The California Institute of Technology—or Caltech, as it's more commonly known—is a highly exclusive college. If you want to join the Beavers, you'll need not just top grades and standardized test scores, but strong writing supplements to support them as well.
Caltech accepts around 8% of students who apply, making it an extremely competitive school. The more you know about the Caltech essay prompts before you start, the better prepared you are to answer them.
Read on to learn about 2020's essay prompts, as well as some tips and tricks for maximizing their potential to impress!
Feature Image: Canon.vs.nikon/Wikimedia Commons
BREAKING: Caltech Application Changes Due to COVID-19
As a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, many colleges have made the decision to at least temporarily stop requiring SAT and ACT scores. In June 2020, California Institute of Technology announced that they will stop considering SAT and ACT scores of applicants for the next two admission cycles (those applying in fall 2020 and 2021). This means that, not only are SAT and ACT scores not required, but, even if you submit them, they won't be reviewed and they won't be considered as part of your application. (This is what we refer to as a "test blind" policy.) Additionally, international students can now meet Caltech's English proficiency requirement by submitting either TOEFL or Duolingo scores.
Because of SAT and ACT cancellations, as well as the difficulty some students are having preparing or paying for the tests, Caltech made the decision to temporarily stop requiring standardized test scores to make admissions as fair and equitable as possible. Because test scores aren't being considered, there will be an increased emphasis on classes students took and the grades they received in them.
What Do I Need to Know About the Caltech Essays?
Caltech accepts both the Coalition and Common Application, so you can use whichever application suits you better. In addition to the required Coalition or Common Application essays, Caltech also requires four short essays.
One essay asks you to describe three experiences that contributed to your interest in STEM fields, with 10 to 120 words for each experience, or 30 to 360 total. The other three essays, which cover how you'll interact with the Caltech community, what creative and fun interests you have, and what diversity you'll bring to the student body, have requirements of 250 to 400 words.
Altogether, you'll be writing between 780 and 1560 words. These essays are fairly short, so you'll want to spend a good amount of time honing your argument to its most efficient. Start early so you have plenty of time to plan, refine, revise, and proof before you submit!
Do a little preparation and you can look this happy when writing your Caltech essays, too!
What Are the Caltech Essay Prompts?
The Caltech essay prompts are fairly standard, though each one is tailored to the college's specifications. You'll see the usual "Why This College?" and "Diversity" essay questions, but always keep in mind that you're applying to Caltech specifically, and your essays should reflect that.
Describe three experiences and/or activities that have helped develop your passion for a possible career in a STEM field. (Your response for each experience/activity should range between 10-120 words.)
The first essay asks you to describe three things that have led to your love for whatever STEM field you prefer. Note the word requirement—each item should fall between 10 and 120 words, meaning you'll need to be very brief.
Caltech wants you to use this space to demonstrate your interest in the STEM field of your choice. They want to hear about your passion and what interests you, so dig deep to really find that spark of inspiration.
Maybe you were captivated by a childhood collection of sea monkeys, or you took your very first game console apart to see how it worked—and you put it back together. These are all great places to start, but be sure that they're both brief and meaningful to you. You're telling Caltech a short story about yourself with these three experiences, demonstrating what draws you to STEM over any other field, so be sure that the admissions office understands not just what brings you here, but why.
Specificity and brevity are your best friends in this section. Maybe you really have wanted to do computer programming for your entire life, but Caltech wants you to be more specific. Name three instances that inspired you, not your life as a whole.
Caltech, as a STEM-focused college, also wants to see your curiosity and interest. Return to experiences involving math or science that excited you in your past and think deeply about how you felt and how they made you want to learn more. These are the kinds of experiences that Caltech wants to hear about!
For this prompt, avoid the pitfall of talking too much. When we're thinking about formative experiences that excite us, we can tend to get a little long-winded. Resist that temptation—you only have 120 words each, so keep it as simple and direct as you can, without any fluff. Each answer should state what the experience was and how that helped develop your passion. Any more than that, and you risk wasting space.
Much like the life of a professional scientist or engineer, the life of a "Techer" relies heavily on collaboration. Knowing this, what do you hope to explore, innovate, or create with your Caltech peers? (Your response should range between 250-400 words.)
This is a spin on the typical "Why You?" question. Many times, these questions are asking what you'll bring to a college's student body—in Caltech's case, they're looking for specific information about how you plan to participate in the community. Think about your academic and career goals, and combine them with what you know about Caltech's community. How can they help you reach them?
Caltech doesn't only want to know about what you hope to achieve with your education. Caltech mentions in their mission statement that they aim to "expand human knowledge and benefit society." Do your goals align with that mission? How will being part of the Caltech community—not just having a degree from a prestigious university—help you achieve your aspirations?
