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The Supplemental Questions help us get to know you

When you select an engineering or computer science major inside the USC Supplement, the Common App will automatically populate with the supplemental questions you need to answer to apply to the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. If any of this is unfamiliar to you, that’s okay! Just check out our video on how to apply to USC Viterbi as a First-Year applicant. This short video (6.5 min) will help you navigate the Common App so you’ll be confident when you apply. We also created one for Transfer applicants. Make sure to check out our How to Apply for Transfer Admission for USC Viterbi video.

Once you master the basics of the Common App, you’ll be ready for this blog post. The purpose of this post is to help you better understand USC Viterbi’s two supplemental questions (short-answer questions) on the Common App. The supplemental questions are nothing to fear; they’re not trick questions; they’re not designed to trip you up. Their whole purpose is to help us get to know you a little better.

How to Better Understand the USC Viterbi Supplemental Questions

As long as you select an engineering or computer science major (any major starting with the prefix ‘VSE’) as your first-choice major, the following two questions should appear near the end of the ‘Questions’ tab underneath the header ‘Writing Supplement.’ If you’re having any trouble, you may want to revisit the video linked at the beginning of this blog post. Feel free to reach out to us if you have questions.

Without further ado, here are the USC Viterbi supplemental questions and what they mean…

1. Your Unique Contributions to USC Viterbi

The student body at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering is a diverse group of unique engineers and computer scientists who work together to engineer a better world for all humanity. Describe how your contributions to the USC Viterbi student body may be distinct from others. Please feel free to touch on any part of your background, traits, skills, experiences, challenges, and/or personality in helping us better understand you.

Explanation: To sum up this question another way: “How will you make a unique contribution to the USC Viterbi student body?” Every year, we get around 14,000 applications for first-year admission and about 1,200 applications for transfer admission. It’s an incredibly difficult process to make admission decisions with such a large pool of talented applicants. To help us out a bit, we want to ask you to tell us, in your own words, what you think makes you a stand-out applicant. Notice that in the last sentence of this question, we really leave the door wide open for you to choose from a wide variety of different things to talk about. You can focus in on one topic or weave together an answer that discusses a combination of elements that make you different from every other applicant. As we read your application, we’ll notice aspects of it that are unique. But this question is your chance to give us your own perspective on what you believe your unique contribution to USC Viterbi will be.

2. The Engineering Grand Challenges

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and their 14 Grand Challenges go hand-in-hand with our vision to engineer a better world for all humanity. 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.

Explanation: The first thing you want to do is visit the link above and read about the NAE’s Grand Challenges. Then, reflect on which one you think is most important, and tell us why it’s the most important one to you. That’s it. The most common email we get about this question is if it’s okay to discuss a Grand Challenge that isn’t related to your major. The answer is yes. The question is asking you which Grand Challenge is most important to you and why–not which Grand Challenge is related to your major. The truth is that there is no Grand Challenge that is solvable by one engineering discipline alone. These are interdisciplinary problems that will require people coming together from a wide variety of backgrounds, so you don’t have to discuss the problem through the lens of your major (although you can do that if you want). The second-most common email we get about this question is if you need to tell us how you would solve the problem. Don’t worry, we’re not expecting any solutions here. These challenges are very complex, and solving them is beyond the scope of a 250-word response. Another common question we get is if there is a correct answer to the question. There is no ‘right’ answer that we’re looking for, and there is no one Grand Challenge that is objectively more important than another. All we want to know is which one you care about the most, and why. There are countless reasons why a Grand Challenge might be the most important one to you, and we’re hoping that your answer to this question reveals more about yourself and your perspective on a big engineering-related problem.


Hopefully, this blog post helped you better understand our supplemental questions. The common thread between the explanations above is that the purpose of every question is to get to know you a little better. While you’re writing your responses, you may want to ask yourself the following:

  • Am I writing in my authentic voice?
  • Is this an accurate representation of who I am and what I’m interested in?
  • Is my writing clear, concise, and concrete? Or is it vague, wordy, and abstract?

You are the only person who knows who you truly are, and what you are genuinely interested in. Overthinking what the admission committee wants to read will lead you astray from what we actually want to read: clear writing that helps us get to know the real you.

Michael Cox

Michael was born and raised in a small island town off the coast of Seattle. He went to USC, but he’s still a Pacfic Northwesterner at heart—he loves hiking, reading, and watching the Seattle sports teams disappoint him. At Viterbi, Michael counsels high school and transfer students in the application process.

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