written by
Katie Chiou

California Institute of Technology Essay Guide 2020-2021

Essay Guides 9 min read
California Institute of Technology Campus Photo, courtesy of Caltech

In this Caltech essay guide, we will give tips for applicants to best express themselves in their personal statements as prospective Caltech students. For more guidance on essays and the college application process, schedule a call for a free 20-minute session with a Bullseye admissions coach.

The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) - famous for both its prestige in STEM and its wild pranks - is a private research institution in Pasadena, California, home to the Rose Bowl and a short drive away from Los Angeles. Caltech is one of the smallest schools in its prestige level, with an undergraduate enrollment of only 948 students. The admission rate in the past has hovered around 7%, though the exact number is not published directly by the university.

Life as a Caltech Undergrad

At Caltech, students are expected to focus their studies on STEM subjects, ranging from biophysics to planetary sciences. Many Caltech students pursue graduate studies in research or work in an industry, such as the nearby center for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The Core Curriculum at Caltech requires courses in humanities and social sciences, mathematics (including multivariable calculus and linear algebra), and physical education. Students are also expected to take a course in scientific writing, in line with Caltech’s goal of producing top-notch researchers. Caltech students are perhaps most well-known for their pranks, many of which are city-wide, including changing the Hollywood sign or pranking Caltech’s rival school, MIT.

Because of its small community, Caltech houses a tight-knit student population and emphasizes intimacy in its classes. The Caltech student population is organized into a “House System,” modeled after the residential college system of Oxford and Cambridge. At the start of freshman year, students undergo a two-week rotation through the houses to get a feel for each, then rank their preferences. The student will then be aligned with one house for the rest of their undergraduate career. Each house has its own slogan, website, and, some say, personality.

In summary, Caltech offers its students a rigorous and fun education in a tight knit community in Southern California. Admission to Caltech is highly selective and the first step towards an acceptance is making your application stand out. Caltech is looking for intellectually curious and driven students with passionate stories who know how to work hard and play hard. The supplementary essays provide the opportunity to demonstrate that you possess all of these qualities.

Prompt #1: 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.)

The Admissions Office asks this question to learn more about your background in STEM, since Caltech is a technical institute that emphasizes rigor in STEM classes. In your answer, highlight experiences that show you can handle Caltech’s rigor, demonstrate your passion for STEM, and explain major takeaways from each experience that have helped inform your future career.

Carefully consider which extracurriculars you want to include on this list - start by thinking about ones that you can connect to your future career, and what type of research you hope to pursue at Caltech. Focus on extracurriculars that are a major part of your application, that you’ve dedicated time and/or leadership to, or where you can highlight specific accomplishments. An example could be a STEM competition, a school organization, research, or work position. Keep in mind - this prompt is only 120 words. That means, you likely won’t be writing narratively (unless you can keep it to 40 words each!) and will have to consider each word and focus of this answer carefully.

In my essay, I focused on the three main STEM activities in my high school career - a school organization, Science Olympiad, which often placed highly in competitions in our state, and of which I was the captain. However, rather than focusing on my position or awards (which were listed in the extracurricular section of my Common App) I focused on my interest, my experience, and specifically what skills I gained, such as sawing or drilling.

I also mentioned the breadth of my events, connecting them to my intended major at Caltech. My other two activities were both research internships - one in bioengineering, the other in surgical skills. In both, I focused specifically on skills and topics I was exposed to, which I was unable to fit into my original extracurricular description.

Prompt #2: 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.)

In this essay, Caltech is asking about several major themes: collaboration, innovation and goals, and finally, Caltech. In your response, you should demonstrate that you have done your research into Caltech, whether that be projects you would like to join with renowned professors, or ways in which you would contribute to the Caltech community.

In many ways, this essay is a clever combination of a typical “Why School” prompt and an emphasis on Caltech’s values. In your answer, be specific, whether by mentioning Caltech traditions you would like to be a part of (the Pumpkin Drop? the pranks?), professors you want to work with, or classes you’re excited for. Note: Do not just name drop several professors. When you mention professors, write about their work and research, beyond just their broad field. Why does that research area excite you?

In addition to the typical aspects of a “Why School” answer, you should always consider the specifics of the prompt — collaboration and innovation. Thus, do research into student-led initiatives, such as science for the community, or an independent student project. All is fair game, and don’t be afraid to be imaginative — what projects have you always wanted to work on? At Caltech, you’ll have the mentors and the resources to accomplish it.

In my year of admissions, this prompt was not given, but a very similar one was. In my essay, I emphasized my intellectual curiosity and described my goals at Caltech specifically. I focused on specific courses and research projects I wanted to contribute to, specifically in relation to brain sciences and epigenetics. I related my interests to volunteer work I had done in high school and my passion to be a driving force in working towards a solution. My answer also included a specific reference to the small class size at Caltech and included a personal narrative in which I relayed both my passion for biology and my relationship with my biology teacher, communicating my hope for building a one-on-one mentorship relationship with a professor.

Prompt #3: 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.)

In this essay, the Admissions Office at Caltech is trying to get to know you better. Caltech’s community is made up of quirky students - your answer to this question should help the admissions officer get to know what makes you, you.

With this essay prompt, consider a unique aspect of yourself - or a unique spin on that aspect! This is not necessarily the essay to drive home again that you are passionate about STEM — unless there’s an unshared, specific, and unique activity you do related to STEM. This is the prompt to show that you are human - not just a student!

One common issue that many students run into is: unique? But I can’t think of anything that I do that’s unique...I know at least X amount of people out there who do X thing! The question is, how does this activity emphasize your personality, passions, or quirks? Does it bring out certain traits that make you unique? Do you engage with this activity in a special way? Your perspective on yourself is key to answering this prompt creatively - it might not be the activity itself that’s special, but your take on it and the way you choose to present your passion to the readers.

In my essay, I focused on an activity I genuinely did for fun - I had no competitions, no awards, no group activity, and honestly, no reason for its inclusion in my application. But I had a story. I chose to write about singing and taking voice lessons. This is not a unique activity, clearly - plenty of students sing, and many are in award-winning choirs and competitions. I wrote about the vocal exercises that students practice - shouting the funkiest words out the window to improve flexibility and vocal strength. I spoke about what it meant for me to learn to sing, how it has impacted who I am, and mentioned specific examples: my early love of musicals and the alto female voices found on Broadway.

Again, my experience is in no way special, as many students might have the very same activity and passion - but it was in the way I expressed that passion, through specific examples and references, that ultimately made my essay an interesting read.

Prompt #4: 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.)

The diversity essay is one that stumps many a student. Maybe you come from a community where mostly everyone acts like you, or thinks like you. That’s a majority of the population! With this question, Caltech wants to know: what perspective do you bring to the table? How do you add to the community in your own way?

Often times, diversity is directly connected in our minds to culture and race. This is not necessarily true - diversity can be found in a range of perspectives and experiences. Finding a story personal to your own experiences is key to brainstorming for this essay prompt. What events in your life have come together to shape you and who you are today? And the answer can be any number of experiences, as long as you be true to yourself and explain how they have impacted you.

In my response, I actually did write about culture — particularly, how my father’s Brazilian culture and my mother’s Taiwanese culture clashed in my childhood. I drew from each side of my upbringing in order to explain how they’ve contributed to who I am today, what traits make up my being. I referenced not only the culture, but the arguments that have contributed to my values today — as a person and student.

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This essay guide was written by Katie Chiou, Brown University ‘21. If you want to get help writing your Caltech application essays from Katie or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, register with Bullseye today.

Caltch California Institute of Technology Essay essay guide
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