Your best bet with this question is to get specific. Always keep in mind the angle of collaboration—though we often credit individuals with scientific discoveries and technology, many are put together by groups of people building on one another's research. If you have a specific idea in mind, such as refining lab-grown meat for mass production, consider what skills you have and what skills you don't. How can your classmates at Caltech help?
Take a look at Caltech's clubs and courses and find some that match your goals. If lab-grown meat is your goal, take a look through Caltech's bioengineering offerings and fold those into your answer—being specific about how Caltech and the people you meet there will help you meet your goals will make it clear that it's Caltech, not just a degree, that appeals to you.
Though your goals are important to this question, avoid focusing too much on yourself or thinking too far forward. This question wants to know about your time at Caltech—focus on the next few years and how you hope to develop as part of the STEM community.
This guy would fit right in at Caltech.
Caltech students are often known for their sense of humor and creative pranks. What do you like to do for fun? (Your response should range between 250-400 words.)
Take this question at its word—Caltech is indeed known for its proud history of pranks. The admissions office wants to hear about your life outside of academics and learning. What do you like to do that isn't related to your field of study?
The purpose of this question is to learn more about you as an individual. If you're in the running for Caltech, you're already a student with a strong academic record—and so is everybody else at your level. This question wants to know what makes you unique, what features, personality traits, and interests will make you a student that Caltech wants to have around.
It's important that this be a question you answer without an academic focus. That may sound strange—you need to be impressive at Caltech, after all—but think beyond your chemistry work or the game you've been working on.
Of course, you should also be prepared to answer why whatever you choose matters to you. Maybe you're really into gardening because seeing something grow from a seed to a plant brings you joy. Maybe playing tabletop role-playing games is your thing, because it's a creative outlet that pushes you to think on the fly. Whatever the hobby, it should mean something to you—hours mindlessly surfing Netflix isn't going to cut it.
There are a few things to avoid with this prompt. Unique is good, but controversial is too much. Attending college is fitting into a community, and Caltech wants to know that you'll participate in the community. If you come off as intentionally inflammatory—such as if your favorite hobby is being a troll online—you may stick out for the wrong reasons.
Also try not to be too general. If you like to read, tell them what—can you draw your own map of Middle-earth from memory? If you play video games, let them know why—maybe you're part of a top-ranked Overwatch team, and you enjoy the camaraderie of grinding your rank with friends, or maybe you're striving for the world-record in speedrunning Super Mario 64 because you enjoy the thrill of finding a new glitch. Again, always come back to specificity and stating why. It's better to be clear and concise than wordy and opaque!
The process of discovery best advances when people from various backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives come together. How do you see yourself contributing to the diversity of Caltech's community? (Your response should range between 250-400 words.)
This question is a classic representation of the "Diversity" essay. What Caltech wants to know with this prompt is what you as a unique individual bring to the community. That can be everything from your socioeconomic background to your unconventional upbringing as a traveling circus performer to your interest in antique guitars—don't feel like the only meaning for "diversity" is hardship you've experienced.
Colleges are places where lots of people of different backgrounds come together, and Caltech wants to know that you're going to both contribute and respect that diversity. Thinking about the ways that you differ from others is a great way of showing that you're similarly interested in fostering a diversity of thought and experience.
Your best option for this prompt is to focus on a specific part of your identity that isn't discussed elsewhere in your application. If you grew up in a major city, maybe light pollution made it impossible for you to see the night sky, so you read every book you could get your hands on to learn more about the constellations. You could write about how the combination of learning from books and experiencing light pollution ignited your interest in learning more about astronomy, but also in understanding how light pollution impacts the field. This diversity of thought and experience is important to a student body—whatever your niche is, you should discuss it!
Do avoid exaggeration or lying, though. Caltech wants to know about your diversity, and the admissions office is experienced in picking out parts of your essay that might be disingenuous or overstated. Again, focus on what really matters to you, not picking a trait that you think will score you points.
It probably wasn't one of these kids who wrote these successful Caltech essays.
Caltech Essays That Worked
All this information is great, but it can still be tricky to understand exactly what Caltech wants to know until you've seen it demonstrated. Check out this accepted essay—and some tips from someone who took a serious risk—to learn more about what Caltech hopes to see in your essay!
I cross over the bridge into Minnesota. Out of my three sports, cross country is definitely my worst — but I continue to be hooked on it. Unlike swimming and track, my motivation to run is heavily intrinsic. I live for the long runs I take on by myself. While they rarely happen during our season, we were assigned a long run to complete over our first weekend of cross country. In reality, I was supposed to go six miles, but felt eight gave me more time to explore the home I had just returned to. My mind begins to wander as I once again find my rhythm.
My train of thought while running is similar to the way one thinks in the minutes before sleep — except one has more control over how these thoughts progress and what tangents they move off of. While special relativity would be the "proper" thing to think about, especially at MITES, I revive the violin repertoire I had turned away from for so long and begin playing it in my head. I'm now at the edge of town in between the cornfields. The streaming floodlights on the open road give me a sense of lonely curiosity, reminiscent of the opening lines of Wieniawski's first violin concerto. I come up with adaptations of the melody in my head, experimenting with an atonality similar to Stravinsky's.
