Information for new Indian Students at USC

Note: This information is first-hand from when I was at USC from 2001-2002, and second- or third-hand from various mailing lists after that. Things may be different for you! Do not take the following data as hard facts; try to verify them on your own. My major was CS general, so much of this is CS-oriented. Last updated 20040618.


American English can be unexpectedly different from Indian English.
BathShower or bath
GheeClarified butter
Demand DraftCashier's Check
Fixed depositCD (Certificate of Deposit)
Tap (drinking water)Water fountain



A month or two before you leave, contact some seniors at USC and request temporary accomodation. Usually someone from the AIS coordinates this.

As soon as you arrive, start looking for more permanent housing. It could take a couple of weeks or more.

Rental costs range from $250 to $800. Share a place with as many people as you can.

Housing is available, if you're lucky (and you don't need to win the lottery to be lucky). People ask whether everyone is able to get temporary accomodation ("temp acco"), and the answer is that yes, everyone is able to squeeze in somewhere usually.

A few words about temp acco: try to move into a more permanent place within a week or two. Do not overstay your welcome. If you stay for more than two weeks or so, it is polite to offer to pay your share of the rent. Chip in for the groceries. Do not assume that computers in the house can be used by everyone; always ask permission and finish your work quickly. Do not change anything.

People generally stay in apartments, which are like small flats or chawls, or rent a house.

Food: Most Indians cook their own food. Learn before leaving. Vegetarians, finding pure veg food outside is difficult. I think there is one grocery store with Indian food. It's cheaper to eat at home. Roommates should take turns. Set up a rotation schedule and post it in the kitchen. Basic cooking doesn't take that much time.

Housing information is posted around campus and on various mailing lists. Just walking around (in the daytime!) to the north and west of campus will net some possibilities.

Costs, tuition and fees

Tuition costs are on average upwards of $1000 per credit-hour. This average includes various small fees imposed by the university. At 27 units, that is approximately 27 to 30 thousand US dollars. Yes, this is expensive. And these are just tuition fees.

In addition, your rental and other related expenses (water, gas, electricity) would be between $250 and $800 per month. Depending on what you eat, other expenses could be $200-$500 per month.

Your bill will be due by a certain date each semester (the date varies). You can also sign up for the payment plan, which allows you to pay in 10 installments over the year. Details on the term website


If you are doing an MS in CS, it takes a minimum of 27 units to graduate. Most classes are worth 3 units. (A unit is the way to measure the size of the course. It is also called credit, credit-hour, credit unit.) Some classes are worth 4 units, and some are worth 1 or 2.

(A "class" here is a semester-long course, designated by a letter and number code, for example CS 555, EE 450. These used to be called subjects in India. I will use the term "class" and "course" interchangeably, though "course" sometimes means your entire degree program such as "a course in MS CS")

USC has 2 major semesters, Spring (Jan-May) and Fall (Aug-Dec). May through August consist of a summer semester which is very free-form. I took 2 classes in Summer 2002, one of which lasted only 5 weeks and the other lasted about 10-12 weeks.

So you could complete your MS in 9 courses of 3 units each, with 3 courses per semester. That gives you 3 classes in Fall, 3 in Spring, and 3 in the following fall. This varies. Some courses are either so tough or likely to take up so much time that you only do 2 per semester. You can catch up by doing a summer class. However, you should consider doing an internship in summer -- if you can get one.

As an example, here's how I did it:

Semester Classes Units
Fall 2001 CS577a, EE450, CS585 4+3+3 = 10
Spring 2002 CS565, CS555 4+3 = 7
Summer 2002 EE557, CS571, internship (CS590, "DR") 3+3+1 = 7
Fall 2002 CS551 3

You can see that it totals 27. If I had done a 4-unit course instead of a 3-unit one, the total would have been 28, which is fine -- except that that extra unit costs you.

It is quite possible that you will not be allowed to register for some classes in your first semester, as they might be full. Registration starts earlier for continuing students than for new students. Plan accordingly. This probably does not apply to classes with placement tests. If you don't get the classes you want, try to take some "easy" course which will count towards your required credits.

Depending on your major and track, you may be required to take certain classes. Note that some classes have another as a pre-requisite, which means you cannot take that class unless you have taken the pre-requisite class. For example, almost all software engineering classes have CS577a as a pre-requisite. If you plan to take many SE classes, or are an SE major, you are advised to take CS577a as soon as possible.

Talk to your department's grad advisor.

Placement tests

Some classes require that you take a small test, usually held before the semester starts or on the first day of class. This test shows that you have enough basic knowledge (or not) to understand what will be covered in that class. Some classes waive the placement test if you've taken the equivalent lower class *at USC* (which usually won't count for your MS/PhD). Having done it in your undergrad in India is usually not enough. If you're confident enough to take the class without being tested, you will have no trouble with the test, right? So take the test.

