Six thousand miles away from campus, USC was a dream school for Da Zhong Wang, a high school senior at the Western Academy of Beijing. And when he found USC’s Facebook meme group, “USC Memes for Spoiled Pre-Teens,” last May, he knew he wanted to apply.
Nationwide, with the popularization of memes, groups like these have come to represent an integral part of campus culture, and prospective students like Wang utilize them to gain insight into schools during the college application process.
This year, USC’s acceptance rate dropped three percentage points, elevating its status among other elite institutions, and creating the potential to improve its national ranking. Wang was among those rejected, but instead of grieving over the decision, he decided to post a meme in the form of an email to USC Admissions.
“Thank you for your interest in giving me a rejection letter,” Wang’s meme said. “I have reviewed your letter and I am impressed with your rejection reasons and other suggestions. However, I have received many rejection letters this year. Under careful consideration I decided not to accept your rejection letter.”
Wang was bummed. But he wasn’t going to let that rejection get to him.
“I just thought I might write something funny … it was nothing hostile towards the admission committee,” Wang said.
And the Admissions Office noticed the post after it garnered over 2,400 likes. Director of Admission Kirk Brennan left an ambiguous comment on Wang’s post: “It might just work.”
The group, now filled with over 30,000 members started when Megan Andersen, a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering, and Elise Vondra, a sophomore majoring in aerospace engineering, thought it might be a good idea to have a USC-specific meme group. The page was inspired by UC Berkeley’s, “UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens,” and has grown far more rapidly than its creators anticipated.
In fact, USC’s page was one of the first-ever college meme groups, among several other West Coast schools.
Within the past year, campus meme culture has catapulted into the mainstream. In June, a group of incoming Harvard freshmen were revoked admission to the university for creating a private Harvard memes group chat that featured insensitive memes mocking topics like sexual assault, pedophilia and the Holocaust, according to The Harvard Crimson. But at USC, Andersen regards the page’s popularity as a result of students’ willingness to partake in self-deprecating humor and satire as a form of stress relief, reassurance and solidarity.
“As we see with all college meme groups that have rose to prominence, it’s a great way to get out your frustrations and stress from your classes and just college life in general,” Andersen said. “I think that’s sort of where the meme page is great because it can bring together people from different areas in USC.”
Memes, a term originally coined in reference to cultural units that are imitated among the population, are transformed or duplicated to include different narratives as they are shared. An academic study on memes from the University of Arkansas found that memes represent participation in digital culture, similar to a form of social discourse.
At USC, the group poses an opportunity for students to spread social commentary about the school through sharp-tongued humor, from poking fun at different programs of study to complaining about USC’s Wi-Fi networks. While some memes are made for comedic effect, others are satirical criticisms of the University. In fact, some of the most popular memes have focused on tuition increases, gentrification of the local community and the Greek system.
“I think [the meme page] is the most relevant forum on campus … If anything goes on, I think that’s almost the news source that people check,” said John Lynch, a sophomore majoring in screenwriting. Lynch is an administrator of the group alongside Andersen and Vondra. “If anything happens, people are automatically making jokes about it or if there’s any issues people are going there.”
Last year, Lynch posted a meme pointing out Kappa Kappa Gamma Sorority’s lack of diversity. The post racked up 2.6K likes — and even some backlash. According to Andersen, stereotypes about USC glorify Trojan Greek life, and Lynch’s meme could have disrupted prospective students’ beliefs about fraternities and sororities at USC.
Andersen recalls her own college selection process and noted how touring campuses or browsing online forums like College Confidential did not allow her to get a comprehensive look at prospective schools. However, she hopes the meme page can be a helpful and honest resource for interested students.
“It gives USC a lot more, as a school, human qualities,” Andersen said. “A campus tour is like — here’s what I’m told to present by the admission office so it looks as good as possible, whereas with the meme page we’re not affiliated with USC at all. We’re from USC, but [the school] doesn’t tell us what to post or promote. It’s very genuinely from the students and what they’re feeling.”
Students like Wang, who have grown up immersed in internet culture, appear more attracted to schools that have a prominent online presence like a meme page. Wang said the meme page gave him access to detailed inside information about the school.
“I realized [the meme page] was really helpful because … the memes they shared are very University specific, so it actually gave me a lot of insight that I wouldn’t find anywhere else,” he said. “They kind of give off the vibe of each school, each major, how they’re like, even down to the specific professors and individuals in the school … There are universities out there with basically zero humor, and it’s nice to see that there’s an atmosphere at [USC].”
Cody Bishop, a high school senior at La Costa Canyon High School in Carlsbad, Calif., applied to USC and, like Wang, posted a meme after he was rejected. Bishop said he appreciated the support and positive comments on his meme.
“It felt pretty nice,” Bishop said. “[On] the USC meme page, they kind of just connected with you … [People] said don’t give up — you’ll probably make it one day if you really try hard enough.”
And perhaps students like Bishop and Wang won’t stay on the page, but Andersen said she wants students —accepted or not — to enjoy the humor of the Facebook group.
“I feel awful that all these people on the meme page who are so excited about USC didn’t get in,” Andersen said. “I hope that they realize they’re still welcome on the meme page no matter what … I hope that the meme page can stay a positive and good thing for USC campus like I think it is right now.”