Caltech Supplemental Essays 2023-24 – Prompts & Advice

September 14, 2022

caltech supplemental essays

With a 2.7% acceptance rate (yes, truly), Caltech is one of the most highly selective schools in the country. Amazingly, they have managed to operate as a test-blind institution throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so until 2025. This means that they do not presently consider ACT or SAT results in the admissions process. As such, the Caltech admissions committee gives extra weight to the five supplemental essay prompts that they require from all applicants.

 (Want to learn more about How to Get Into Caltech? Visit our blog entitled: How to Get Into Caltech for all of the most recent admissions data as well as tips for gaining acceptance.)

Before we dive right in and begin examining the five required and two optional 2023-24 Caltech essays, one quick note…  the admissions committee has provided in-depth guidance for three of the five required essays, so we’ll keep our advice for those short and sweet.

Caltech Supplemental Essays – Prompt #1 (required)

Why did you choose that area of interest? (200 words)

(Note: you’ll select 1-2 areas of interest from a provided drop-down box on the application)

We all have a story of what drives us to pursue a certain academic pathway and career. How did your interest initially develop? What was the spark? How have you nurtured this passion and how has it evolved over time? If you desire to go into engineering, this is a chance to talk about everything from your childhood fascination with how things work to your participation in an award-winning robotics program at your high school. Share a compelling (and, of course, true!) narrative about how your love of your future area of study has blossomed to its present levels.

In other words, this essay should show evidence of intense hunger for knowledge that extends well outside of the classroom. How do you learn about your favorite subjects? What books have you read on the subject? Which podcasts have you listened to? What museums have you visited? What related experiences have you had?

You should also tie your passions into specific academic opportunities at Caltech including coursesprofessorshands-on research programs, or any other aspects of your desired major that appeal most to you.

Caltech Supplemental Essays – Prompts #2 & #3 (required)

At Caltech, we investigate some of the most challenging, fundamental problems in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Identify and describe two STEM-related experiences from your high school years, either in or out of the classroom, and tell us how and why they activated your curiosity. What about them made you want to learn more and explore further? (100-200 words for each experience)

Main note here—you won’t be writing about both experiences within the same response (phew!). Caltech provides a separate response area for each experience, so you’ll have 200 words for STEM Experience #1 and 200 words for STEM Experience #2.

Perhaps you experienced a fascinating challenge during your engineering internship, encountered a particularly thought-provoking topic during differential calculus, or relentlessly pursued an interest in black holes or topological physics. Whatever you choose—formal or informal, inside or outside the classroom—use this opportunity to share more about your chosen experience. What fascinated you about it, and why? How has it impacted you or enabled you to build particular skills?  Whether it’s falling down a Wikipedia rabbit hole about the nature of time or consuming thousands of hours of podcasts on drone capabilities, this is a chance to illustrate the ways in which you are an obsessive learner with an endless thirst for information.

The admissions reader should emerge from reading this essay with the sense that you are a sincerely curious young person with a strong intellectual drive. If that curiosity can be tied to your intended area of study at Caltech, all the better!

Caltech Essays – Prompt #4 (required)

The creativity, inventiveness, and innovation of Caltech’s students, faculty, and researchers have won Nobel Prizes and put rovers on Mars. But Techers also imagine smaller scale innovations every day, from new ways to design solar cells to how to 3D print dorm decor. How have you been a creator, inventor, or innovator in your own life? (200-250 words)

Caltech knows you’re not a PhD-level researcher or a Nobel laureate, so they’re not looking for anything earth-shattering here (unless, of course, you’ve accomplished something earth-shattering—in which case, please share). Instead, they’re simply trying to understand the ways in which you bring your creative, inventive, and/or innovative qualities to your day-to-day life. Essentially, this is a fun chance to show off that side of yourself. To do so, feel free to go beyond extracurricular activities and formal experiences—maybe you perfected a solar oven design that bakes perfectly chewy chocolate chip cookies without utilizing electricity, or offered to develop a website for your local thrift shop with online shopping options. The sky is the limit here!

Caltech Supplemental Essays – Prompt #5 (required)

Caltech’s mission – to cultivate learning, discovery, and innovation for the benefit of humanity – relies on its community members embracing our Mission-Based Values, which include:

1. Openness and enthusiasm for having preconceptions challenged

2. Respect and appreciation for the idea that, while we are all members of the same community, the opportunities we’ve had to develop, showcase, and apply our talents have not been equal

3. Passion for the ideal that science can and should meaningfully improve the lives of others

Share what one or more of these values evokes for you. (200-400 words)

Here, Caltech provides you with three different values to choose from. Before you begin, make sure you familiarize yourself with Caltech’s full breakdown of their values. Then, choose one of the three noted above that 1) resonates most with you and 2) allows you to share more about your own personal experiences. Although you can select more than one, doing so may make it more difficult to craft a focused response, so keep that in mind as you write.

In addition, essays that wax poetic about the general importance of a chosen ideal—without connecting it to your own past experiences or future goals—will have approximately zero needle-moving value to the admissions committee. As such, rephrase each ideal as a question in order to identify the significance and depth of your associated experiences. For example, when have you had preconceptions challenged? How did you respond? When have you been confronted with the fact that yours (or your peers) opportunities have not been equal, and how did you handle it? Have you experienced how science can and should meaningfully improve the lives of others? How so?

Caltech Supplemental Essays – Prompt #6 & #7 (optional)

We know, we know … you see optional and start to wonder if we mean it. But in this section, we truly do! See these as completely optional opportunities to show us more of your personality. 

Optional. We promise.

  • If there are aspects of your life or social or personal identity that you feel are not captured elsewhere in this application, please tell us about them below. (150 words)
  • Did you have a hard time narrowing it down to just one interest or hobby? We understand – Caltech students like to stay busy, too – tell us about another hobby or interest! (50 words)

Caltech’s admissions committee is quite transparent about what they are and aren’t looking for, so this is one of those rare occasions when an optional essay is truly optional. As such, if there is something significant to share about your background, identity, or interests that hasn’t already been communicated elsewhere on the application, feel free to discuss it here, but do not feel compelled to respond if you’ll be grasping at straws to formulate an answer.

How important are the essays?

Overall, Caltech lists five factors as being “very important” to the admissions process. Those factors are: the rigor of your high school coursework, test scores (even though they are test blind, which is odd) recommendations, character/personal qualities, and your application essays. In fact, the essays are rated as being of greater importance than your GPA, class rank, or extracurricular activities!

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