What Is the Purpose of the Caltech Supplemental Essay?

July 10, 2024
6 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 7/10/24

When it comes to writing the Caltech supplemental essays, there are reliable strategies and approaches you can apply to improve the process. Let’s get into them.

Supplemental essays are an integral part of the college application process. For applicants looking to attend Caltech, the California Institute of Technology, these essays are your chance to show your passion for STEM and how well you align with Caltech's values and mission.

In this guide, we’ll discuss the nuances of Caltech's supplemental essays. Keep reading to explore these essays and learn how to make your application stand out in the competitive field of Caltech admissions.

Caltech Supplemental Essay Prompts 2023-2024

Get ready to dive into the Caltech supplemental essay prompts for the 2023-2024 application cycle.

Prompt #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)”

Prompt #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)”

Prompt #3

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

  • Openness and enthusiasm for having preconceptions challenged
  • Respect and appreciation for the idea that, while we are all members of the same community, the opportunities we've had to develop, showcase, and apply our talents have not been equal
  • Passion for the ideal that science can and should meaningfully improve the lives of others

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

To sum it up, when tackling Caltech's essay prompts, remember there are more essays to explore beyond the required ones we've discussed. 

These optional essays give you extra room to showcase who you are and how you connect with Caltech's mission. So, don't hesitate to write these optional essays to let your personality shine through in your application.

How to Write Each Essay Prompt For Caltech

In this section, we'll discuss how to write Caltech essays, providing guidance on how to craft thoughtful and engaging responses for each prompt. Quick tip before we get into it - Caltech is all about STEM, so embrace it in your supplemental essays. Dive deep into STEM-related topics, and don't be afraid to geek out.

How to Write Caltech Supplemental Essay #1 + Analysis and Tips

Analysis of prompt #1: This Caltech application prompt invites you to explore your areas of interest, explain your passion for them, and describe how Caltech aligns with your academic goals. It's a chance to highlight your curiosity and demonstrate your fit with Caltech's values and resources.

  1. Engaging Introduction: Your essay should kick off with a captivating introduction that grabs the reader's attention. Consider starting with a personal story, a thought-provoking question, or a brief anecdote that relates to your chosen areas of interest. 
  2. Introduce Your Interests: Use the following paragraphs to introduce your chosen areas of interest. For each area, explain what specifically intrigues you about it. Share any personal experiences, encounters, or pivotal moments that sparked your interest. 
  3. Motivation and Connection: Beyond introducing your interests, get into why you've chosen these particular areas and why they resonate with you today. This is where you should explore the deeper motivations behind your choices. 
  4. Connect to Caltech: Demonstrate your knowledge of Caltech and how it aligns with your academic aspirations. Mention specific resources, faculty members, research opportunities, or programs at Caltech that are relevant to your chosen areas of interest. 
  5. Strong Conclusion: Wrap up your essay with a powerful conclusion that reinforces your passion for your chosen fields and your eagerness to explore them at Caltech. Leave the reader with a memorable statement that underscores your commitment to your academic journey. Be concise but impactful.
  6. Word Limit: Keep in mind the 200-word limit. Be succinct and make every word count to convey your message effectively.

How to Write Caltech Supplemental Essay #2 + Analysis and Tips

Analysis of prompt #2: Prompt #2 asks you to reflect on your high school STEM-related experiences and demonstrate your curiosity, enthusiasm, and commitment to these fields. You should discuss two distinct experiences and explain what sparked your curiosity in each of them. Additionally, you can connect these experiences to Caltech's mission and values.

