Check out our Guide to the Caltech prompts!
The Requirements: 1-3 essays of roughly 250 words each
Virginia Tech certainly lives up to its name. Its independent application requires students to execute perhaps the trickiest calculation of their lives. You can write “up to three” essays? No official word limit? This level of autonomy could kill you. How do you decide what and how many essays to write? How long is too long? How short is too short?
Okay, before you have an existential meltdown, we have some advice. Although we usually urge you to take any and every opportunity to speak to admissions in your own voice, in this case, we advise you to proceed with caution. If you don’t think writing is your forte, you might be better served pouring all of your energy into one tight, memorable essay than dividing your attention among three meh essays. If you feel blocked or you’re only drawn to one prompt, maybe you should consider writing something longer than the recommended 250 words. You don’t need to write a novel, but 300-500 words gives you more space to add detail and character to your story. Aim for quality over quantity, but keep in mind that if you want to stand out, you will want to paint a complete picture of yourself. Can you do that in just one essay?
If you only write one essay, this is the one you should pick. This “why essay” is the most common variety out there… and the reason should be pretty obvious. It provides admissions with a direct barometer of your commitment to the school. Prove you’re a good fit by demonstrating a deep knowledge of the institution and offering personal reflections on what appeals to you. Luckily, this question has a twist. Once you’re done with your research, you can have a little fun. Five good reasons can span a few different areas of student life, so play around with the structure. Pick things connected to some central theme: maybe you’re a prospective linguistics major who hopes to expand her knowledge of languages by singing them in chamber choir and studying abroad in Prague. Or guide admissions through a little tour of your brain: as a skater who is obsessed with calculus, you see curves everywhere, from the chalkboard to the best potential ramps on campus.
This prompt doesn’t ask you about any particular aspect of the school, which gives you the freedom to pick and choose as you like. You can talk about academics, majors, classes, professors, top of the line labs and technology or you can discuss clubs, events, communities, societies, dining halls, and football games. Just make sure you’re relating what you have done to what you plan to do. If you decide to list the clubs as one of the reasons you want to be a Hokie, write about how you were involved in High School and how that helped you grow. They want to see you reflect.
This is an opportunity for students with blips on their transcripts to address and explain these shortcomings. Usually, schools offer this sort of prompt as an optional “additional info” essay, and we think that’s the right perspective to take on the Virginia Tech application as well. In theory, you could submit a response to just this prompt and none of the others, but do you really want your one and only essay to be a dissection of your shortcomings? The whole point of an essay like this is to show that a few bad grades don’t define you. So, applicants who write this essay, should definitely submit at least one other.
Should you choose to tackle this prompt, your story should be one of success and overcoming hardship. Even if you’re sure your chemistry teacher was out to get you, placing blame won’t do you any good because it says nothing about your ability to grow and change. Were you sick and missed two months of school? Talk about what you did to catch up. Was there a death in the family that took you out of class? Describe the process of overcoming your grief. Did you have a learning difference that you weren’t receiving special help for? Tell the story of your evolving relationship with this aspect of who you are.
Chances are, you’ve done some community service at some point in your life, and this prompt asks you to reflect on that experience. If you were a perfunctory participant in a school-mandated volunteer program, this might not be the essay for you. Since Virginia Tech has given you options, we recommend this prompt only for applicants who honestly believe community service has been a meaningful part of their lives. Without a deep personal connection to the service you do, you risk writing a list of America’s top 10 clichés and platitudes.
Virginia Tech wants to know how service is “important in your life,” so go beyond what you have gained from community service. Why do you care so deeply about a particular cause or community? Why does service matter? What change do you hope to see in the world? Remember that, fundamentally, community service is not about personal glory or achievement. Did you volunteer at a hospital over the summer? Describe how this affected your beliefs about what doctors owe their patients and vice versa. Have you been fundraising for girls’ education in developing countries? Reflect on what drew you to this cause. For bonus points, talk about how you’d like to continue your service on Virginia Tech’s campus.
Diversity can be defined in many ways, but Virginia Tech has highlighted a list of specific options. So, do any of these feel like they apply to you? Have you ever been told that you were too young or too old to do something? Does your experience with something like race or gender say a lot about who you are? Has it impacted who you are today? If yes, pick this prompt.
Virginia Tech wants to know that you will add a new layer to their campus. They want to hear about your culture, traditions, diverse experiences, and ultimately, what makes you, you! Diverse perspectives allow for learning, understanding, and broader minds. You don’t have to focus on explaining why the perspective or experience you choose will enrich the climate of respect and understanding on campus, admissions should be able to put two and two together if you communicate your point effectively. Instead, zero in on a moment or anecdote about a time when you realized you were different. How has this affected the way you see the world? Has it impacted what you eat, who you read, or the way you dress? What do you do when you encounter people who are different from you? This is your place to show VT that you stand out, and also demonstrate your personal approach to difference and change.
Virginia Tech is an interesting and rare school and they want to make sure you know it too! When approaching this prompt, prepare yourself by researching VT and other military institutions. Find out how they differ from other schools, read student’s opinions, learn about the positives and the negatives, and imagine yourself in this atmosphere. Do you think this setting will offer you a stronger academic edge or protect you from the lurking dangers that other colleges struggle with? Even if this aspect of VT’s culture didn’t factor into your decision to apply, it will affect your experience of the school, so it’s a worthwhile prompt for everyone to consider. That said, this essay risks being redundant with the initial “why” question since it’s another way to demonstrate your fit. Distinguish the two essays if you choose to write both, and at the end of the day make sure Admissions knows that it’s military background is a plus for you.
This prompt is tough because it is so vague and you only have around 300 words to tell an incredibly detailed and revealing story about yourself that will have Virginia Tech clamoring to have you on their campus!! Luckily, it’s also incredibly similar to the first Common App prompt and Virginia Tech isn’t on the Common App! If you happened to write your Common App personal statement on prompt #1, whip out your scissors and cut it down to size.
If you aren’t clairvoyant and don’t have an essay to recycle, all is not lost! As you brainstorm how to answer this, think of pivotal moments in your life when you made a decision to pursue a career or life path. If this prompt is giving you trouble, think about yourself from someone else’s perspective. Why does your grandma think you’re the best thing since sliced bread? Which stories does she recount every Christmas? Don’t talk about a formative person in your life, that’s not what this prompt is asking you to do. Focus on one moment, one experience, one story and make sure you are the protagonist. Your grandma is a rockstar, we don’t doubt it, but she’s not applying to Virginia Tech, you are!
SURPRISE! The very presence of this open-ended prompt reveals that you have almost no excuse not to submit at least two essays: the why essay and some other essay of your choosing. Literally any other essay. Pick your favorite essay from another supplement and dress it up for Virginia Tech. Or recycle your Common App personal statement here. If you’re applying to literally any other school, you probably have something that you can recycle that will shed new light on who you are and how you think.
On the other hand, if you’re feeling motivated (and really want to show off), you could start from scratch.
If you have something you want Admissions to know that you don’t think any of the other prompts allow you to say, then this prompt is right up your alley. Maybe you wish there was a “What’s your favorite quote?” prompt so you could talk about how Yoda’s “Do or do not, there is no try” changed your perspective on life. Perhaps you were hoping there would be a “Who is your favorite character on television?” prompt so you could explain how Archie from Riverdale’s drive to follow his dream inspired you to do the same. If you go this route, have fun with it! Show admissions how your quirky brain works.