How to Write the Caltech Supplemental Essays 2021-2022

The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is one of the nation’s most renowned STEM schools. When applying to Caltech, in addition to the Common Application or Coalition Application’s personal essay, students are required to respond to four supplemental questions. In the past, these essays have focused on applicants’ STEM experiences and fervor, but this year the prompts are more general and allow applicants to show who they are as unique individuals


Because Caltech admissions are extremely competitive, you should view your supplemental essays as your opportunity to stand out—they are where you show that you are more than just fabulous grades and test scores!


Want to know your chances at Caltech before getting started on your essays? Calculate your chances for free right now. 


Caltech Supplemental Essay Prompts

Prompt 1: Tell us about a time or experience in which you encountered failure. (100-250 words)


Prompt 2: Tell us about a life situation, media story, or topic – beyond or outside of a classroom or formal assignment – that has captivated you, inspired your curiosity, and led you to delve more deeply into learning about a subject on your own. (100-250 words)


Prompt 3: Tell us about how you have collaborated with and worked together within a small group of your peers on some task or endeavor in the past, or about how you imagine you will work with your Caltech peers in the future. (100-250 words)


Prompt 1


Tell us about a time or experience in which you encountered failure. (100-250 words)

When approaching any college essay, it is important to read the prompt carefully so that you can 1) answer the question in its entirety and 2) know how far you can stretch the question. Here, the prompt asks about a time when you “encountered” failure. This wording gives you options. If you want to write about a time when you were afraid of failure, you can. If you want to write about a time when someone failed you, you can. If you want to write about a time when you saw a documentary about someone famous failing, that’s even okay! Make sure that failure is central to your essay and that your thoughts and identities are explored through your essay, but feel free to engage with the idea of ‘failure’ in a unique way.


Some examples of stretching this prompt:


  • You saw someone, obviously late for work or class, trying to get on the subway. They dropped all of their books and their hot coffee. You have always hated the fact that you expect the worst in people and, when you saw this, were already mourning the fact that no one was going to help the struggling person. Three people helped them, within seconds. You realized that working on optimism should be high on your priority list because people won’t always fail you.


  • Last summer, you were working in a lab and had an issue with an algorithm that was stressing you out and making it hard for you to eat and sleep. On the bus, going home from the lab, you would read books about famous scientists to try to calm down. One day, when reading about Jane Goodall, you learned about an instance where she had to fight an antiquated law that was preventing her from important research. You realized that, with your algorithm, your only issue was your lack of confidence. Later on in life, you would have so many outside forces trying to make you fail—like the US government, in the case of Jane Goodall. You committed to never be the main obstacle to your own success.


While those are examples of writing about others’ failures, you can also write about a time when you failed, almost failed, or were afraid of failure and succeeded. CollegeVine has many different resources and examples for writing essays about Overcoming Challenges


When you write about overcoming challenges, it’s important to avoid cliche obstacles like sports injuries, moving, or getting a bad grade in a course. These experiences tend to be common, making the end of your essay predictable. If you want to write about your most important life experience, but it is also a “cliche obstacle,” you can try putting a unique spin on it! 


For example, if you write about moving to a different part of the country and struggling to make friends, you can make your essay stand out by describing how that experience caused you to form an expat organization at your high school that has inspired similar organizations in three other area high schools.


Whether the encountered failure focuses on yourself or someone else, your essay should center around you. It is a common mistake (even in Overcoming Challenges essays) for students to focus too much on the challenge itself—the backstory, the details of the challenge, and the resolution—instead of focusing on how they approached the challenge, how their mindset and values led them to choose that approach, and how they grew from the challenge. This is an especially large error in short essays like this one. You want to explain the situation you are describing so that your readers won’t be confused, but you should devote as many words as possible to reflection and thoughtful commentary.


One of our best Overcoming Challenges examples is about a student failing to start a fire, getting made fun of by her family, and realizing that she had transitioned from being a young explorer to a young writer. While the essay is about fire—it actually starts “Fire!”—readers learn more about the student than they do about the fire:


In the tent, I pondered my failure. Was I so dainty? Was I that incapable? I thought of my hands, how calloused and capable they had been, how tender and smooth they had become. It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive.


As you write, keep the following questions in mind:


  • Why was it important that you encountered failure in this way?
  • What does your encounter with failure say about you and what matters to you?
  • How were your thoughts and emotions affected by experiencing failure, seeing failure, or being afraid of failure?
  • How did this encounter with failure help you grow and mature as a person?


Prompt 2


Tell us about a life situation, media story, or topic – beyond or outside of a classroom or formal assignment – that has captivated you, inspired your curiosity, and led you to delve more deeply into learning about a subject on your own. (100-250 words)

This prompt is more complex than the last, but shouldn’t feel overwhelming. The ultimate goal here is for admissions officers to learn about your interests and what inspires you—which shouldn’t be too hard for you to get into if you are truly inspired by what you are writing about.


Your first step should be to ruminate on the question “what inspires me?” You may want to keep in mind that Caltech is a STEM-focused school (with historically STEM-focused essay questions) as you consider potential topics. 


Some things that might inspire applicants:


  • A specific environment you have been in
  • A goal or vision you have for your life
  • Doing creative art
  • A novel, short story, or graphic novel you’ve read
  • Something you saw in a TV show, film, the news, or the paper
  • An unexpected encounter with an inspirational person
  • Something random


If an answer to “what inspires you?” doesn’t come naturally, try working backward. First consider what you do and what you are interested in, then consider why. The “why?” could tell you your topic/story, but it is more likely to be a thought-out reason. Your last step is to find a life situation, media story, or topic that demonstrates your reason. 



