Getting Accepted: Here's What USC's Iovine & Young Academy Looks for in Prospective Students' Applications

This post is part of our “Getting Accepted” series, a guide to prepping portfolios and getting into the best design programs across the United States. For our next feature, we’re focusing in on University of Southern California’s Iovine and Young Academy, which offers an undergraduate degree as well as two Masters of Science programs. Their Masters of Science in Product Innovation has an upcoming application deadline for their 2021 program on January 15.

True to the ideologies of innovators in California’s Silicon Valley, USC’s Iovine and Young Academy doesn’t just search for students aiming to disrupt the industry, they demand the very same of their own program and faculty. The Academy aspires to offer curriculum that distinguishes the program itself as a disruptor within the design education system, offering refuge to designers looking for a new mode of learning. Started in 2013 by Beats co-founders entrepreneur Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young (also known as rapper Dr. Dre), the program itself has a reputation synonymous with leaders known to take a risk or two in order to achieve success.

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Iovine and Young Academy Dean Erica Muhl carries the philosophies of these two founders through by helping to organize curriculum that gives equal weight to the practices of design, technology, business and communication. “We don’t just look at those disciplines in silos, we literally look at where they work with each other, how they catalyze each other, the natural synergistic points between them,” Muhl says. “And a lot of our graduates learn that that actually creates a whole new disciplinary expertise, and one that utilizes design as a pretty powerful problem solving methodology.”

Iovine and Young Hall’s Mixed Reality Lab provides state-of-the-art motion capture technologies

So who is this program for? As the Academy sees it, a knowledge of design and business go hand in hand—if you’re a designer with an interest in entrepreneurship or graduating with a experience-based knowledge of industry workings while also having the tech-forward, human-centered design skillset you need to evolve with the changing times, the Iovine and Young Academy could be a great fit for you.

We recently chatted with Erica Muhl to hear more about what it takes to get into USC’s Iovine and Young Academy and what students can expect to get out of their time there.

Core77: What kind of industries do your students often go into after graduating from the program?

Erica Muhl: The really fun and interesting thing about a degree from the Iovine and Young Academy is that it is kind of career agnostic. Because the problem solving methodologies we teach can literally be pointed at anything. So we have students going in lots of different directions, some of them you might expect, they’re moving into big tech as product designers, product managers, but also as strategists and consultants. They’re moving across the creative industries, arts, media and entertainment, to be able to think about the future of content, and the future of delivery of content as well.

We have a lot of students who are founders as well, and are founding their own companies that are, in particular, looking at solving problems for various populations in the world. Some of those are for-profit models, many of them are nonprofit models; our students are very interested in social impact. And so a lot of the work they’re doing both for existing companies or in their own companies, is directed at social change or social good. In addition to that, I can add health and medicine, I can add sustainability, I can add homelessness. So again, the industries are wide open, because the student brings with them their own passion, their own background, their own area of expertise. And what the Iovine and Young degree does is it fuels that passion and expertise, with very powerful skills as applied to an equally powerful thought process.

The Iovine and Young Academy was founded in 2013 with a visionary gift from entrepreneurs Jimmy Iovine and Andre “Dr. Dre” Young

Are there opportunities within the program for students to go into the industry before they graduate, like internships or collaborations with other studios or companies?

Yes, Young Academy believes very strongly in real world experience, and therefore real impact. First and foremost, it’s a part of almost every class at the academy that they will at some point be working on a problem specific to an industry or an area or a field. And experts from those industries or areas are brought into the classroom to critique work by students and to be able to make that work more relevant for the real world.

Beyond the classroom, we have an extensive program we call Curriculum Plus that provides students opportunities through something called Industry and Impact Labs. And Industry and Impact Labs are actually large scale projects undertaken with industry partners, or partners from the nonprofit sector. Students are actually put into the position of working as strategists and consultants on a problem brought to them by the partner.

So far, those have included six different projects with Adidas, including one that recently concluded focused on human performance in extreme conditions. At Volkswagen Audi, students were working on the future of mobility, and especially how mobility may be influenced by artificial intelligence or machine learning. We’ve worked with Mattel on the future of play, and with Samsung on the future of habitation. Right now we have two projects going on one with Harvard Business Review, looking very deeply at the possible advancements to online learning—not just online learning environments but content for online learning. And we have a project with the Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine looking at how to utilize smart environments to advance cancer patient research and care.

