California Institute of Technology (Caltech) Supplemental Essays Guide: 2021-2022

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Not sure how to approach the Caltech essay prompts? CollegeAdvisor.com’s guide to the Caltech supplemental essays will show you exactly how to write engaging Caltech essays and maximize your chances of admission. If you need help crafting your Caltech supplemental essays, create your free account or schedule a no-cost advising consultation by calling (844) 343-6272.

Caltech Essay Guide Quick Facts:

  • Caltech has an acceptance rate of 7%—U.S. News ranks Caltech as a highly selective school.
  • Ranked #9 in National Universities.
  • 3:1 student-faculty ratio.
  • 66.7% of classes have fewer than 20 students.

Does Caltech Require Supplemental Essays?

Yes. You will be required to write three Caltech supplemental essays in addition to the personal statement that you will write for the Common App or Coalition App. Each Caltech supplemental essay has a maximum of 250 words.

Struggling to write your Common App Personal Statement? Read tips for approaching this essay on our Common App essay guide.

What are Caltech’s Supplemental Essays?

The Caltech supplemental essays are listed on the Common App website. You can also find the Caltech supplemental essays listed on Caltech’s website, alongside brief explanations of each prompt.

Notably, the Caltech supplemental essays do not ask students to write a "Why Caltech essay." Instead, the Caltech supplemental essays focus on students' own experiences, traits, and backgrounds. However, just because there is no "Why Caltech essay" doesn't mean that you can't show the Admissions Officers why you belong at Caltech through your Caltech essays. In fact, whenever possible and relevant to the prompt, refer to specific Caltech programs, classes, professors, and organizations that you’d like to take advantage of should you attend. That way, you subtly answer the “Why Caltech essay” prompt, even though it hasn’t expressly been asked.

In other words, successful Caltech supplemental essays will do everything a "Why Caltech essay" would do; that is, they'll illustrate the reasons why a particular student belongs at a science and engineering powerhouse like Caltech and how they will contribute to the Caltech community.

We will break down each of the Caltech essay prompts later in this essay guide.

How Many Essays Does Caltech Require?

Caltech requires students to complete three 250-word Caltech essay prompts. These prompts ask students to reflect on their experiences, interests, and character. You can also use the Caltech essay prompts to discuss your STEM experiences.

Caltech Essay Prompts and How to Write Them:

So, how do you answer the Caltech essays?

Since each of the Caltech essays has a 250-word maximum, you will want to focus on both content and execution in your writing process. As we'll discuss, each of the Caltech supplemental essays asks students to reflect on a particular experience or interest. Again, note that there is no "Why Caltech essay," but the Caltech essays each have elements that allow you to specify why Caltech interests you.

To maximize your Caltech essays, you'll want to offer a brief summary of each experience of an event, using the bulk of your essay to reveal how this experience or event influenced your broader character. The admissions committee should come away from your Caltech supplemental essays with a clear conception of who you are and the kind of community member you would be on the Caltech campus.

Keep reading for advice on how to approach each Caltech supplement essay.

How to Write Caltech Supplemental Essays — Question 1 (Required):

Tell us about a time or experience in which you encountered failure. (250 words max.)

Think of the Caltech supplemental essays as a written interview. This “Tell me about a time…” prompt asks for a story of resilience, persistence, and determination. This Caltech supplement essay defines "failure" broadly: notice the word “encounter” in the prompt. In your Caltech essay, you don’t necessarily have to be the one who failed (though that may provide the most effective response). However, be sure to focus on yourself throughout your Caltech essay.

College and life have a lot of failures and challenges. In this Caltech supplemental essay, Admissions Officers want to learn about your potential to overcome challenges that you will inevitably face in college and beyond. On Caltech’s supplemental essay prompt website, they link to an article titled “The Transformative Power of Failure,” in which members of the Caltech community share their stories of failure. Use these as inspiration as you hone in on what failure has meant in your life. Caltech encourages students to accept failure; this means your first Caltech supplement essay might resemble a "why Caltech essay" in some ways.

Write about a “good” failure

Rather than discussing failure generally, be specific and vivid in your Caltech supplemental essays. Select a specific moment or experience rather than touching on several. What did it feel like to fail? How did you overcome that failure? What motivates you to keep going? How do you solve problems? Don’t be afraid of being honest about your failures, but also give yourself credit for the strength it takes to overcome them.

There are several pitfalls to avoid when writing an essay about failure. In this Caltech supplemental essay, avoid cliche topics; aim to make your essay personal and original. Caltech essays about topics such as being cut from a sports team often seem inauthentic or simply overused.

In your Caltech essays, focus on yourself and your growth rather than the failure itself. The failure you describe in your Caltech essay should be a jumping-off point for your development. Don't be afraid of being honest—successful Caltech supplemental essays will offer readers an authentic window into a student's failures and growth.

Everyone has experienced failure. In your Caltech essays, application readers ultimately want to know what you learned and how you grew as a result of failure. Emphasize your persistence and resilience; after all, these qualities will be vital to your success in college and beyond.

Caltech Essay Draft Key Questions:

  • Does your draft tell a convincing and personal story?
  • Do you describe a genuine failure that had an impact on your development?
  • Does your draft focus more on your growth than the failure itself?
  • Does your draft reveal key personality traits that you want Admissions Officers to understand?

How to Write Caltech Supplemental Essays — Question 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. (250 words max.)

Caltech values its students' curiosity and desire to learn. They seek students who will pursue their interests, contribute to a thriving intellectual community, and still love learning even when classes get difficult. This “tell us about a time…” Caltech supplement essay asks you to discuss your own curiosity and motivation to learn even without formal guidance.