Here are some examples of the “working backward” thought process:


  1. What do I like to do? Debug programs. 
  2. Why? I am energized by the challenge of always looking for something that doesn’t want to be found. 
  3. What is a topic/story that relates to that reason? I loved watching crime shows as a kid because the detectives had to solve problems, but their job was also exciting and dynamic.


  1. What do I like to do? Neuroscience research. 
  2. Why? It’s an unknown frontier. Even when people give statistics like “we don’t know anything about 85% of the brain,” they don’t know if they know the right statistic. 
  3. What is a topic/story that relates to that reason? My dad does software engineering and always talks about how it’s cutting-edge. I love the idea of exploration and creation, but I have always been more interested in biology than computer science. Neuroscience is cutting-edge biology!


After you pick your topic/story, remember the three prongs of your response that must be addressed:


  • How it captivated you
  • How it inspired your curiosity
  • How it lead you to delve more deeply into learning about a subject on your own

When answering the final component about deep exploration of a subject, make sure to include specific examples and anecdotes. This could include being driven to intense personal research, taking on a new position to learn about your subject from experts, starting an organization to meet with other students who love your topic, attending conferences and lectures, saving up money to purchase a season pass at a specific museum or venue, and more.


The most challenging part of this prompt is figuring out your topic. Once you identify what inspires you and come up with a creative way to discuss it, the thoughts and words will start flowing! Make sure to write about your authentic interests. Admissions officers can easily see through false passion, and being authentic will make writing easier for you.


Prompt 3


Tell us about how you have collaborated with and worked together within a small group of your peers on some task or endeavor in the past, or about how you imagine you will work with your Caltech peers in the future. (100-250 words)

This prompt is required, but there are options within it: you can look into the past or look towards the future. Additionally, this prompt varies from the last in that it does not specify whether your group work experience should be curricular or extracurricular. Because you have options, if your approach isn’t working for you, you should be open to switching from the past to the future, or vice versa, or from in the classroom to out of the classroom, or vice versa. 


Recalling the Past


To get started, think about the idea of a “small group of peers.” Peers typically refers to people who are on the same level as you (no party has authority) so you should avoid talking about an experience with a boss or supervisor, a teacher or administrator, or your parents. You might want to consider:


  • Sports teams
  • Class projects
  • Planning committees
  • Groups of friends
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Coworkers
  • Fun extracurricular projects
  • Research team


For each group of peers, you will likely be able to identify the most interesting endeavors or tasks that you worked on together. That being said, when picking your group or peers and/or your endeavor/task, make sure that you had a distinct role in the group. Admissions officers are looking for students who contribute and matter—you want them thinking “wow, this couldn’t have been done without our applicant!” You can’t just ride the coattails of your peers’ successes.


Keep in mind that your group of peers could be chosen or assigned. And, whether your group was chosen or assigned may affect the content of your essay. If you were assigned, did that complicate your collaboration? How did you work within that stress? 


Similarly, if you chose your group, did the personal connection make achieving your task more difficult or easier? If it made things harder, how do you think personal and professional should be separated? If it made things easier, are you now a proponent of team bonding activities? These are the kinds of questions you want to explore in your short essay.


Additionally, think about the challenges presented by the task itself. If you are discussing a large task like a research project, you can focus on writing your project proposal (or whichever part of the project you were most important for!). Did your team have any major setbacks? Was there anything that wouldn’t have been solved without you? Was it hard at times? Discuss the challenges of the project as a whole, then focus on your role within the project.


Finally, if you choose to look back on the past for this essay, you should look back from a reflective perspective. You should, of course, identify your group, your task, and your role in completing the task, but then, you should reflect. After reading your essay, the reader should better understand how you work within a group and how you think about working within a group.


Looking Towards the Future


Choosing to imagine a group collaboration at Caltech is a great option for any student with a vibrant imagination, an intense desire to attend Caltech, or a notable excitement about college. If you are excited about your future, it should (and likely will!) come out in your response to this question.


That being said, excitement is contagious, and when you get excited about your group collaboration, you may also find yourself thinking about non-collaborative aspects of dorm life, academic life, and research. Make sure to stay focused—the prompt is asking you about collaboration. Envision a specific situation, project, or task that you see yourself collaborating with others on and write an engaging essay about it. 


Do not feel bound by reality! Make up hypothetical conversations with your peers! Consider potential problems your (hypothetical) group might encounter! Dig deep and be thorough. Consider all contingencies and worst-case scenarios.


If you choose to write about an academic collaboration at Caltech like a research project or working in a lab, make sure to look into some actual research topics that students study. You may even benefit from talking to people you know who are involved in research at high-level institutions. High school research and college research are different, so making sure your hypothetical research topic is something that could be worked on at Caltech will ensure that you do not appear naive or inexperienced.


Final Tips


As you work on your essays, try to choose topics that you genuinely care about—that way you will enjoy working on them. If you work hard on your essays and have a good time writing them, it is more likely that Caltech admissions officers will enjoy reading them. 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.


When reading through your drafts, be 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—they matter. You will also benefit from other people reading your essays to make sure they are engaging and error-free.


Where to Get Your Caltech Essay Edited for Free


If you’ve already written your Caltech supplemental essays, it might be time to get them edited. Having peers read your essays will help you to identify areas for improvement and, ultimately, will help you maximize your chances of getting into Caltech. By creating a free CollegeVine account, you will have access to CollegeVine resources like our free peer-review service. We’re here to help you put your best foot forward and feel prepared throughout this application season—because we know how overwhelming it can get.


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Our college essay experts go through a rigorous selection process that evaluates their writing skills and knowledge of college admissions. We also train them on how to interpret prompts, facilitate the brainstorming process, and provide inspiration for great essays, with curriculum culled from our years of experience helping students write essays that work.

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