You can imagine this real world experience working with companies of that caliber on projects not just meaningful to those companies, but projects that are meaningful also to their users and society in general is a type of collaboration that is extremely beneficial for our students. They gain incredible hands-on experiences, they gain connections. And those companies, as you can imagine, tend to tap back into our studio for internships and jobs. So many times, those projects lead to very concrete outcomes for our students. But they’re also tremendous experience builders and resume builders.

And by the way, beyond the companies we partner with on those Industry and Impact Labs, a lot of companies have found Iovine and Young students are the perfect combination of mindset, meaning, specifically creativity and a creative focus on problem solving, as well as those powerful tools in tech and business. So we have regular partners who come and recruit with us, including Apple, Ernst & Young and other companies that are finding they want to hire more than just one of our students. And so we have good strong relationships across industry and are able to provide strong networking for our students in that way.

That’s a great draw. And I can only imagine every student will eventually have a leg up when they participate in those projects.

You know, I really believe in affordability as regards to college education. And I think there’s things we can do on the front end, as far as affordability is concerned—you know, addressing tuition costs and other costs for college education. But there’s also more we can do on the back end. And that is to make the power of the degree these students are earning greater and more long lasting, and actually more adaptable. As these students move through careers, change, jobs, change focuses, they can take these types of skills and actually transfer them or refocus them in new areas. And so it just makes the value of the degree much greater.

What the typical backgrounds of your students are, and who are you looking for when you look through applications?

The typical background is not typical. By that, I mean we are looking for a lot of different capabilities, interests, and as much diversity as we possibly can get in every cohort we bring into the Academy.

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We are committed to diversity in every sense of the word, including, obviously background, culture, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identification, but also, perspective, viewpoint, life goals, because we believe all of those things work inside the team-based environment of the academy and the strong collaborative environment that we insist on for our students to drive better ideas, better solutions.

If you can look at something with a very diverse array of viewpoints, there is no doubt the solution will be stronger, and it will also be more inclusive. And so we look to create that first, then we look for a good dispersion of abilities across design, the visual arts, creativity, but also technology, business communication, leadership.

AR Playdates, an interactive platform that helps long-distance family members play together. (Photo courtesy of AR Playdates)

There’s something we think about in our environment, which as I mentioned is very collaborative, And that’s “followship”. Can you lead a team, but can you also be a good team member? If it’s not your idea that is moving forward, can you dive in and be an effective propellant for anybody’s idea? So we look for a lot of different things.

There’s no doubt about it every application is looked at very individually and on its own merits. But we also are building a cohort with every intake of applications. And so we also look very carefully at how the cohort will shape up in terms of its effect on the students who are going to be part of it. Because the cohort model is really one of the strongest things we do. And students have told us many, many times over the course of the eight years we’ve been in existence that one of the strongest effects they take with them out of the Academy is the relationships they have built in the cohort. And the fact that the cohort is now a source of information of knowledge of support, and of course, networking for those students.

What are the type of skills that accepted students should expect to come in with in order to excel and then what will they learn there they might not know already?

The skills we’re looking for are many and varied. We do look for a certain comfort in the design disciplines, however, if somebody does not have specific training or education in design, but they are in a related area, we will work with that student to be able to fill in some of the more traditional gaps they would have gotten from a design, undergraduate degree, or work they might be doing as design professionals. Because we are, as I mentioned earlier, looking to round out the design knowledge with other areas of expertise. And so sometimes a student might present a really interesting background that is less strong in design, but it’s stronger in other areas that are going to fuel design. So we have the ability to be somewhat flexible in terms of looking at people’s backgrounds, and want to amplify what they are bringing with them, but also assist them in filling in some of the some of the areas they might not have had experience in yet.

We’re going to look for a cross selection of certainly design, but also students who have backgrounds in business, students who have backgrounds in engineering, and students who may have already founded a company and learn some of those things on the ground. So it’s an interesting mix of talent we’re looking to bring into the program.