  1. Identify Two Experiences: Begin by identifying and describing two significant STEM-related experiences from your high school years. These experiences should be distinct and reflect different aspects of your engagement with STEM.
  2. Detail and Curiosity Activation: For the first experience, provide a detailed account of how and why it activated your curiosity. Dive into specific elements of this experience that ignited your interest, such as a challenging problem, a compelling concept, or the guidance of an inspiring mentor.
  3. Transition to the Second Experience: Transition smoothly to the second experience, repeating the process. Describe what sparked your curiosity in this instance and why it prompted you to delve deeper into the subject matter. Showcase Enthusiasm and Dedication: Throughout your response, aim to showcase your genuine curiosity, enthusiasm, and commitment to STEM. Share specific details or aspects of each experience that genuinely intrigued you, reinforcing your dedication to these fields.
  4. Clear and Concise Writing: Ensure that your writing is clear, concise, and well-structured while staying within the word limit.
  5. Connect to Caltech: In the concluding paragraph, consider tying back your experiences to Caltech's mission and values. Express how these experiences have prepared you to contribute to the Caltech community's spirit of scientific inquiry and innovation. 

How to Write Caltech Supplemental Essay #3 + Analysis and Tips

Analysis of prompt #3: This prompt encourages you to think about your role as a creator, inventor, or innovator in your life and share your experiences. It's important to create a clear and engaging story that showcases your innovative mindset and how it aligns with Caltech's values.

  1. Captivating Introduction: Begin your essay with a captivating opening that introduces the theme of innovation. Use an anecdote, question, or thought-provoking statement to grab the reader's attention. The introduction should set the stage for your discussion of innovation in your life.
  2. Detailed Description of Innovation: In the following section, provide a detailed description of the specific innovation or project you want to highlight. Explain the context or problem that led to this innovation and how you approached it. Use vivid language to create a clear picture for the reader.
  3. Your Role in the Process: Share your role in the innovation process. Discuss the actions you took, the challenges you faced, and the decisions you made. Highlight your unique contributions and creative thinking that played a crucial part in the project's success.
  4. Impact of Innovation: Explain the impact of your innovation. Discuss what changed as a result of your work, whether it was a tangible product, a positive transformation, or valuable insights gained. Mention any recognition or awards you received for your innovation.
  5. Connection to Caltech: Draw a connection between your experience as an innovator and Caltech's values and culture. Explain why your innovative spirit aligns with Caltech's ethos of creativity and scientific exploration. Express your excitement about contributing to the Caltech community.
  6. Conclusion: Conclude your essay by summarizing your innovative experience and emphasizing the broader significance of creativity and innovation in your life. End on a forward-looking note, expressing your enthusiasm for continuing to explore innovative ideas at Caltech.
  7. Word Limit and Proofreading: Remember to stick to the specified word limit and carefully proofread your essay for clarity, coherence, and grammar. Your essay should not only showcase your innovative mindset but also engage the reader and leave a lasting impression.

If you need help writing your Caltech supplemental essays, our customized admissions counseling is here for you. Our team of specialists knows what Caltech looks for in applicants and will help make your application documents impactful. 

We support students from grades 6 through 12, helping them position themselves as strong candidates. With one-on-one guidance and profile development, we'll help you stand out in the competitive admissions process.

Ready to see your chances of getting into Caltech? Try our quiz!

Examples of Caltech Supplemental Essays That Worked

By exploring Caltech essays that worked, you get useful ideas and inspiration to improve your own application essays. Let’s get into them. 

Sample Essay #1

Prompt: “How do you see yourself contributing to the diversity of Caltech’s community? (Your response should range between 250-400 words.)”

Take a look at one of the example essays responding to this prompt: 

It’s not uncommon for universities to ask applicants to talk about what “different” element they’d bring to campus. People sometimes assume this means applicants must write about what makes them ethnically, racially, socioeconomically, or religiously distinct from “the norm.”

That’s never the case, and it’s certainly not the case here. You should encourage your child to think broadly about what diversity can mean. What makes them unique? What might make them unique on Caltech’s campus? And how will that unique attribute serve the community?

Roberto, for instance, might also have written about comedy here, arguing that his ability to fail publicly would make him a looser and more creative scientist. Here’s how Kendall, an Indian American applicant from Nashville, answered. He took this prompt as an opportunity to discuss his family’s genetic predisposition to cancer and how that has influenced him to pursue immunotherapy.

