The Ivy Coach Daily

September 14, 2023

2023-2024 Caltech Supplemental Essay Prompts

A building is featured beyond a fountain at the California Institute of Technology at night.
Caltech features several supplemental essays on its application for applicants to the Class of 2028 (photo credit: Canon.vs.Nikon).

The California Institute of Technology has released its supplemental essay prompts for the 2023-2024 admissions cycle. The school, one of the last among America’s elite universities to release their essays for applicants to the Class of 2028, asks applicants to respond to several required and optional essays as well as short answers. These essays are, of course, in addition to The Common Application’s Personal Statement. So, what are this year’s Caltech essays and how should they be approached? Let’s dive in!

2023-2024 California Institute of Technology Essay Topics and Questions

Required Academic Question

Because of the rigorous courses in the core curriculum, Caltech students don’t declare a major until the end of their first year. However, some students arrive knowing which academic fields and areas already most excite them, or which novel fields and areas they most want to explore. (Max: 200 words)

If you had to choose an area of interest or two today, what would you choose? Why did you choose that area of interest?

This essay prompt is a straight-up-the-middle Why Major essay. Caltech’s admissions committee wants to understand the origin story of an applicant’s interest in the discipline they wish to study at Caltech. Yet, students should be sure to set that origin story during their high school years. Too often, students share stories about how they developed their academic interests as children. Admissions officers want to hear how students think now — not then.

Required Short Answer Questions

1. At Caltech, we investigate some of the most challenging, fundamental problems in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Identify and describe two STEM-related experiences from your high school years, either in or out of the classroom, and tell us how and why they activated your curiosity. What about them made you want to learn more and explore further? (Min: 100/Max: 200 words for each experience)

Through anecdotes, this essay allows applicants to show rather than tell why they love the STEM fields. Students could write about a lab experiment from a physics course. They could write about independent research they did in engineering. The opportunities are endless — so long as the stories showcase a student’s passion for learning.

And note how Caltech’s admissions committee emphasizes that the examples should stem from high school. Remember when we said how examples should always stem from high school rather than childhood? Here, you’ll see the advice straight from the horse’s mouth.

As to the word count, students have 400 words for this essay. As Ivy Coach has long espoused on the pages of this college admissions blog, students should always use all of the real estate they’re given to make their case. Students should thus write up to the maximum word count of 400 words!

2. The creativity, inventiveness, and innovation of Caltech’s students, faculty, and researchers have won Nobel Prizes and put rovers on Mars. But Techers also imagine smaller scale innovations every day, from new ways to design solar cells to how to 3D print dorm decor. How have you been a creator, inventor, or innovator in your own life? (Min: 200 / Max: 250)

This essay is another excellent opportunity for students to share one small story about how they’ve developed something in the STEM field. And the example does not need to stem from award-winning research. It doesn’t need to be anything formal.

A great example would be seeing a problem on a bike ride to school and figuring out how to fix it. Maybe a student’s bike went over a pothole, so they designed a way to light up a grid on the road to identify when potholes were forthcoming. Caltech’s admissions committee wants to see how applicants think and how they’re creators and inventors even in life’s small moments.

3. Caltech’s mission – to cultivate learning, discovery, and innovation for the benefit of humanity – relies on its community members embracing fundamental Caltech values:

Share what one or more of these values evokes for you. (Min: 200 / Max: 400)

In this essay, through one small example, applicants should showcase how they want to explore STEM to make our world better. Too often, students express grandiose plans — like ending climate change through the power of STEM. Instead, applicants would be better off focusing on a small issue and then highlighting how they hope to address it in their lifetime. 

Optional Short Answer Questions

1. If there are aspects of your life or social or personal identity that you feel are not captured elsewhere in this application, please tell us about them below. (Max: 150 words)

While the United States Supreme Court outlawed Affirmative Action, Chief Justice John Roberts penned a loophole in the majority opinion. As he wrote, “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”

This essay allows students to capitalize on this loophole by sharing their stories. And students do not need to be underrepresented minorities to have a story to tell here. Applicants could focus on their faith, community, sexual orientation, or gender identity — the possibilities are endless.

2. When not surveying the stars, peering through microscopes, or running through marathons of coding, Caltech students pursue an eclectic array of interests that range from speed-cubing to participating in varsity athletics to reading romance novels. What is a favorite interest or hobby, and why does it bring you joy? (Max: 100 words)

While having a passion for the STEM fields is a prerequisite for Caltech, the admissions committee wants to know that you have interests beyond these disciplines. So here’s an excellent opportunity for applicants to showcase their love for poetry, history, foreign language, anthropology, or any other field. As long as applicants showcase their intellectual curiosity through their storytelling — ideally in an area outside of STEM — they’re on the right track.

3. Did you have a hard time narrowing it down to just one interest or hobby? We understand – Caltech students like to stay busy, too – tell us about another hobby or interest! (Max: 50 words)

We encourage students to write about a hobby that highlights their intellectual curiosity. So many options would work here. It doesn’t need to be a hobby in which a student changes the world. Yet, it should showcase their intellectual curiosity. If they love tie-dying t-shirts, they should focus on the mathematics of creating extraordinary patterns.

Optional Academic Short Answer Questions

1. Have you had any extenuating circumstances (such as limited course selection or disruptions), that have affected your coursework, but that are not described elsewhere in your application? If so, tell us about them here.

While we at Ivy Coach are always in favor of responding to all optional essays — because no optional essay should be considered optional in elite college admissions — this prompt doesn’t apply to all students

 In fact, unless a student needs to explain a disruption in their learning during their high school years that is apparent on their transcript, we encourage the student not to answer this prompt. Too many students choose to answer prompts like these, and they do indeed come across as complainers. It does their candidacy a great disservice.

2. Some Caltech applicants engage in STEM competitions locally, nationally, or internationally (eg., AIME, Science Olympiad, International Science Olympiads). If you have received any STEM honors or awards, list them here (with scores, if applicable).

Hopefully, applicants have so many STEM awards that they couldn’t fit them all in the honors section of their Common Application. Here is the place to list them. And it should be a list — not an essay. It’s always critical to adhere to the directions.

Ivy Coach’s Assistance with Caltech Essays

If you’re interested in optimizing your case for admission to Caltech by submitting essays that will wow Caltech admissions officers, fill out Ivy Coach’s free consultation form, and we’ll be in touch to outline our college counseling services for seniors.

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