The California Institute of Technology, or Caltech as it is more colloquially known, is a prestigious college. If you want to join the Beavers, you’ll need to have not only high grades and standardized test scores, but also strong writing supplements to back them up.
Caltech accepts only about 8% of those who apply, making it an extremely competitive school. The more you know about the Caltech essay prompts before beginning, the better prepared you will be to respond to them.
Read on to learn about 2020’s essay prompts, as well as some tips and tricks for maximizing their potential to impress!
BREAKING: Caltech Application Changes Due to COVID-19
As a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, many colleges have decided to stop requiring SAT and ACT scores, at least temporarily. California Institute of Technology announced in June 2020 that they will no longer consider applicants’ SAT and ACT scores 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 do submit them, they will not be reviewed or considered as part of your application. (This is what we call a “test blind” policy.) Furthermore, international students can now satisfy Caltech’s English proficiency requirement by submitting TOEFL or Duolingo scores.
Caltech decided to temporarily stop requiring standardized test scores due to SAT and ACT cancellations, as well as the difficulty some students are having preparing for or paying for the tests, in order to make admissions as fair and equitable as possible. Because test scores will not be taken into account, there will be a greater emphasis on the 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 Applications, so you can use whichever one you prefer. Caltech requires four short essays in addition to the Coalition or Common Application essays.
In one essay, you are asked to describe three experiences that influenced your interest in STEM fields, using 10 to 120 words for each experience, for a total of 30 to 360 words. The other three essays, which cover how you’ll interact with the Caltech community, your creative and fun interests, and the diversity you’ll bring to the student body, have word counts ranging from 250 to 400 words.
You’ll be writing between 780 and 1560 words total. Because these essays are relatively short, you’ll want to spend some time honing your argument to its most efficient form. Begin early so you have enough time to plan, refine, revise, and proof before submitting!
What Are the Caltech Essay Prompts?
Caltech essay prompts are fairly standard, though each one is customized to the college’s requirements. The standard “Why This College?” and “Diversity” essay questions will appear, but keep in mind that you’re applying to Caltech specifically, and your essays should reflect that.
Describe three experiences and/or activities that have aided in the development of your interest in a possible career in a STEM field. (Your response should be between 10-120 words for each experience/activity.)
The first essay asks you to describe three factors that have contributed to your interest in whatever STEM field you prefer. Take note of the word limit—each item should be between 10 and 120 words, which means you’ll need to be concise. Caltech wants you to use this space to show your interest in a STEM field of your choice..
They want to know about your interests and passions, so dig deep to find that spark of inspiration.
Perhaps you were enthralled by a childhood collection of sea monkeys, or you disassembled your first game console to figure out how it worked—and then reassembled it. These are all excellent places to begin, but make sure they are both brief and meaningful to you.
With these three experiences, you’re telling Caltech a short story about yourself, demonstrating what draws you to STEM over any other field, so make sure the admissions office understands not just what brings you here, but why.In this section, specificity and brevity are your best friends.
Maybe you’ve always wanted to work in computer programming, but Caltech wants you to be more specific. Name three instances in your life that inspired you, not your entire life.
Caltech, as a STEM-focused university, is also interested in your curiosity and interest.
Return to past experiences involving math or science that piqued your interest and reflect deeply on how you felt and how they inspired you to learn more. Caltech wants to hear about these kinds of experiences!
Avoid the pitfall of talking too much for this prompt. When we think about formative experiences that excite us, we can get a little carried away. Resist the urge to add fluff—you only have 120 words each, so keep it as simple and direct as possible.
Each response should describe the experience and how it aided in the development of your passion. Any more than that, and you risk running out of room.
A “Techer’s” life, like that of a professional scientist or engineer, is heavily reliant on collaboration. With this knowledge, what do you hope to explore, innovate, or create with your Caltech colleagues? (Your response should be between 250 and 400 words long.)
This is an alternative to the standard “Why You?” question. Often, these questions ask what you’ll bring to a college’s student body; in Caltech’s case, they’re looking for specifics on how you intend to participate in the community.
Consider your academic and career goals, as well as your knowledge of the Caltech community. How can they assist you in reaching them?
Caltech is interested in more than just what you hope to accomplish with your education.
Caltech’s mission statement states that they want to “expand human knowledge and benefit society.” Are your objectives in line with the mission?
How will being a part of the Caltech community, rather than simply having a degree from a prestigious university, help you achieve your goals?Your best bet with this question is to get specific.
Always keep the collaborative angle in mind—while we often attribute scientific discoveries and technology to individuals, many are put together by groups of people building on one another’s research. Consider what skills you have and what skills you don’t have if you have a specific idea in mind, such as refining lab-grown meat for mass production. How can your Caltech classmates assist you?