"Even though many family members live thousands of miles apart from each other, we have done everything from sharing knock-knock jokes to talking about a movie we just watched. Just as our love for one another connects us, our genes do as well. Although many traits that show up in these genes are desirable, there are many undesirable traits as well, including a high predisposition to cancer.

Cancer has affected the lives of many of my relatives across generations on both sides of my family. It seemed that with every year came a new diagnosis. However, the fear that accompanied my realization of our genetic proneness to cancer quickly turned into curiosity, and then a fuel for my passion of researching better and more effective treatments for this merciless disease.

Having cancer run through my family means that I have first-hand experience of the effect a diagnosis can have on a patient’s family. When my aunt was diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer, I learned that chemotherapy and  radiation is grueling and painful for a patient and their family.

The nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and anemia appalled me. How could this treatment be the only option? With nearly two million diagnoses in 2018, that meant a lot of chemotherapy and pain. This realization pushed me to look further into alternative forms of treatment.

After some searching, I came across the term “immunotherapy,” which used the power of the human body’s immune system to kill cancer cells. This type of treatment caught my interest, as it addressed the use of genetics in medical treatment.

My familial background of cancer has led me to want to help solve the problem of finding better treatment options for cancer in the form of immunotherapy, which I will explore in an internship this fall at UC San Diego. In the future, I would like to research the effects of immunotherapeutic treatment of cancer, to see if our immune system can beat this disease.

At Caltech, I will share my family’s story to inspire my peers as they spend long hours conducting research and studying biochemical pathways. My family’s story will remind them that their inventions and discoveries will have a direct impact on ordinary people who know nothing about genomes or thermodynamics. Together, my peers and I can find more effective treatments and solutions so that next generations can not just survive, but thrive.”

Why Essay #1 Worked

This essay effectively tackles the diversity prompt by taking an unconventional and inclusive approach to diversity, moving beyond traditional factors like race or ethnicity.

By sharing Kendall's personal story related to his family's genetic predisposition to cancer, the essay adds authenticity and depth to the narrative. It illustrates how personal experiences can shape an individual's intellectual and career path.

What sets this essay apart is its ability to connect Kendall's personal journey to broader societal implications. It highlights his interest in immunotherapy as a potential solution to address genetic factors in cancer treatment, emphasizing the real-world impact of scientific research.

Furthermore, the essay underscores the importance of sharing personal narratives to inspire peers and emphasizes how scientific innovations can directly affect people's lives.

Overall, this essay offers a compelling narrative that presents a unique perspective on diversity and a clear sense of purpose in contributing to the Caltech community.

Sample Essay #2

Prompt: “If you had to choose an area of interest or two today, what would you choose? Why did you choose that area of interest? (Max: 200 words)”

Check out this sample supplemental essay: 

“If I had to choose an area of interest or two today, my top choices would be artificial intelligence (AI) and renewable energy. AI's potential to transform industries and improve lives is incredibly exciting. Its interdisciplinary nature, combining computer science, neuroscience, and ethics, offers endless possibilities for innovation.

One example that illustrates my interest in AI is my involvement in a machine learning project during my undergraduate studies. We developed an AI-based system to predict disease outbreaks, which showed me the profound impact AI can have on public health. Renewable energy is equally compelling. Addressing climate change is a pressing concern, and 

I believe that sustainable energy solutions are a critical part of the solution. My involvement in a solar energy community project further fueled my passion for renewable energy.

These choices align with my passion for using technology to solve real-world problems and my belief in the ethical responsibility of scientists and engineers. Both AI and renewable energy represent the future of innovation, and I'm eager to be part of that journey.”

Why Essay #2 Worked

This essay works because it directly and concisely addresses the prompt. The applicant clearly states their areas of interest—artificial intelligence (AI) and renewable energy—and provides solid reasons for their choices.

Their enthusiasm for AI's transformative potential and the interdisciplinary nature of the field shines through, backed by a real-life example of a machine learning project they were involved in during their undergraduate studies.

Likewise, their passion for renewable energy is evident, driven by the urgency of addressing climate change and a hands-on experience in a solar energy community project. These interests are not only personally meaningful but also align with broader societal and environmental concerns.

