A Message from the Dean to the High School Class of 2021

By Timothy Brunold, Dean of Admission

We know that in these unprecedented times, students and their families are looking to the future with hope and anticipation. We also know that current high school juniors—students in the graduating class of 2021—may be worrying about how the pandemic might impact their college search and ability to gain admission to one of their top-choice universities.
Although there are still many unknowns ahead, we want to reassure prospective students, their families and the college counseling community that USC remains committed to flexibility and understands that we are all in this together. We hope that everyone involved can look to the year ahead with optimism, positivity and a sense of hope. We stand ready to find a way forward together.

After much consideration, we have adopted a test-optional policy for next year’s applicants. This will allow prospective first-year students to apply to USC for the 2021-22 Academic Year without submitting SAT or ACT scores, although students may still submit them if they wish. International applicants whose native language is not English must still submit TOEFL, IELTS, Duolingo or PTE Academic scores.

Context and flexibility are longstanding hallmarks of USC’s holistic admission process. We are adept at considering students’ individual circumstances, the challenges they’ve faced and the specific context of their high school years. We are comfortable assessing different grading systems, curricula and modes of instruction and are confident in our ability to fairly consider students, with or without standardized test scores.

We advise next year’s high school seniors to focus on staying engaged in school and remaining healthy and well. There will be ample time in the months ahead for college research, exploration and discovery. Students cannot even begin the USC application process until August and our first application deadline isn’t until December 1st. For now, try not to stress too much about college. We’ll be here when you’re ready to engage with us.

Although it’s too soon to predict anything with certainty, we are hopeful that we will be welcoming campus visitors and visiting high schools again this fall. And of course, although you can’t currently visit our campus, we have developed a robust calendar of live virtual information sessions and tours (https://admission.usc.edu/meet-us/virtual-tour-programs/#/virtual-tours-and-programs).

Thank you for considering USC. We look forward to the day when we can meet with prospective students and college counselors in-person, both on our campus and in high schools across the world. Until then, here’s wishing you and your family good health, good spirits, and a speedy return to better times.

For answers to frequently asked questions, please see our website: https://admission.usc.edu/apply/test-optional-policy-faq/?fbclid=IwAR1Tskit1P8KrChVN3YcgtvCDtKPovk2ecFnaqbG61lhl-DzVUFPd712vLY

Rethinking the End Game

As high school students get closer and closer to applying to college, every move begins to feel like it’s connected to the admission process in some way.  While a freshman may join the chess club to get free pizza, a junior is more likely to ask, “Will this look good on my college resume?” While a sophomore might pick up a novel to read for pleasure this weekend, a senior is more likely to pick up a test prep book to brush up for that final go at the ACT.  Once the Common App goes live, this tunnel vision can tighten even further. So much time and energy are spent preparing, editing, and sending applications, and many students become fixated on a single outcome: where they will be accepted.


While the most obvious and logical goal of applying to college is being accepted to college, I would argue that it should not be your only goal. During the years I worked in a high school, I was amazed by the exponential emotional and social growth I saw in the senior class. Much of this development, I would argue, is supported (if not instigated) by the college process.  My colleague Samantha Schreiber, Associate Director of College Counseling & Academic Planning at Milken Community Schools, and I sat down to discuss the ways that seniors grow (whether or not they are aware of it)! In her role as a college counselor, she not only has a “front row seat” but is able to actively encourage and support students as they grow in their maturity and self-knowledge. Our hope is that, by acknowledging these opportunities for development, those who are involved in the college application process (be they student, parent, counselor, or anyone else) can come to appreciate a broader view of what success is and how applicants can gain more from this process than just a place to spend the next four years. Here’s some of what Samantha and I have observed:

Requesting information and recommendations is not only about strengthening your application, it also…

  • Helps you learn to effectively communicate with adults
  • Shows you how to navigate deadlines, websites, etc.
  • Affords you the opportunity to consider the source of that information and how that might bias or influence it
  • Teaches selfadvocacy


Forming your college list is not only about strategizing, it also…

  • Encourages you to be open minded (while also tuning out the “noise”)
  • Gives you practice researching opportunities and asking important questions
  • Guides you toward seeking advice from the people whose opinions matter (and who know what they’re talking about)
  • Moves you to define what you want for the next four years and beyond
  • Provides opportunities to talk with your parents or guardians about your goals and aspirations


Taking on extracurricular activities is not only about having a good resume, it also…

  • Introduces you to people you can learn from as well as teach
  • Can inspire new passions
  • Helps you develop new skills and abilities


Taking standardized tests is not only about chasing the perfect score, it also…

  • Allows you to understand your academic strengths within the national context
  • Provides the opportunity to focus on improving in particular, measurable ways
  • Teaches you a lot about time management


Writing your college essays is not only about standing out, it also…

  • Allows you to define what’s important to you
  • Teaches you to accept and utilize constructive feedback
  • Encourages you to reflect on your experiences, beliefs, and goals
  • Gives you practice writing about yourself and your accomplishments (which will come in handy when you apply for jobs and internships)


Submitting applications is not only about applying to college, it also…

  • Forces you to be organized and responsible
  • Reminds you that some things are just out of your hands and sometimes you have to let it go
  • Requires you learn to prioritize
  • Inspires you to take ownership of your experiences and actions


Applying for financial aid and scholarships is not only about funding your degree, it also…

  • Introduces you to the world of personal finance
  • Encourages you to ask questions about worth and return on investment
  • Provides opportunities to have mature conversations about spending and finances with your parents or guardians.