Martin Altenburg's essay is well-structured, using the narrative of a morning run to demonstrate all the things that run through his head, and, more importantly, all the unique traits that make him who he is.
From just these two paragraphs, we know he's a runner, that he's driven, that he strives for more than he thinks he's capable of, and that he knows music and composition. Because the essay is in a narrative format, we're able to follow this line of thinking and have it all wrapped up neatly at the end. We're drawn in by energetic and purposeful writing that also delivers us all the information we need.
Throughout the essay, Altenburg discusses his interests and his growth. His strategic use of locations in his hometown allows readers to understand where he comes from both literally and figuratively, especially the part about his beliefs and how the community he's grown up in have impacted them. All this is valuable information to an admissions office, who wants to see how you see yourself and why.
One thing to note about this essay is that it doesn't include any reference to Caltech. In fact, Altenburg used the same essay to apply to—and get into—eight different Ivy Leagues as well as some other schools. The essay was likely written as part of the Common or Coalition Application rather than as part of Altenburg's Caltech supplement, hence the lack of specificity. Your essays for the Caltech supplement should contain more specificity than this, as these essays are unique to Caltech and want to know exactly what draws you to that school above others.
"How do you believe Caltech will best fuel your intellectual curiosity and help you meet your goals?"
If I had a few weeks, I might have done enough research to namedrop a few professors, rave about the strength of their computer science programs, and come up with a compelling story about all my professional goals. But I didn't have those few weeks, so I told them the unembellished, wholehearted truth:
I said I have no idea what I want to do in life.
All I knew was that I liked making calculator games and explosions and wanted to participate in the bread-throwing, water-dumping congregations otherwise known as Caltech house dinners.
As it turns out, being yourself actually works. Shocker, I know. Colleges really do want to like you for you.
Michelle Fan doesn't post her Caltech essay directly, but she does talk about her process and what she discovered between her highly planned essays and the ones she wrote the day they were due.
Fan points out that her last-minute essays, the ones that she wrote from her heart rather than from her head, are the ones that got accepted. Though I definitely don't advocate for waiting until the same day that your essay is due to start writing it, it's a good message to keep in mind—when you're faced with an imminent deadline and you just need to get something out, your writing is probably more genuine than if you've been editing and revising it for ages.
But the big takeaway here should not be to wait until the last second to write your essay (please, don't do that!). The real lesson is that you should write in a way that is true to yourself, not a way that you think will impress admissions offices. You should be authentic and genuine, letting your personality and interests tell Caltech why you're a good fit.
If your essay looks like this, that's a good thing!
4 Key Tips for Writing a Caltech Essay
Like all college essays, there are some general things to keep in mind when working on your Caltech writing supplement. The earlier you get started, the better—take a little time to make sure that your essay is as polished as possible!
Brainstorming before you start writing will help you pick a topic that's both meaningful and impressive. Jotting down a list of ideas for each topic, no matter how silly they might feel at first impression, gives you options. Spend a little time away from your options so that you can pick the one that you feel most strongly about with less bias!
#2: Get People to Read Your Essays for You
Feedback is an important tool as a writer. Getting someone else to look at your work—preferably someone who will be honest about its shortcomings—will help you find logical holes, weird phrasing, and other errors that may creep into your work. When you feel like your essays are as polished as you can make them is a good time to hand them off to someone else. Remember, you don't have to make every change they suggest exactly as they suggest it, but if your reader is confused about something, see what you can do to make it clearer!
#3: Edit and Revise
Take that feedback you got from your reader and turn it into gold. Again, don't feel like their suggestions are always the right move, but do consider what's causing their confusion or dislike for parts of your essays. Fix them in your own voice, and re-read your essay, especially out loud, to catch any additional errors. The more time you can spend revising, the better!
#4: Be Authentic
Always remember that you're not just trying to impress Caltech with a bunch of statistics—you're trying to impress them as you. That means always staying true to yourself and striving for authenticity. Give Caltech an essay that showcases what it means to be you, not an essay that gives them what you think that they want to hear.
Need an even more in-depth guide to how to write a college essay? Those tips will help you write a stellar essay from start to finish!
A strong essay is just one part of a successful Caltech application. Also look into Caltech's SAT scores and GPA requirements so you can draft an effective academic plan!
Before you send in your Caltech application, it's a smart idea to figure out how much money it's going to cost you to attend. How do Caltech's financial aid offerings measure up to tuition costs?
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Melissa Brinks graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 with a Bachelor's in English with a creative writing emphasis. She has spent several years tutoring K-12 students in many subjects, including in SAT prep, to help them prepare for their college education.