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 6% 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 2021'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, 2021, and 2022). 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 four different applications: Coalition, Common App, Powered by Scoir, and Questbridge. In addition to the required Coalition, Common Application, and powered by Scoir essays, Caltech also requires three short essays. (Questbridge applicants only need to write these if they become Match Finalists and have ranked Caltech.)
You’ll write one required academic question and three required short answer questions, but you’ll also have the option to answer three supplemental short answer questions and one supplemental academic question, if you want.
Altogether, you'll be writing up to 1100 words for the required essays, and 300 words for the optional short answer questions. 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 "Overcoming Obstacles” and “Defining Your Fit” essay questions, but always keep in mind that you're applying to Caltech specifically, and your essays should reflect that.
Required Academic Question
Because of the rigorous core course curriculum, Caltech students don't declare a major until the end of their first year. However, some students arrive knowing which academic fields and areas already most excite them, or which novel fields and areas they most want to explore.
If you had to choose an area of interest or two today, what would you choose? Why did you choose that area of interest? (Max: 200 words)
The first essay asks you share your academic passion (or passions), and how you discovered them. Many colleges understand that students change their majors throughout the course of their careers, and Caltech doesn’t want you to have to choose a major until you’re a sophomore. But they still want you to have a good idea of what you want to focus on and why it matters to you.
The key here is to be specific about your area of interest. Note that they don’t mention a major, but instead an overall field. In other words, now isn’t the time to say that you want to major in biology because you’ve always done well in school. Instead, focus on something more specific, like a problem you want to solve or an experience that changed the way you see your career. Maybe your physical science egg-drop challenge inspired a desire to create safer structures, or maybe a field trip to a NASA location made you realize you had to be in that control room one day.
Whatever the case, be as specific as you can with what you want to study, and remember that multiple majors could get you there. For example, visiting NASA could have inspired you to study mathematics, physics, or engineering. There are multiple paths to reach the same goal; do your homework, look at the different programs Caltech offers, and choose one or two that align with your dream.
Caltech is, in their own words, “an unapologetic STEM institution.” Whatever you do, make sure that your chosen area fits within these parameters.
Required Short Answer Question #1
At Caltech, we investigate some of the most challenging, fundamental problems in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Identify and describe two STEM-related experiences from your high school years, either in or out of the classroom, and tell us how and why they activated your curiosity. What about them made you want to learn more and explore further? (Min: 100/Max: 200 words for each experience)
This prompt is asking you to discuss something you're passionate about. Your interests and activities outside of school and work can reveal a lot about the kind of person you are. As such, this prompt is a great opportunity to show how you exhibit the characteristics of the perfect Caltech candidate in your life experiences that don’t show up in your test scores and GPA.
Hopefully, thinking of a topic for this essay will be easy for you. You should write about a situation, story, or topic that gets you so engrossed and excited that it’s tough to tear yourself away from learning about it! Whether that’s reading up on the psychology of conspiracy theories or bird watching with your little brother, the most important thing is that you choose something that you’re deeply interested in. When you do that, admissions counselors will be able to feel your passion too!
Even though you probably could write pages and pages about the topic you choose, it’s important to keep things clear and concise here. Remember: you only have 200 words per topic to work with! To keep your essay focused, tell the story of how these experiences piqued your curiosity into the subject (or subjects) you’ve chosen to write about. You can describe your learning process, even if it’s quirky or unconventional. This is your chance to show Caltech how you choose to expand your mind when left to your own devices.
And that’s the most important thing to emphasize in your essay. Caltech is looking for students who don’t stop learning when the semester ends. The people who make a difference in the world are passionate, lifelong learners. This essay is your chance to show off your niche interests and prove to Caltech that you’re a lifelong learner too.
This guy would fit right in at Caltech.
