How to Write the Caltech Supplemental Essays 2020-2021
Ranked #12 (tie) in National Universities by the US News and World Report, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is one of the best STEM schools in the country. Just 11 miles northeast of LA, the Pasadena-based college is known for everything from excellent weather and student-served dining traditions to theory-focused coursework and a large diversity of research. With just a 6.2% acceptance rate, the university remains extremely selective in their admissions.
The actual application for Caltech has four main supplemental essay questions primarily aimed at understanding the applicant’s STEM experience and fervor. As you begin thinking about writing the Caltech supplemental essays, it’s important to think of them as a portfolio working together, where the content should balance well without seeming repetitive. Overall, they are looking for someone who will stand out in their tech community, but that doesn’t preclude you from showing other important facets of your background and interests in the application as well. Want to know your chances at Caltech? Calculate your chances for free right now.
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How to Write the Caltech Essays
This essay functions as a set of three mini essays, which allows Caltech to take their own spin on the popular activity-based prompt without the usual 150 word cap on a singular activity. As you approach this set of prompts, think about which three experiences you would like to expand on as an opportunity to include a few more details that would not fit in the character-tight Common App activities list.
Similarly to your activities list, you should order them based on overall significance/priority and make sure that you are not including any repeat information. For example, if you are part of a robotics team as both a member of the drive team and also a CAD designer, you should still consolidate separate roles as just one STEM activity – robotics.
Since the word count for each activity is still limited to just 120 words each, your descriptions should be direct and carefully thought out to maximize space. Although the prompt is asking for you to explain activities that have helped you develop your passion, that doesn’t mean you need to touch base on how exactly they developed your passion in each since you won’t have enough room. Caltech has also eliminated any need to transition between activities by adding three different text box spaces to keep them segregated.
Once you have drafted these mini essays, double check to make sure someone reading them from an outsider perspective will have a clear understanding of the activity. Clarify your acronyms and use terms that will be accessible especially if you are referencing something local or unusual in your activity descriptions.
Admissions officers can already tell from your activities list, grades, and test scores that you’re willing to put your intellect to work to achieve your goals. Still, success in most fields requires playing well with others alongside a solid drive. Remember, universities want to build a well-rounded class of students who possess the communication skills needed to contribute their unique talents to a collective cause.
Collaboration is one of Caltech’s professed values, and this essay is your chance to show that it’s one of yours too.
Additionally, this prompt contains a bit of a “Why Caltech” element, as they are seeking to understand which resources and opportunities you will take advantage of in engaging with your Caltech community. As with any “Why This College?” prompt, the key here is specificity, specificity, and more specificity. There are plenty of fantastic STEM-focused schools out there—MIT, Johns Hopkins, and Harvey Mudd, to name a few, so what makes Caltech special to you, and how will you contribute to their special community?
With your 400-word limit in mind, feel free to briefly touch upon your past collaborative experiences, but focus on your takeaways regarding which elements of these experiences you most enjoyed, what you learned from them, and which collaborative skills you’ll bring to the Caltech campus. Here’s where you get into your interests within STEM, making sure to mention the specific opportunities—including research, academic offerings, programs, and facilities—which will allow you to reach your goals while working with others.
Since Caltech values contribution as well as collaboration, don’t shy away from potentially starting something new! Perhaps you would like to start a new club, company, or nonprofit; just make sure it will bring something truly original and previously unexplored on the Caltech campus.
For example, you could discuss your dream of creating a company that uses neural networks to conduct customer research through use of the resources at Caltech’s CAST, or Center of Autonomous Systems and Technologies. While you have deep knowledge and experience in neural networking, you’ll turn to your classmates for their skills in web design, data analysis, and more, which you recognize as equally essential skills.
Explain what you’ll bring to the table and show healthy humility in exploring what you hope to learn and gain from the classmates you collaborate with. After all, one of the best things about college is the people you meet there.
This prompt can be one of the most entertaining to write and read because of the opportunity to present the admissions office with an amalgamation of weird topics. Applicants can explore their quirky side with this prompt by writing about unique hobbies or interesting personality oddities.
The main point of the question is to invite students to take a more relaxed approach to writing about themselves. It brings the application to life by asking you to write only about your own personality and humor, which feels more open than other essays that ask you to answer a specific question on something like a challenge you’ve faced or a person you admire. While answering both of those prompts still offers insight into who the author is, they are fundamentally centralized around another topic or person, which is why Caltech cuts straight to the chase with this prompt to get you know you better.