Examine Caltech’s clubs and courses to see if any of them match your objectives. If lab-grown meat is your goal, look into Caltech’s bioengineering offerings and incorporate them into your solution—
Being specific about how Caltech and the people you meet there will help you achieve your goals will demonstrate that it is Caltech, not just a degree, that you are interested in.
Though your goals are important in this question, avoid focusing on yourself too much or thinking too far ahead. This question is interested in your time at Caltech—particularly your plans for the next few years and how you hope to develop as a member of the STEM community.
Caltech students are well-known for their witty sense of humor and inventive pranks. What do you enjoy doing for fun? (Your response should be between 250 and 400 words long.)
Take this question at face value—Caltech has a long history of pranks. The admissions committee is interested in learning about your life outside of academics and learning.
What do you like to do that isn’t related to your field of study?
The goal of this question is to learn more about you as a person. If you’re applying to Caltech, you’re already a student with a strong academic record—as is everyone else in your class.
This question wants to know what distinguishes you, what characteristics, personality traits, and interests will make you a student Caltech wants to have around.
It is critical that you answer this question without regard for academics. That may seem strange—after all, you need to impress at Caltech—but think beyond your chemistry work or the game you’ve been working on.
Of course, you should be prepared to explain why whatever you choose is important to you. Perhaps you enjoy gardening because watching something grow from a seed to a plant brings you joy. Perhaps tabletop role-playing games are your thing because they provide a creative outlet that forces you to think on the fly.
Whatever your hobby is, it should mean something to you—hours of mindless Netflix watching aren’t going to cut it.
With this prompt, there are a few things to avoid. Being one-of-a-kind is great, but being controversial is overkill. Attending college entails becoming a member of a community, and Caltech wants to know that you will participate in that community.
If you come across as purposefully inflammatory, such as if your favorite hobby is being a troll online, you may stand out for the wrong reasons.
Also, avoid being too general. If you enjoy reading, tell them you can draw your own map of Middle-earth from memory. If you play video games, tell them why—maybe you’re on a top-ranked Overwatch team and enjoy the camaraderie of grinding your rank with friends, or maybe you’re trying to break the world record in Super Mario 64 speedrunning because you enjoy the thrill of discovering a new glitch. Always return to specificity and explain why.
It is preferable to be clear and concise rather than wordy and ambiguous!
When people from various backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives come together, the process of discovery advances the most. What role do you see yourself playing in contributing to the diversity of the Caltech community? (Your response should be between 250 and 400 words long.)
This is a classic example of a “Diversity” essay question.
With this prompt, Caltech wants to know what you bring to the community as a unique individual.
That can be anything from your socioeconomic background to your unconventional upbringing as a traveling circus performer to your interest in antique guitars—don’t feel as if the only meaning for “diversity” is the hardship you’ve endured.
Colleges are places where people from all walks of life come together, and Caltech wants to know that you will both contribute to and respect that diversity.
Thinking about how you differ from others is a great way to demonstrate that you, too, are interested in fostering diversity of thought and experience.
Your best bet for this prompt is to concentrate on a specific aspect of your identity that hasn’t been addressed elsewhere in your application.
If you grew up in a big city, perhaps light pollution made it impossible for you to see the night sky, so you devoured every book you could find to learn more about the constellations. You could write about how the combination of reading books and seeing light pollution piqued your interest in not only learning more about astronomy, but also in understanding how light pollution affects the field. This diversity of thought and experience is beneficial to a student body—whatever your area of expertise is, you should discuss it!
However, avoid exaggeration or lying. Caltech is interested in your diversity, and the admissions office is skilled at identifying parts of your essay that are deceptive or exaggerated. Again, focus on what is truly important to you rather than selecting a trait that you believe will earn you points.
It probably wasn’t one of these kids who wrote these successful Caltech essays.
Essays from Caltech That Worked
All of this information is useful, but understanding exactly what Caltech wants to know can be difficult until you see it demonstrated. Check out this accepted essay—as well as some advice from someone who took a big risk—to learn more about what Caltech is looking for in your essay! Essay by Martin Alternburg I drive across the bridge into Minnesota. Cross country is by far my least favorite of my three sports, but I can’t seem to get enough of it. In contrast to swimming and track, my motivation to run is primarily intrinsic. I live for the long runs I do on my own. We were assigned a long run to complete over our first weekend of cross country, which is unusual for our season. In reality, I was only supposed to go six miles, but I felt that eight would give me more time to explore the house I had just returned to. As I regain my rhythm, my mind begins to wander.