People ask if you should study for placement tests before coming to USC. I see no point, but sure, go ahead and study all you want. I was able to prep for the 555 placement the night before the test. Your mileage may vary, of course.

There is no fixed format, objective/subjective nature, to these tests. Well there may be, but who cares? This is basic stuff and the format doesn't matter. Your basic knowledge and problem solving skills will be tested. All you need is a pen. I don't recall if calculators are allowed, but you probably won't need them.

The results are ordered by score, and the top N people get into the class. If you're told that you passed but cannot be accomodated in that semester, you can go for that class in any following semester without taking the test -- or that was the case in 2001. You do need to keep some kind of record, like the email that said you passed, or the paper. If you did not pass, you can try again next time.

INS issues: Visa, I-20

How to get to USC

When to fly: 2-4 weeks before your term starts.

After you arrive at LAX, go through immigration, pick up your bags (carts are free at the international terminal, last I heard), go through customs. On your customs declaration form, honestly declare everything you have. Don't worry if you have more than $10000 worth of drafts and traveller's checks. You only need to declare it.

Come out of the terminal building and cross to the island in the middle. There are prominent signs for various shuttle companies. Pick any one, talk to a shuttle representative. Assuming you are going to USC or near USC, your destination is "downtown". More specifically, near Exposition. Nearby freeways include the 10 and 110. USC is bounded by Vermont, Jefferson, Exposition, and Figueroa (pronounced "fig-e-ro-aa", more or less). The downtown Radisson is another nearby landmark. Prime Time shuttle knows exactly where USC is.

From LAX, you might take 405 north and 10 east, or more likely 105 east and 110 north. You can actually see USC from the 110 freeway.

You can tell the shuttle driver the exact address. You can also find out where it is from

Shuttle cost will be approximately $14-$25. Tip the driver $1-$3, depending on how many bags you have and whether the driver helped you load/unload. Very few places will accept bills bigger than $20, and shuttle drivers almost certainly won't.

Stuff your suitcases

People ask what to bring. Bring whatever you need: Clothes, toothbrush, etc. Bring a few cooking utensils and a mess kit. Bring some of the common books. People say cooking utensils like a kadai, pressure cooker, are a must.

You can bring a pillow if you want. They are fairly cheap here. I am in the habit of not using a pillow at all, but your mileage (and back and neck) may vary.

Books. For CS: K&R (Kernighan and Ritchie's C book), Schwann series C programming, Stroustrup for C++, Kanitkar for C, Peterson and Davie for networking, Tanenbaum for networking and for OS (2 books), Stallings for networking, Stevens for Unix programming. Cormen and Rivest was in great demand when I worked the library.

Quote: "It's not a jungle there."

Things to do when you reach USC

Try to arrive on a weekend. Rest and adjust your sleep schedule.

Find out about passport verification from OIS, which is in STU 300. Passport verification occurs about twice a week. You can't do anything else until you've done this.

Check with Student Health Services. I don't know what they want. Ask them if you need to do anything.

Open a bank account, deposit your TCs and your drafts. A draft is called a business check here. It could take a while to clear but TCs are available immediately. You may need your USC ID or admission letter to do this.

Look for housing.

Look for a job.

Job scene

Two different types: on-campus jobs, and your full-time job search after your course is over.

Begin your on-campus job search as soon as you can. Jobs available include: food services (cafeterias), security (DPS), tech support and otehr computer skills (various departments, ISD), libraries (ISD). Walk around.

I forget the exact paperwork required, but the OIS in STU 300 (unless they moved) will help you with paperwork. If you are offered a job, eventually you will get something (a letter?) that you can take to the nearest Social Security Administration office in order to apply for a Social Security Number (SSN). I think the nearest office is on Hoover/Adams.

If you're anything less than a permanent resident, you cannot have "work-study".

Jobs pay a minimum of $6.50 per hour (or whatever is the minimum wage in California). The median seems to be $7, with some people getting up to $14. You can work a maximum of 20 hours/week during the spring and fall semesters, and 40/week in others.

I strongly advise against working illegally.


How much money you bring is up to you, but I recommend enough to cover your first semester expenses, roughly 10-12k. About $100 cash including change, $3000 traveller's checks, and the rest as a draft (which is called a business check here). Later your parents can send you a draft by mail.

Convenient banks include the on-campus USC credit union, and the Bank of America, which is has a branch outside gate 5.

Wire transfer costs anything between $10-$20

People have asked about the price of essential commodities. I don't recommend carrying 50 soap bars and 20 liters of cooking oil, so you'll have to live with the price. Good grocery stores: Smart and Final, Ralph's.

Practically everything you buy costs sales tax extra. The price you see on the shelf is pre-tax.

USC includes a health insurance fee in your bill. I did not bring any insurance with me. Talk to your doctor about vaccinations. I recommend getting a complete dental checkup a couple of months before leaving (that gives your dentist time to fix minor problems).

Last updated 20040618.