The admissions office is looking for an authentic and fun 400 word portrayal of your character that could distinctly identify you from a crowd of essays. If you got to meet your admissions officer in person, and only had 60 seconds to pitch yourself without using anything from your activities or awards, what would you say first? Think of this essay’s tone as similar to the “letter to your roommate” type essays where you want to showcase quirky qualities and experiences related to your hobbies.
When thinking of unusual activities to include, we advise applicants to be careful with content related to contentious topics or politics (i.e. if one of your hobbies is to photograph/meme political campaign signs around your hometown or to actively moderate a controversial subreddit, don’t indicate which party/ideology/position you tend to support even through jokes or minor references).
While including pastimes that are extremely common like watching Netflix or pranking your friends might not stand out, adding specificity will. For example, you could talk in more detail about these activities by explaining how you love to memorize passages from Netflix comedy specials to pull out random Ali Wong impressions whenever possible or how you have a child-like obsession for food pranks and once ate an entire mayo-container full of vanilla pudding in front of your robotics team on the bus, etc. These “mini anecdotes” can elevate even the most generic topics throughout your essay.
Overall, if your essays starts to feel too “list-y,” remember to break up the examples with more detail and insights into your own personality as well!
In this final prompt, Caltech asks applicants to directly address their own background and demonstrate that their contributions in high school will continue once they attend college as well.
For example, a student could talk about how they grew up obsessed with oral storytelling and how that has helped their roles as a speaker during group projects and presentations as well. Expansion on the imagery behind stories they once told and additional detail on the engineering/research/robotics projects where they have used these skills since then could provide the main essay points leading into their hypothetical future contributions at Caltech.
One critical note is that this prompt can quickly morph into a response that is very similar to prompt #2 where applicants are answering what they “hope to explore, innovate, or create with [their] Caltech peers?” Since these both reference how the student will contribute to Caltech in the future, it’s helpful to make sure the content does not overlap at all. Focus on the key differences in what they are asking, where one is targeted more specifically on collaborating with innovation, and another asks about diversity and background contributing to a community.
This prompt also leaves the door open for particularly interesting responses. CollegeVine’s 2016 Caltech Essay guide encouraged students to approach this type of question by talking about how you will enhance Caltech’s diversity of thought through how you generate ideas, how you analyze problems, or how you approach academic challenges.
Ideally, these topics would paired with some sort of supporting anecdote, and then tied to your ability to solve typical engineering or academic problems. An example also given in the previous guide shows how 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.
Some questions about this type of prompt that we see from students are:
Q: Should we write about how our background influences what we want to major in for this prompt?
A: While you do not need to write about your intended major for this prompt, it could serve as a good way to wrap up your application package if you think your interest hasn’t been clearly indicated already.
Q: Is it better if I center it around one key element of my background/perspective?
A: Since this prompt doesn’t specify choosing one, you do have the option to touch on a few different elements or ideas if you can clearly draw a connection or overarching theme between them. Be careful not to lose depth or end up listing instead of utilizing anecdotes.
Q: How can I use this essay to talk about my research/internship/extracurricular if I haven’t been able to include information about it elsewhere?
A: Many students have been involved in internships, summer programs, etc. that they would like to highlight somewhere in their application. If you don’t provide more detail in the above essays, you may want to incorporate it into this prompt without losing focus on how it relates to your background. It can be difficult controlling how much information you give to explain the program or activity since you really need the word count for connecting it to your perspective and the future elements. We also tend see a lot of generalizations for brevity like, “it was difficult”, or “it was extremely inspiring”, without painting the picture of why with imagery or tangible examples to add evidence.
As you work on these essays, try to choose topics that you genuinely care about. This will help you in devoting much more time to them, resulting in higher quality essays. Since Caltech admissions are extremely selective, there’s a good deal of pressure on both the content and execution of all your application’s essays.
Remember that it is the admissions office’s job to read through thousands of these essays each year and discern whether you would be a good fit, so avoid topics that are even vaguely cliché. As you read through your finals essays, be brutally honest with yourself about whether you would enjoy the essay you’ve written from an outsider’s perspective. Pay close attention to your opening sentences and comb through each section carefully for grammar errors. Overall, do your best to put in the effort on essays that you feel are unique, meaningful, and well-organized.
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