How to Tackle the Caltech Essays for 2014-15
Note: this blog post has been updated for the 2015-2016 application cycle. To view the most recent version, click here.
The California Institute of Technology (Caltech), along with MIT and Stanford, is one of the premier STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) schools in the country, and accordingly, it’s essay questions are heavily weighted towards asking about the skills required to succeed in those fields.
Caltech is yet another school with several essays on its supplement, however these essays are of mixed length, which means that the strategy you take should be slightly different than schools that just have short essays. Discussion of your academic and professional goals should mostly be isolated to your response to the 500-word prompt, while at least two of the other three essays should probably address personal topics.
Please list three books, along with their authors, that have been particularly meaningful to you. For each book, please include a sentence explaining their influence upon you. Please note that your response is not limited to math, science or school-assigned texts.
There are very few wrong answers to these questions, however the major thing you want to avoid is trying to answer with books that you think the admissions counselors want to hear about. If the Twilight series had a meaningful impact on you (i.e. you bonded with other fans of the series who became your friends), it’s okay to write that. However, you should try to avoid potentially controversial or offensive subjects.
Members of the Caltech community live, learn, and work within an Honor System with one simple guideline; ‘No member shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community.’ While seemingly simple, questions of ethics, honesty and integrity are sometimes puzzling. Share a difficult situation that has challenged you. What was your response, and how did you arrive at a solution? (200 word max)
Because of the way that the prompt is worded, you can definitely answer this question by referring to some sort of ethical or moral challenge, which can often be difficult to come up with on the spot. However, you do have some leeway in terms of the gravity of the challenge that you addressed, and an essay that refers to some sort of social situation within your own high school’s community could be a nice change of pace from the more academic questioned by the remainder of the prompts. For example, you could discuss a time when you attempted to squash an untrue rumor about one of your close friends.
However, more broadly, this prompt is aimed at understanding your approach to problem solving, which means that if you can’t come up with some sort of moral/ethical challenge, you can still answer by discussing some other sort of challenging situation that you had to come up with a solution for. In this scenario, your focus should be on the solution, paying particular attention to the intermediate steps on your path to a solution. Don’t just state how you solved the problem, discuss the factors you considered and the impetus behind your decisions.
Caltech students have long been known for their quirky sense of humor, whether it be through planning creative pranks, building elaborate party sets, or even the year-long preparation that goes into our annual Ditch Day. Please describe an unusual way in which you have fun. (200 word max)
To answer this prompt, you should look towards your hobbies or your intellectual passions in order to find something unusual. However, you shouldn’t feel pressured to try to find some sort of “unique” way that you have fun; it just needs to be unusual. Even if you don’t collect stamps or explore abandoned factories, you can still point to the fact that reading biology papers in your spare time is an unusual way of having fun. Because the prompt asks for something “unusual,” you should probably avoid conventional pastimes such as playing or watching sports (unless in the latter case, it is a sport that is not popular, such as curling), watching television or movies, reading books, and the like. Otherwise, pretty much any pastime is fair game.
In an increasingly global and interdependent society, there is a need for diversity in thought, background, and experience in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. How do you see yourself contributing to the diversity of Caltech’s community? (200 word max)
While this question appears to ask you to draw upon your racial and economic background, a safer way of approaching this question is to talk about how you will enhance Caltech’s diversity of thought. To address that portion of the prompt, you can talk about how you generate ideas, how you analyze problems, or how you approach academic challenges. Ideally, one of those topics can be paired with some sort of supporting anecdote, and then tied to your ability to solve typical engineering or academic problems. For example, you could answer this prompt by discussing how your observational nature allowed you to find several potential water leaks in your basement that no one else did, allowing your family to prevent the leaks. Then, you could link your powers of observation to a potential role as a trouble-shooter on academic projects.
Scientific exploration clearly excites you. Beyond our 3:1 student-to-faculty ratio and our intense focus on research opportunities, how do you believe Caltech will best fuel your intellectual curiosity and help you meet your goals? (500 word max)
This is a traditional “Why School” essay with a couple of major caveats thrown into the mix. The student to faculty ratio, and the broad descriptor “research opportunities” are often popular things to reference in such essays, however because they are explicitly referred to in the prompt, you should avoid writing about them at all. The first step in this essay is to outline your goals, ideally a mix of career and academic ones. Then you need to do some research on Caltech’s major programs, academic focused extracurricular activities, and opportunities for learning. If you do discuss research opportunities, they should be highly specific (ideally individual projects), and you should also discuss the professor(s) associated with them. Referring to individual classes or sequences of classes can be effective, but you have to make sure that you don’t just describe the classes in a cursory manner, but also discuss the intrinsic motivations you have for taking them.