How would you define what makes for a successful grad student and you know, what does students who get in need to do in order to excel in the program?

I don’t think I can differentiate between what makes a successful grad student and what makes a successful student in general. I think to be successful, a student has to be self-directed. That means with all of the teaching we are going to do, all of the guiding and mentoring we are going to do, the student has to be proactive about their own experience and their own learning. Everything the academy offers is focused on advanced levels of entrepreneurship. And by entrepreneurship, I don’t necessarily just mean business, but I do mean making connections, taking ideas and moving them forward. It’s about identifying, as Jimmy Iovine likes to say, what’s “the crack in the wall” you can go through that nobody else has identified, or they don’t have the skills or the mindset to go through it?

Launched by an Academy graduate student, Ready Teddy is a VR tool that prepares kids for an MRI.

One of the things we like to say about Academy students is they have grit and determination, which gives them resilience when things don’t go perfectly at first, or they don’t go as expected. We see every momentary failure as an opportunity to learn big and go forward boldly into exploring, what is the next iteration of that idea? Or, what is the next idea you’re now going to be able to do because you had a momentary failure?

I think overall, we would say one of the things we’re looking for is a student’s ability to be able to get knocked down and get back up again, and then turn that into a success. Because the reality is, school is and should be something of a safe and protected environment for our ideas to be nurtured. You also have to prepare yourself for a world that is not always as gentle or not always as easy. And so, I love it when our students can show undaunted determination.

And by the way, that includes when you may have an idea, and nobody else gets it. You know, it’s often the best and the most revolutionary ideas that receive the most early criticism, or the least understanding from the world, and so the ability to be dedicated to your own ideas in a way that will allow you to withstand the lack of understanding from others is also a really good trait for all students. But I think probably in particular, graduate students as they’re headed toward the professional phase of their careers.

For everyone who is interested in the program and is thinking of applying next year, what should they be doing right now to prepare their applications and portfolios? And, you know, what are the types of projects you would be really excited to see from an applicant?

I think the best piece of advice I can give for a prospective applicant is to begin thinking about what is it going to be in your application or your portfolio that is going to differentiate your ideas. And what you hope to accomplish from from this degree, right? That will tell us the most about who you are as a human being. Because, great design isn’t something you do in a bubble, it’s something you do in the context of having learned more about the world, more about people, more about great art, great architecture, great technology, great business. And so I would suggest to any student, as they were preparing for any next stage of their career, be consuming information veraciously. But also, take that information and clarify how the information is really specific to what you want to do, and what you want to accomplish.

If you’re in an undergraduate degree right now, I think it’s pretty easy to look at our degree and decide, taking a course or two in certain subjects might be helpful, so I think that’s sort of self evident. But beyond thinking about the disciplinary preparation, think about how you’re going to present the type of thinker you are, not just to the Ivy and and Young Academy, but to any graduate program you would be applying for.

So just make sure you shine through in your application.

Exactly. We need to know who you are. As a human being, we need to know who you are as a creator, for sure. But we also need to know who you are as a human being,

I think that’s probably a helpful reminder to a lot of designers who are looking at that task list of all the things they need to include and not really thinking about what’s going to make you stand out as this person a program has no choice but to accept.

Yes, I think especially when you have an undergraduate degree in design, the tendency would be to focus on your portfolio. And while the portfolio is exceedingly important, we’re just as interested in your story. You know, use what you know as a designer, as a business person, or as a communicator, or as an artist, or even as a technology, you use what you know about those areas to be able to define your story.


USC’s Iovine and Young Academy is now accepting applications for 2021, with an application deadline for their Masters of Science in Product Innovation on January 15, 2021. Take what you’ve learned here to finish your application! Apply now here.

Read our other stories in the “Getting Accepted” series:

Tips for Acing Your Application to UPenn’s Integrated Product Design Program

How to Be a Standout Applicant to SVA’s Products of Design MFA Program

How to Impress in Your Application to Cranbrook’s New 4D Design MFA Program

What ArtCenter is Looking for in Their GradID Industrial Design Masters Applicants

Source: core77

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