Receiving admission decisions is not only about where you might attend, it also…

  • Is an opportunity to weight the pros and cons and make a life-changing decision for yourself
  • Encourages you to handle success with humility and grace
  • Helps you focus on the wins rather than the losses
  • Teaches you to cope with disappointment and to comfort others who have been disappointed


We’ve got a long process ahead of us, but even when you’re elbow deep in supplemental essays, take a step back and look at the bigger picture.  The sages (and the Instagrammers) are right–nothing worth doing is ever easy–but if you open yourself to all of the opportunities you have to learn and grow, you will have a successful process that results in more than just admission to college.


GUEST BLOG: A High School Counselor’s Perspective

Hannah Wolff is a College Counselor at Langley High School in Northern Virginia.  She visited USC last fall for our annual High School Counselor Fly-In.  Here she shares her perspective on USC and some of the reasons her students choose to attend.  Also, she’s the best!





Why would students from northern Virginia venture all the way across the country to attend college, especially when there are so many fantastic options in their home state? Yes, some of my students have close ties to California; they may have resided there prior to heading east, having always dreamed of attending USC. For others, it is about venturing beyond their comfort zone – leaving the intensity and pressures of life in the DC metro area behind, and experiencing a more panoramic view of life. Frankly, for many, that may be just what they need. The aspiring film maker or the student athlete who can compete at the elite D1 level are also heading west if given the opportunity to do so.

An active and diverse student body, strong traditions, rigorous academics, major school spirit, and a private school education at a medium – large sized campus, all in sunny Southern California? I had to see it in technicolor for myself.

Now I must admit, I have been on many college counselor tours. I think that once you’ve attended a certain number of them, you start to develop some specific criteria that you hope is met during a visit. I explain to my high school families that my goal when visiting schools is to walk away with a better idea about what type of student would be the right fit. Who will thrive in this environment? The amenities available to students on a college campus are nothing less than impressive, and while I thought my own college was pretty wonderful, it is easy to get overwhelmed by all the extras that now encompass the college experience. I make it my job to help students cut through some of the white noise of higher education marketing; to help them find the schools that will allow them to tap into their best selves. So, without further ado, here are some highlights of my visit to USC, including some specific programs that my students have listed as top criteria when applying.

The Campus Tour.

I have high expectations for a tour guide. I assure you that I am not the one grilling the student with obscure questions, but I know this part of the visit can really make a huge impression. And Jonathan Horwitz will go down in history as one of my favorites of all time. Not only was enthusiasm infectious, his love of USC entirely apparent, and his stories genuine and well-timed, he was down to earth and completely approachable.

I could see his tour putting students and families immediately at ease. He didn’t run through the typical overachiever tour guide laundry list of all things he is involved in, but instead told us the story of attending his first ping pong club meeting, his own personal racquet in hand, only to realize that multiple members were literally world caliber level. Apparently having your very own ping pong paddle was not going to be enough to intimidate others during some lively matches. Did I mention that he is also a Presidential Merit Scholarship winner?

The Resident Honors Program.

I have a student in the Resident Honors Program this year at USC. What is unique about this program is that she was able to find her college fit a year before her high school peers. This early entrance program allowed her to enter college after her junior year of high school; the perfect opportunity for the student who has outgrown high school and possesses the academic and social maturity to tackle the opportunities of college. When I saw her on campus, I knew she had made the right decision. She loves it!

Studying Abroad Before Setting Foot on Campus.

Studying abroad during your first semester of freshman year. A few of my students decided to take this route to enter USC, and I was initially skeptical. Would they acclimate well upon their return, or would they have extreme cases of FOMO (fear of missing out)? Yet while on campus, I had the opportunity to speak with other students who had gone abroad during their first semester and the transition was quite seamless. When I recently caught up with one my students who just returned from her semester abroad, I realized that it was actually a nice transition from the grind of high school. She traveled all over Europe and did it with a new cohort of peers, and she doesn’t feel like she missed out on anything at USC.

A Major in World Business.

Imagine spending your first year at USC, your second year in Milan, your third year in Hong Kong, and then rounding out your fourth year on whichever of these campuses you chose, all while graduating with a degree in World Business from all three institutions? For the truly cosmopolitan student who wants a more global education, the Marshall School of Business is the first of its kind. This program was new to me, and I have several students that just might be a great fit.

The Iovine and Young Academy.

This truly niche program has enticed my students, and I will never forget the day a student walked into my office and said, “Check out this YouTube video, it is my acceptance letter from Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre.” When I walked past the Garage on the way to our next meeting spot, I couldn’t help but linger outside of the space, a circular building with collaborative spaces, access to the best technology, as well as the top educators and innovators in their respective fields. I didn’t see students when I ventured past, but various skateboards just inside the entrance confirmed that they were possibly in the classroom hatch or working in some other collaborative space. I was fortunate enough to have a student receive an interview this year, and when I asked him what he thought about the program and USC in general, he said, “Mrs. Wolff, I have never seen such life on a campus. As for the program, where else would I be able to combine the arts, technology, and business in such a collaborative experience? It is nothing short of an innovator’s heaven.”

I could go on and on about the faculty that I met, the new residential college experience, the USC village, and the free Uber rides available to students from 7pm – 2am, and I still would be missing more of what makes up the magic of USC. I felt safe during my visit, even when I ventured off campus on my own, but I must admit, I don’t really see much reason to head into LA when there is so much happening on campus. For my students on the east coast, USC is a wonderful change of scenery, and the Trojan Family will certainly help them accomplish everything they set out to achieve during their four years of college.