Pay attention to the specific prompt this Caltech supplement essay asks. In this Caltech essay, make sure you describe your independent learning. Caltech does not want you to write about classes or academic assignments.

However, you have the freedom to discuss nearly anything else as long as you include how it captivated you, inspired your curiosity, and led you to learn more. Strong Caltech essays will be specific and genuine.

Perhaps, you write about art, literature, a place, a person, a volunteer opportunity, work experience, independent research, or a self-taught skill. While the Caltech essays do not explicitly ask about STEM experience, know that your audience is a strongly STEM-oriented institution. At Caltech, it’s cool to love learning. What do you geek out about?

Effective Caltech supplement essays will reflect true inspiration and authentic curiosity. You should even feel excited to write about your topic! Reading any number of Caltech essay examples won’t help you; they want to know about your true curiosity. Include examples and stories that show rather than tell your readers how you engaged with your chosen topic.

The “Why Caltech” essay

To an extent, this essay can also function in the ways that a "Why Caltech essay" might. In this Caltech supplement essay, you have an opportunity to describe how your interests have inspired your intended major in one of Caltech’s six academic divisions. However, you are not required to do so. Regardless of the topic you choose, be sure to discuss how you have been impacted and, if applicable, how you have impacted others.

Caltech Essay Draft Key Questions:

  • Does your draft sincerely convey your inspiration and excitement?
  • Do you answer all three parts of the question without discussing a class or assignment?
  • Does your draft reveal a side of you not found elsewhere in your application
  • Do you tell your story in a vivid and clear way for the reader?

How to Write Caltech Supplemental Essays — Question 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. (250 words max.)

In yet another “tell us about a time” Caltech supplement essay you should tell a vivid story. In this prompt, also similar to a “Why Caltech essay,” demonstrate your potential to collaborate with others. Simply put, Caltech is a rigorous curriculum and intense academic experience that you can’t complete alone. This Caltech supplement essay asks how you will succeed in this high-achieving academic environment. Use your Caltech essays to show how you will thrive in a place like Caltech!

Despite its competitive nature, Caltech fosters community by encouraging collaboration in classes and its unique housing system. Nearly all “Techers” take the same core curriculum as freshmen, so small groups of students often work together to complete assignments and study for exams. In this essay, Caltech wants to know what kind of group member you will be. How can you show that you will be a leader among your peers?

When answering this Caltech essay, you can take a past or future and academic or non-academic approach. Since Caltech has one of the lowest student-to-faculty ratios, there will be many opportunities to work with professors. However, this Caltech supplement essay asks you to describe working with your peers—fellow high schoolers. A small group can be defined in many ways, so don’t limit yourself to assigned groups. Successful Caltech supplemental essays can come from anywhere! Often, essays about times where you took initiative can be even more convincing than those about more structured environments.

Writing about the future

If you want to look toward the future in your essay, be creative and imaginative. The opportunities are truly limitless at Caltech. Paint a picture for your reader. What does collaboration at Caltech feel like? What does collaboration mean to you? Where will you work with your peers? What role will you play in a group setting? When hypothesizing about the future, think about why collaboration will matter to your Caltech experience.

Whether you write about the past or the future, you have an opportunity to highlight specific opportunities at Caltech where you will collaborate. This means that this essay—like the last—can act as a "why Caltech essay" might. Do your research on Caltech and mention clubs and activities or research opportunities. In this essay, show the impact you have had and will continue to have on your peers.

Caltech Essay Draft Key Questions:

  • Does your draft fully answer all three elements of the prompt?
  • Do you discuss the impact and implications of your collaboration, past or future?
  • Do you show that you’ve done your research on Caltech?
  • Does your draft describe how you interact with your peers?

How Much Does Caltech Care About Essays?

Through the Caltech essays, the admissions committee gains a glimpse into who you are as a student, peer, scientist, and individual. Keep in mind that they don’t know what you don’t tell them. Look at your application as a whole—including your Common App essay —and think critically about whether you have included as many facets of yourself as you can.

This year, they changed the Caltech essay prompts to be more reflective of characteristics and qualities that yield successful STEM students. Simply put, the Caltech essay prompts want to understand who you are rather than just what's on your resume. This change demonstrates the value Caltech places on essays. Since Caltech is test-blind for the 2021-2022 application cycle, you should maximize each essay as an opportunity to help the admissions committee get to know you.

Additional Tips for Writing Your Caltech Supplemental Essays

Caltech has two application deadlines, November 1, 2021, and January 3, 2022. Consider applying by the November 1 Early Action deadline to have your admission decision back by mid-December. Learn more about applying early action in our breakdown article.

You only have one chance to impress the admissions committee, so don’t rush your writing. Consider several topics and stories for each of the Caltech essay prompts instead of settling on the first one you brainstorm.

It’s typically a great idea to have another person proofread your essay. Don't just ask about grammar and spelling. Talk to this second set of eyes about what they learn about you through your responses to the Caltech essay prompts. When implementing feedback from others, be sure that your essay remains in your voice and style.

Caltech Supplemental Essays — Final Thoughts

By the time you have completed your Caltech application, you will have written nearly 1400 words, including your Common App essay. You must be clear, concise, and specific while telling authentic stories in each of the 250-word Caltech supplement essays. See the essays as an opportunity to supplement the quantitative parts of your application such as your grades and GPA with qualitative attributes of who you are as a student, person, and peer.


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This 2021-2022 essay guide on Caltech was written by Senior Advisor Caroline Marapese, Notre Dame ‘21. For more CollegeAdvisor.com resources on Caltech, click here. Want help crafting your Caltech supplemental essays? Create your free account or schedule a free consultation by calling (844) 343-6272.

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