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Let us help you NOT to overthink these!

When you select a Viterbi School engineering or computer science major inside the Academics Section of the USC Questions, 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 will help you navigate the Common App so you’ll be confident when you apply.

Once you master the basics of the Common App, you’ll be ready for this blog post.  The supplemental questions are nothing to fear. They’re not trick questions; they’re not designed to trip you up. Your responses to these questions will help us get to know you a little better.

Dissecting the USC Viterbi Supplemental Questions

Once you have selected the Fall 2023 term, your choice of Early Action or Regular Decision in the General Section, and an engineering or computer science major (any major starting with the prefix ‘VSE’) as your first-choice major in the academics section….  the following two questions should appear near the end of the ‘Questions’ tab underneath the header ‘Writing Questions.’ 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?”

Our main goal in reading your entire application is to find out who you are.  We aren’t “looking for” anything in particular, but we want to know your story.  As we read your application, we’ll notice aspects of it that are unique. This question is your chance to give us your own perspective on what you believe your unique contribution to USC Viterbi will be.

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.

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. Of course it is! 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.

Paul Ledesma

As Executive Director, Paul oversees Undergraduate Admission for all programs at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. He was born and raised in southern California and is a lifetime Dodgers fan. He enjoys traveling (Italy may be a second home), discovering new restaurants in LA (tacos anyone?), and while he may not qualify as a bonafide movie-buff, he loves movies (especially comic book movies). He studied Psychology for his bachelor's degree, minored in Public Management, and was active in leadership for community service groups Troy Camp and Dance Marathon while attending USC. When he's not working he enjoys spending time with his wife, daughter, and rescued pup and kitty in Redondo Beach, CA. (well, maybe not the cat so much) Preferred Pronouns: he/him/his