My train of thought while running is similar to how one thinks in the minutes before sleep, except that one has more control over how these thoughts progress and where they diverge. While special relativity is the “proper” thing to think about, especially at MITES, I resurrect my long-forgotten violin repertoire and begin playing it in my head. I’m now on the outskirts of town, surrounded by cornfields. The flashing floodlights on the open road remind me of the first lines of Wieniawski’s first violin concerto, and they make me feel both lonely and curious. In my head, I create variations on the melody, experimenting with Stravinsky-style atonality.
Martin Altenburg’s essay is well-structured, using the narrative of a morning run to demonstrate all the thoughts that run through his head and, more importantly, all the distinguishing characteristics that make him who he is.
From these two paragraphs, we know he’s a runner, that he’s driven, that he strives for more than he believes he’s capable of, and that he knows music and composition. Because the essay is written in a narrative format, we can follow this line of thought and have it all neatly wrapped up at the end. We’re drawn in by energetic and purposeful writing that also delivers all the information we need.
Altenburg discusses his interests and growth throughout the essay. His strategic use of locations in his hometown allows readers to understand where he comes from both literally and metaphorically, particularly the section about his beliefs and how the community in which he grew up has influenced them. All of this is useful information for an admissions office, which wants to know how and why you see yourself.
One thing to note about this essay is that it makes no mention of Caltech. Altenburg, in fact, used the same essay to apply to — and be accepted by — eight different Ivy League schools, as well as some other schools. The essay was most likely written for the Common or Coalition Application rather than Altenburg’s Caltech supplement, which explains the lack of specificity. Your Caltech supplement essays should be more specific than this, as these essays are specific to Caltech and want to know exactly what draws you to that school over others.
Michelle Fan’s Essay Reflection
“How do you think Caltech can best fuel your intellectual curiosity and help you achieve your goals?”
If I had a few more weeks, I could have done enough research to namedrop a few professors, brag about the strength of their computer science programs, and craft a compelling story about all of my professional goals. But I didn’t have those few weeks, so I told them the plain, unvarnished truth: I have no idea what I want to do with my life. All I knew was that I liked making calculator games and explosions and that I wanted to be a part of the bread-throwing, water-dumping congregations known as Caltech house dinners.
It turns out that being yourself works. I know, it’s a shocker. Colleges want to like you for who you are.
Michelle Fan does not directly post her Caltech essay, but she does discuss her process and what she discovered between her meticulously planned essays and the ones she wrote on the day they were due.
Fan claims that her last-minute essays, written from the heart rather than the head, were the ones that were accepted.
Though I don’t recommend waiting until the day before your essay is due to begin writing it, it’s a good message to remember—when you’re facing an impending deadline and you just need to get something out, your writing is likely to be more genuine than if you’ve been editing and revising it for hours..
The main takeaway here, however, should not be to wait until the last minute to write your essay (please do not do this!). The real lesson is to write in a way that is true to yourself, rather than in a way that you believe will impress admissions officers. You should be genuine and authentic, allowing your personality and interests to show Caltech why you’re a good fit.
4 Key Tips for Writing a Caltech Essay
There are some general things to keep in mind when working on your Caltech writing supplement, as there are with all college essays. The sooner you begin, the better—take some time to ensure that your essay is as polished as possible!
Before you begin writing, brainstorming will help you choose a topic that is both meaningful and impressive. Making a list of ideas for each topic, no matter how silly they may seem at first, gives you options. Spend some time away from your options so that you can choose the one that you are most passionate about without bias!
#2: Get People to Read Your Essays for You
As a writer, feedback is a valuable resource. Having someone else look over your work—preferably someone who will be honest about its flaws—will assist you in identifying logical gaps, strange phrasing, and other errors that may have crept into it. When you feel your essays are as polished as you can make them, it’s time to delegate them to someone else. Remember, you don’t have to implement every change they suggest exactly as they suggest, but if your reader is perplexed about something, see what you can do to clarify it!
#3: Edit and Revise
Take the feedback you received from your reader and transform it into gold. Again, don’t assume that their suggestions are always correct, but do consider what is causing their confusion or dissatisfaction with parts of your essays. Rewrite them in your own voice, and reread your essay, especially out loud, to catch any remaining errors. The more time you have to revise, the better!
#4: Be Authentic
Remember that you’re not just trying to impress Caltech with a bunch of statistics; you’re also trying to impress them as a person. That means staying true to yourself and striving for authenticity at all times. Give Caltech an essay that demonstrates what it means to be you, not one that tells them what you believe they want to hear.
Need a more detailed guide on how to write a college essay? Those pointers will assist you in writing an outstanding essay from start to finish!
A strong application essay is only one component of a successful Caltech application. Look into Caltech’s SAT and GPA requirements as well so you can create an effective academic plan!
Before you submit your Caltech application, it’s a good idea to figure out how much it’ll cost you to attend. How do Caltech’s financial aid options stack up against tuition costs?
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