Required Short Answer Question #2
The creativity, inventiveness, and innovation of Caltech's students, faculty, and researchers have won Nobel Prizes and put rovers on Mars, but Techers also imagine smaller scale innovations every day, from new ways to design solar cells to 3D printing dorm decor. How have you been an innovator in your own life? (Min: 200 / Max: 250)
This question is a great way for you to show off your skills! Maybe your insight helped your school’s robotics team take home first place, or maybe you found a way to streamline some part of your family’s day-to-day routine. You have a lot of options here, but make sure to keep your topic focused on STEM-related subjects.
This is an excellent topic for a problem-and-solution essay: after all, your innovation will have improved a situation, right? You only have 250 words, so you’ll need to make them count! Caltech wants to see how your mind works: why were you driven to your chosen innovation? Were there any obstacles? What was the end result, and how was it received?
Remember: you'll need to give the admissions counselors enough information that they can understand your innovation and its impact. Be sure to answer both parts of this question so that you're fully addressing the prompt.
It probably wasn't one of these kids who wrote these successful Caltech essays.
Required Short Answer Question #3
The process of discovery is best advanced when people from diverse backgrounds come together to solve the greatest challenges in their fields. How do your past experiences and present-day perspectives inform who you have become and how you navigate the world? (Min: 200 / Max: 250)
This is your chance to show Caltech what makes you tick, and how you’ve become who you are. Think back on the formative experiences in your life: your home, your family, your cultural background. How have they shaped you into who you are now and what you want? Show Caltech how you see the world, and why.
As always, you should remember to gear this toward STEM as much as you can: Caltech isn’t kidding when they tell you to “lean all the way in on the STEMiest of STEMmy topics.” The trick here is to show how your own lived experiences have informed your interest and perspective on the STEM subject that you’re most drawn to. Maybe you come from a family of artists, and their sense of aesthetics informs the way you design and present your projects. Maybe you have a different cultural background than most of your peers, which influences your thought processes.
Be sure to tell a story here so that you can connect with admissions counselors. For example, was there a formative experience in your childhood or youth that made you realize you stand out from your peers in some way? Was a family member or cultural tradition particularly influential?
Along with longer essays, the CalTech application asks students to tackle a few short answer questions, too.
CalTech Short Answer Questions
Along with longer essays, you'll also have to tackle a few short answer responses, too. We'll break them down below!
Supplemental Short Answer Question #1
If there are aspects of your identity that you feel are not captured elsewhere in this application, please provide that information below. (Max: 150 words)
This is a pretty broad prompt! Unlike Required Question 3, which asks about your background, or Supplemental Question 2, which asks about your hobbies, this is about your identity, which includes both of those things and more! You have a lot of options here: think of past experiences that made you realize more about who you are and what you stand for. Maybe you stood up to a bully. Maybe you went stargazing with family or friends, and found yourself overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe. Just like with the other prompts, remember to be as specific as possible, and give examples.
Supplemental Short Answer Question #2
When not surveying the stars, peering through microscopes, or running through marathons of coding, Caltech students pursue an eclectic array of interests that range from speed-cubing to participating in varsity athletics to reading romance novels. What is a favorite interest or hobby and why does it bring you joy? (Max: 100 words)
This is a great prompt to answer, because it gives you the chance to show the admissions counselors more about who you are not just as a budding scholar but as a person. Here’s a chance to open up about, say, your passion for rock climbing or your increasingly-large collection of succulents. You only have 100 words, but try to go into as much detail as possible about how your hobby makes you feel. This is the place to be descriptive, and to show rather than tell.
Supplemental Short Answer Question #3
Did you have a hard time narrowing it down to just one interest or hobby? We understand – Caltech students like to stay busy, too – tell us about another hobby or interest! (Max: 50 words)
You've probably got more than one hobby you love. This is your chance to share that with admissions counselors at CalTech. You don't have much space, but help your readers understand why you're passionate about the hobby you choose.
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!
Even though the example essays below respond to old essay prompts, there’s still a lot you can learn from them about how to write successful Caltech essays.
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.