Let's face it—we love all things quantitative at Caltech. And yet, here in the Undergraduate Admissions Office, our admissions decision-making process is much more of an art than a science.
Instead of simply putting your grades and test scores into a computer to calculate admissibility, we read every application—and every essay—to get a sense of who you are and whether you would be a good fit at Caltech. That's why our advice to all our applicants is to take your time preparing your short answers and your essays. You are more than a GPA and a set of test scores!
So, how do we make decisions? We start by asking ourselves the following three questions.
Are you academically prepared?
We first look for academic ability by evaluating test scores, grades, and recommendations. Caltech students are gifted in math and science and are also good test takers. If you have low math and science test scores, we will look for evidence of abilities in other parts of your application. Even if you have done well on your standardized tests, we will confirm that ability with your grades and teacher recommendations. Our admissions counselors read applications from the geographic regions they have visited and know well. Students are not compared to one another, even if they come from the same high school, because each student has a different set of life circumstances. We gather this information from the "personal background" portion of your application and from your secondary-school profile. If you have taken courses or done research outside of school, be sure to include those transcripts and, if possible, recommendations from those experiences.
Have you demonstrated a consistent interest in science, technology, engineering, or math?
Caltech students are not only good at math and science; they love those subjects, too. In the application, you'll have plenty of opportunities to tell us more about your math and science activities. What is it about STEM that excites you? Whether it's researching or tinkering that you enjoy, tell us about your experiences! If you have done research, feel free to submit an additional research mentor evaluation along with your research paper. We want to know what excites you about science, engineering, technology, or math. Are you ready to push the boundaries of scientific discovery?
How will you impact Caltech's campus community?
We want to know who you'll be in our labs, our classrooms, and our community. Techers are collaborative and trustworthy. In the application, you may wonder why we ask you about an ethical dilemma you have encountered. One thing we look for is your ability to live and work within our Honor Code: "No member of the Caltech community shall take unfair advantage of another member." Every piece of information you give us is like another pixel in the portrait of your life as a potential Techer. Feel free to even tell us about the things you do when you're not in school.
You’ve stood in awe of JPL and its incredible feats of engineering. You’ve marveled at observations made at the Keck and Ligo observatories. You’ve even dreamed of registering for a Kip Thorne class or taking a seat in the hallowed Richard Feynman Physics Lecture Hall. The only thing standing between your STEM achievements so far and your dreams of attending the fabled California Institute of Technology—that storied STEM playground—are six little essay prompts. Consider this our small contribution to your STEM future—a bit of advice in tackling Caltech’s freshman application. Now get to it:
- What three experiences or activities have helped you explore your desire to study and possibly pursue a career in STEM? (200 words maximum)
This is your chance to highlight what’s inspired your love of math and science. But you don’t have all that much room here—two hundred words divided by three activities equals something like three sentences per activity. So aim for broad strokes rather than nitty-gritty detail. Feel free to write about classroom insights, informal hands-on build experiences in your garage, or formal co-curricular STEM activities.
- Please list three books, along with their authors, that have been particularly meaningful to you. For each book, please include a sentence explaining their influence upon you (200 characters maximum). Please note that your response is not limited to math, science or school-assigned texts.
Caltech is giving you plenty of space throughout the rest of your application to talk about your interest in math and science. Don’t feel compelled to let them know, three more times, about your love for computer science. You like it. They get it. Move on. This is an opportunity to broaden their perspective. So don’t aim for something you think will impress them, choose something meaningful—significant, relevant, consequential—to you. If it happens to be computer science, go for it, but don’t blind them to all your other meaningful interests.
- Members of the Caltech community live, learn, and work within an Honor System with one simple guideline; ‘No member shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community.’ While seemingly simple, questions of ethics, honesty and integrity are sometimes puzzling. Share a difficult situation that has challenged you. What was your response, and how did you arrive at a solution? (200 words maximum)
What’s your ethical dilemma? How have you remained honest when nobody’s looking? When have you had to take a principled stand? Caltech isn’t asking about the easy stuff here—“I never cheat,” or “I never steal”—they’re asking about a difficult situation. Has a friendship ever been on the line as a consequence? Any peer pressure involved? Have familial relationships—“I had to tell my mom this was my college admission essay to write, not hers”—ever come into play? Arriving at a solution isn’t simply about your having taken a stand, though—that’s just your response. How did you arrive at a solution—or rather—resolve the situation? Was there any deliberation involved, either mental or verbal? Your response isn’t limited to issues of academic integrity; you’re free to write about any “unfair advantage.”
- Caltech students have long been known for their quirky sense of humor, whether it be through planning creative pranks, building elaborate party sets, or even the year-long preparation that goes into our annual Ditch Day. Please describe an unusual way in which you have fun. (200 words maximum)
“Creative pranks”? “Quirky sense of humor”? “Elaborate party sets”? Caltech couldn’t be dropping any bigger hints for you here if they spelled it out in letters as big as the Hollywood sign. This prompt screams fun: idiosyncratic/offbeat fun. It’s about unconventional creativity, imaginative invention, or skillfully-deft silliness. If your prompt response ends up eliciting a smile, chuckle, or wondrous double-take from your admission officer, you’ve done good.
- In an increasingly global and interdependent society, there is a need for diversity in thought, background, and experience in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. How do you see yourself contributing to the diversity of Caltech’s community? (200 words maximum)
It’s the role of a scientist or engineer to either answer questions about our world or invent solutions to problems that need fixing. Those answers and solutions aren’t dependent upon the background of the person either making the discovery or solving the problem. They’re simply dependent upon scientific prowess or innovative problem-solving minds. Right? Not so fast: Think about it. Who’s asking the questions? And as a consequence, which questions are being asked? Does the person solving the problem impact whose problems get solved? STEM belongs to everyone. What is it about your background, your experiences, your thought that will enable you to think outside the scientific box, so far—that will diversify the questions asked or the problems solved? How will you contribute to Caltech’s STEM community?
- Scientific exploration clearly excites you. Beyond our 3:1 student-to-faculty ratio and our intense focus on research opportunities, how do you believe Caltech will best fuel your intellectual curiosity and help you meet your goals? (500 words maximum)
This is your basic “Why this college?” essay. But Caltech’s asking you to go beyond the obvious here; the admissions office already knows Caltech is small and that its students have opportunities to do incredible research—they don’t need to be reminded. They’re looking for fit. So rather than spend the entire essay writing about Caltech, spend a portion of it telling them about your goals and what makes you intellectually curious. How do you fit snugly into the Caltech puzzle? Connect the dots between your curiosity and dreams and Caltech—professors, classes, core curriculum, scientific exploration. Ideally, this essay should say as much about you as Caltech; it should describe, in no uncertain terms, the fit.
essay prompts, essays, writing college essays
Written by Zaragoza Guerra
Zaragoza Guerra is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Zaragoza previously worked as a senior admissions officer at MIT, Caltech, and The Boston Conservatory.