The essay also emphasizes the ethical dimension, highlighting the applicant's belief in the responsibility of scientists and engineers to address real-world issues. Overall, it's straightforward, genuine, and effectively communicates the applicant's motivations and aspirations within the given word limit.

Sample Essay #3

Prompt: “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)”

Consider this essay as an source of inspiration for tackling this prompt:

During high school, two experiences in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) ignited my curiosity and passion for these fields.

First, in a physics class, we explored electromagnetism by building electrical circuits. Witnessing a light bulb illuminate when I connected wires was a eureka moment. It revealed the power of understanding the fundamental laws governing our universe and their role in shaping technology. This experience deepened my interest in physics and its practical applications.

Outside the classroom, I participated in a robotics competition. Collaborating with a team to design, build, and program a robot was exhilarating. It demanded creativity, problem-solving, and technical skills. Seeing our robot successfully tackle challenges highlighted the synergy between engineering and computer science. This competition showcased the endless possibilities in STEM and motivated me to explore the field further.

These experiences made STEM tangible, showing its real-world implications. They convinced me that STEM isn't just theoretical but has practical applications. This drove me to pursue a STEM-focused education at Caltech and to contribute to solving the intriguing challenges these fields present.” 

Why Essay #3 Worked

This essay works because it clearly addresses the prompt by discussing two specific STEM-related experiences from the applicant's high school years.

In the first experience, the applicant talks about a physics class experiment with electromagnetism, where they had a "eureka moment" upon seeing a light bulb illuminate. This vividly illustrates their fascination with the practical applications of fundamental scientific principles.

The second experience involves participating in a robotics competition, which showcased the applicant's enthusiasm for engineering and computer science. They emphasize the creative and problem-solving aspects of this activity, which are essential skills in STEM fields.

The essay effectively links these experiences to their motivation to pursue STEM education at Caltech, highlighting the real-world implications of these fields and their desire to contribute to solving complex challenges. It's a concise and well-structured response that directly addresses the prompt's requirements.


Got questions? We've got answers! Check out these FAQs to get the lowdown on Caltech supplemental essays.

1. Is It Acceptable to Write a Creative or Unconventional Essay for Caltech?

Yes, it is acceptable to write a creative or unconventional essay for Caltech. In fact, Caltech encourages applicants to be authentic and innovative in their responses. They want to get to know you as an individual, so if a creative or unconventional approach helps you express your personality and ideas effectively, it can be a great choice.

2. What Qualities or Characteristics Is Caltech Looking for in Applicants Through This Essay?

​​Caltech is looking for applicants with a passion for STEM. It’s also interestewd in individuals with intellectual curiosity, problem-solving skills, and personal qualities like resilience, collaboration, and creativity. They want to know how you'd contribute to their community.

3. Can I Reuse an Essay from Another College Application for Caltech Application?

Reusing essays for Caltech or any other school is not advised. Different institutions have specific prompts to assess fit. Tailoring your essays to Caltech's unique aspects and values is crucial to show your alignment with their mission and culture.

4. Is There a Recommended Structure or Format for the Caltech Supplemental Essay?

For the Caltech supplemental essay, there's no strict format, but clarity, conciseness, and organization are crucial. Begin with a compelling introduction, present ideas logically, and use specific examples. Address the prompt directly and demonstrate your passion for STEM and alignment with Caltech.

5. How Many Essays Caltech Required?

Caltech's application consists of one required academic question, two required short answer questions, and one question about Caltech's values. In addition, there are two optional short answer questions and two optional academic short answer questions for applicants to choose from.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re applying to Caltech or MIT, Harvard or Stanford, your essay matters. So do your best to write one that stands out from the crowd. 

When it comes to the Caltech supplemental essays, follow the tips and advice provided in this blog to craft strong, STEM-focused narratives that reflect your identity and experiences. These essays are your chance to stand out and make a lasting impression on the admissions committee. Good luck with your Caltech application!

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