Caltech Essay Prompts and Tips
With a 3% acceptance rate, 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. 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 three 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 three required Caltech essays, one quick note… You’ll notice that the prompts themselves are essay-length themselves. This is due to the fact that the admissions committee has offered its own guidance to assist you in formulating an on-target response.
Caltech Essay Prompt #1 (required)
Question #1: Tell us about a time or experience in which you encountered failure.
We would like to know more about your potential to persist through challenges and problems that you will face in the future. Qualities such as resilience and persistence can be key to solving the many problems and responding to the frequent failures that can be encountered in academics or research. In an essay about research and discovery at Caltech, “The Transformative Power of Failure,” several current and past members of our community share their anecdotes about, and perspectives on, various forms of failure.
Here are questions that may help guide your response: How do you define failure? What was the problem you were trying to solve? What did you learn from the experience? Did you seek advice or help from others? If so, did you receive any, or did you move forward without? What contributed to your resilience as you struggled, and what motivated your persistence?
Caltech is pretty explicit with what they are looking for here, so we’ll keep our advice short and sweet. First, you definitely want to read the article they link to. In it, professors cite examples from their own lives of how sometimes it takes “10,000 wrongs to make a right.” Reading this price will get you in the right mindset to compose a winning response. Remember that your story doesn’t need to have an ending where you emerge as the hero. This is more about struggle, resilience, teamwork, humility, and understanding just how hard-won even minor gains/victories can be in the scientific process.
Caltech Essay Prompt #2 (required)
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.
We would like to learn about the nature of your own curiosity and drive to learn independently. Here are questions that may help guide your response: What was the situation, story, or topic? In which ways did it spike your curiosity? Down what path did this newfound interest lead you? How did the pursuit of a deeper, more focused understanding of this prove valuable or satisfying to you?
Whether it’s a general love for math/science or engineering or a specific interest in black holes or topological physics, use this opportunity to share what makes you tick, the ideas that keep you up at night, and what subject inspires you to dream big. What topic makes you read books and online content until your eyes bleed? Share the manner in which you relentlessly pursue knowledge.
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 into your intended area of study at Caltech, all the better!
Caltech Essay Prompt #3 (required)
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.
We would like to know more about your potential to collaborate and work together with others as you reach your own understanding of the problem and solution, whether it be an academic assignment or a research project. At Caltech, it is often the case that problem sets assigned during the first year can be challenging enough that any one student is unable to come up with the solutions in isolation. This has fostered a tradition of small groups of students forming to work together to solve these problems, such that each team member also reaches a deep understanding, both of the solution and the path taken to get there as a collaborative group.
Here are questions that may help guide your response: What have your peers told you about the ways you contribute to working in groups? How do you approach problem solving in groups? What would your peers tell us about how you collaborate and work together with them?
Honestly, there isn’t much more advice to offer beyond the 200+ words of advice already baked into this prompt. As the committee suggests, you want to get highly-specific about your style of collaborative work. The one thing we would add is that this essay doesn’t need to be a glowing assessment of how wonderful you are to work with. In general, essays that exclusively consist of self-praise often come across as generic. It can be more needle-moving to share ways in which you have grown as a collaborative team member. If you can highlight areas where you have learned from a peer and become a better group member as a result, your essay will be strengthened.
How important are the essays at Caltech?
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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Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).
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