Essay Scoop: How to Answer CalTech Essays

Madeleine Karydes
Madeleine Karydes

Madeleine attended UC Berkeley and double-majored in English and Media Studies. She is now an integral part of the Empowerly team.

The California Institute of Technology—better known by the nickname CalTech—is widely regarded as one of the top ten universities in the United States. In fact, the Wall Street Journal recently named CalTech for the coveted spot #5 on its 2020 list. Want to know how to crack the CalTech essays and present your best self to the admissions committee? In this post, we’ll go through each of their school-specific prompts for you and discuss how to best ace each of the CalTech essays.


About the school

First, a little background on the school itself. Located in Pasadena, California, this private technological institute was founded in 1891, with the intent to focus on pure and applied sciences. To this day, though the school remains small (with a total enrollment of about 2,200 students) the school’s intellectual legacy in science and engineering stands tall. The faculty hold myriad awards, ranging from Nobel Prizes to Fields Medals to Turing Awards and beyond. And the competition to study here is tough: the acceptance rate for undergraduates in the fall of 2018 barely passed 6% of the applicant pool.

How to succeed

Ready to take on the challenge? Alongside your shining report card and impressive test scores, let’s see how we can turn those essay questions into an asset for your application. In addition to the Common App prompts, CalTech requires applicants to complete four short answers this year. Their website explains that these questions are a chance for admissions officers to get to know you “as a student, scientist, and person, and ascertain who you’ll be on our campus.” It’s your chance to show that you are a dimensional, dynamic person they’d like to meet!

Let’s tackle the CalTech essays

If you’re interested in reading more about past CalTech prompts, check out this post here.

Below, we’ve got the exact wording of this year’s prompts (for fall 2019) and advice on how to get started on the right foot:

Describe three experiences and/or activities that have helped develop your passion for a possible career in a STEM field. (Your response for each experience/activity should range between 10-120 words.)

This prompt is specific and direct: three experiences or activities. For this one, it’s okay to use something that also appears on your resume since those are likely some of your most impactful experiences. Just make sure that you’re also pushing beyond the titles and dates! Give a sense of what you remember most, what you treasured, and what influence these activities had on your development. This is a short one, so you MUST be concise and efficient with your word choice. But read the instructions carefully: the max word count for the entire essay should not exceed 360 words (120 per activity).

Much like the life of a professional scientist or engineer, the life of a “Techer” relies heavily on collaboration. Knowing this, what do you hope to explore, innovate, or create with your Caltech peers? (Your response should range between 250-400 words.)

If you don’t know where to start for this prompt, think about times you’ve worked on teams and built things together. Even if you’re an introvert, you add value to brainstorming sessions, bounce off of peers’ ideas, and provide your perspective… and more! Ask yourself how you can help advance the intellectual environment at a college and build support networks for—and with—your peers. CalTech cares about developing a sense of unity on campus, and since it’s a smaller student body, you’ll need some people skills to get along. Bottom line: communication and collaboration should be cornerstone values to focus on in this essay.

Caltech students are often known for their sense of humor and creative pranks. What do you like to do for fun? (Your response should range between 250-400 words.)

It’s no secret that CalTech is a quirky school. (Their mascot is an orange beaver.) This prompt is asking: are you ready to join the ranks and shake things up like the best of them? Do you already engage in activities that seem to align with the creative, out-of-the-box ethos that makes CalTech unique? Awesome. Feel free to express your personality in this prompt—don’t feel like you need to stick to purely academic subjects. DO make sure that as you talk about your favorite hobbies, you’re still writing well, demonstrating your top-notch critical thinking skills. Just because you have free rein to write about a humorous, unexpected topic doesn’t mean that you should be unprofessional.

The process of discovery best advances when people from various backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives come together. How do you see yourself contributing to the diversity of Caltech’s community? (Your response should range between 250-400 words.)

Lots of colleges ask about your background, and what you want to do in college. This prompt wants to know what you will bring to their table. What skills and ideas can you add to the pot? How will you expand their existing horizons? As you get your gears turning on this topic, also think about the school itself. This prompt is a great opportunity to show that you understand the infrastructure of the school as it is today. Additionally, prove that you’ve done research on the departments and environment. In other words, to show that you care about attending CalTech specifically. Understand the lay of the land and make a case for how you will carve out a new, invaluable niche.

In the end

Not so bad, right? Don’t let the odds scare you away. CalTech holds its students to a high caliber of both academics and creativity. So as you write your CalTech essays, remember the words of the university’s motto: “The truth shall make you free.” Be true to yourself, do your best, and don’t panic. Just by reading this post, you’ve already taken the first step in the process—and we’re here to help you! Looking for even more support? Talk to one of our team about what services we can offer for the whole college application journey, from essays to strategy to choosing a major.

If you want to be part of the 6% that gets to call CalTech home, let us help you get there.

Questions? Let us know!