in-hand with the objectives of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and their 14 Grand Challenges. Engineers and Computer Scientists are challenged to solve these problems in order to improve life on the planet. Learn more about the NAE Grand Challenges at and tell us which challenge is most important to you, 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.)

    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 (i.e. don’t make wild, unsubstantiated claims) and that showcase how you think about the world. You’re a scientist—so think like one!

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