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The Requirements: 1 long essay of 500 words; 3 short essays of 200 words each; 1 short answer
LISTEN UP, NERDS! Caltech wants you to be true to yourself and the office of admissions makes that quite clear in the supplements. From your books to your quirks, these prompts are mining for the things that bring you genuine joy. Even if you typically wrap yourself in a layer of irony or discontent, what are the things that break through that shield? Get ready to geek out!
Think of this as a hyper-specific activity essay. It’s common practice for schools to ask applicants to expand on an activity that has been meaningful to them, which opens up an opportunity for you to highlight your leadership qualities and creative skills. In this case, Caltech, in its scientific precision, has asked you to write about exactly three (3) experiences or activities related to STEM. Essentially, they’re asking each applicant to tell the same story. So, in order to stand out, you need to be thoughtful in your storytelling. What connects your three experiences? Is it simply growth over time (from doing a lab in class to eventually interning in a real research lab)? Or is it more thematic (gardening, field research, and earth science tutoring)? Make those connections crystal clear in your essay to demonstrate not just intention but direction: you are clearly headed towards a promising career in STEM. Also keep in mind that Caltech asks for “experiences” OR “activities” meaning you can choose formal school activities, professional experiences, and even informal experiences. We challenge you to come up with at least one example in this third category to add that personal touch that will make your essay memorable, and unique to you alone.
In short: write three tweets about your favorite books. Your whole life has been preparing you for this very task. But while a quippy, ironic tweet will garner the most likes, for this assignment, you’ll want to start from a more genuine place. Take a breath and dispel any pressure you’re putting on yourself to impress admissions with your choices. Self-aggrandizement will show, and it’s not a good look. Instead, think honestly about your favorite books, and if you’re the type of person that has trouble picking favorites ask yourself: What was the last book I read voraciously? What is the book I always return to when I feel sad? What scene or line pops into my head from time to time? Press yourself to find the books that relate to your values and show that you’re a well-rounded person. Once you have made your choices, the hard part is over! Brew yourself a cup of tea and have fun writing splashy sentences that connect the book to your life. If you’ve picked wisely, it should be a cinch!
This prompt lies somewhere between Common App prompts 2 and 3, which ask you to discuss a challenge or recount a time when you challenged a belief, respectively. Given the context, it seems that Caltech is pushing applicants to go beyond simply a “difficult situation” and explore a moral or ethical dilemma of some kind. In 17-ish years on this earth, you may have yet to encounter a truly high-stakes situation. Still, ask yourself: what is the hardest decision you’ve ever had to make? Have you ever found yourself in a situation that threatened your integrity? Maybe one of your classmates started pressuring you to do his homework, and threatened you with physical harm if you told anyone. Or perhaps one day you noticed that your boss treated male and female employees differently. If such glaring examples simply don’t come to mind, try examining your relationships, family ties, and close friendships. Have these ever been threatened? Have you ever let anyone down or betrayed their confidence (intentionally or unintentionally)? How did you resolve the conflict?
We usually caution applicants against being weird for weird’s sake, but in this case, Caltech is asking for just that! If you identify as a quirky person, you’ve probably already got an idea or two, but if you don’t, you could find yourself drawing a blank. In either case, our advice remains the same: (a) use your judgement, and (b) don’t force it. There’s a fine line between charming quirk and alienating strangeness, so stick to describing hobbies that won’t get you arrested. Take your cues from your friends and family. Does your father sigh an affectionate sigh every time you decide to ride your unicycle to school? Do your friends affectionately tell and retell the tale of the time you all tried, in vain, to do the cinnamon challenge? What do you do to entertain people? Remember, Caltech wants to know how you have fun, so it’s okay to get a little bit silly with this essay and even make fun of yourself a bit. Identifying your own quirks is, in itself, an exercise in self-awareness; the more you display this quality, the more down to earth and humble you will seem.
You could look at this question as a reverse why essay. Caltech isn’t asking why you want them, but why they should want you. What will your unique contribution be? Before you start writing this essay, you’ll want to take a peek at the final prompt, which is a true “why do you want to go here” essay. For both of these prompts, you’ll want to start out with some good old fashioned research. Learn about the school, what it offers and values, and what its students are like. Parcel out the details you plan to include in each essay to avoid repeating yourself. For this prompt, think about Caltech in the abstract — what is it like, and how might your presence shake things up (in a good way)? First and foremost, is there something in your background or upbringing that would make you stand out from your peers? Diversity can be defined in many ways. Typically, we think of things like race, class, political affiliation, and religion. But diversity could equally speak to something unique in your lived experience. What have you done that few other people have done before? How has this affected your worldview in a way that distinguishes you from your peers?
While this prompt comes with the heftiest word count, it is also one of the most straightforward questions to answer: why here? As we mentioned above, you’ll want to spend plenty of time on the Caltech website (or visiting the campus, if you can) mining for details that speak to your personal interests and excite you about attending Caltech. The prompt itself contains the basics: admissions already knows you’re into STEM and they know you know the basic benefits of a Caltech education… and now they know you know they know. Need we go on? The point is, you need to dig deep, not just on the school website, but into your own intentions. What are your personal dreams and goals? What are your long-term professional goals? How about some shorter-term goals? Do you want to do research in a lab? Travel to Australia? How will these experiences make you a better scientist and person? (And more to the point — does Caltech offer them?) In this essay, aim to build a bridge between your present and your future, between your needs and Caltech’s offerings.