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The Requirements: 3 long essay of 250-400 words; 3 short essays of 120 words each
Think of this as three hyper-specific activity essays. 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 (which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, in case you didn’t know). The thing is, this is Caltech: every applicant probably has something interesting to say about this topic! So you’re going to heed to work extra hard to stand out. Although this prompt asks for three distinct descriptions, you should still think about your answers as one cohesive story where each chapter reveals something new. 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 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.
Caltech wants to know that you’re a team player. As far as topics are concerned, any time you worked with others is fair game, so don’t restrict yourself merely to your science fair project or the dance squad. This could be the perfect opportunity to write about a professional experience (your first time working as a camp counselor!) or even community service (organizing the coat and blanket collection at your church!). Ideally, you should describe an experience that spans a decent amount of time — a few weeks or even months — so you can describe the phases of your work and the end result. What challenges did your team face? Were they internal, organizational issues? Or were there larger, external problems that you had to face as a single strong unit? In what ways were you a leader, but more importantly, how did you allow others to lead? It’s all well and good to say that you spearheaded your group history project, but remember that this question is about collaboration. A more reflective and honest essay will consider how each person’s unique contribution set the course for your team’s success (or failure). If you’re talking about a large group (singing in a 100 person choir!), perhaps you’ll want to focus on the values or goals that are strong enough to unite such a large group of people. In the end, you should be able to clearly state a lesson that you will carry with you into the future. In other words: an experience that will have a positive impact on your collaborative work at Caltech.
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 start out with some good old fashioned research. Learn about the school, what it offers and values, and what its students are like. 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 also 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?