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How to Write the California Institute of Technology Supplemental Essays

In addition to the personal essay in the Common Application or the Coalition Application, applicants for first-year admission to Caltech must complete required supplemental short-answer essays. These are questions that the Admissions Committee has devised to get to know you better as a student, scientist, and person, and ascertain who you’ll be on our campus. Here is a guide to answering each of the essay prompts for Caltech’s application:

Tell us about a time or experience in which you encountered failure. (100-250 words)

The key here is to tell an engaging story about your ability to persevere. You should avoid writing about a time when you struggled with something and didn’t necessarily learn from the experience or bounce back from it in a meaningful way. The whole point of this essay is to demonstrate that you can meet challenges and setbacks with determination and creativity. As Caltech is a research-driven university, they understand that trial and error (aka learning from repeated failure) is a HUGE part of making significant scientific progress.

Make sure you avoid blaming others in this essay or coming across as if you are complaining. Sure, it’s an essay about failure, but it shouldn’t be a total downer. Instead, you want to highlight your resilience; show the admissions officers that you can roll with the punches and keep your head up! When you’re answering the question, describe the approach you adopted to solve the problem you encountered. Narrate each step in the experience and clearly lay out your thought process for the reader. If you want additional help, Caltech provides the following guidance to help you brainstorm:

“We would like to know more about your potential to persist through challenges and problems that you will face in the future. Qualities such as resilience and persistence can be key to solving the many problems and responding to the frequent failures that can be encountered in academics or research. In an essay about research and discovery at Caltech, “The Transformative Power of Failure“, several current and past members of our community share their anecdotes about, and perspectives on, various forms of failure.

Here are questions that may help guide your response: How do you define failure? What was the problem you were trying to solve? What did you learn from the experience? Did you seek advice or help from others? If so, did you receive any, or did you move forward without? What contributed to your resilience as you struggled, and what motivated your persistence?”

Failure is a part of life, and Caltech wants to see that you have the maturity to handle it.

Tell us about a life situation, media story, or topic – beyond or outside of a classroom or formal assignment – that has captivated you, inspired your curiosity, and led you to delve more deeply into learning about a subject on your own. (100-250 words)

As previously mentioned, Caltech is a university that prides itself on extensive undergraduate research and scientific exploration. This question therefore aims to better understand the kind of scientist and researcher you will be on campus. Tell them a story about a time when you were self-driven and creative about your education.

The topic you choose to write about does not necessarily have to be purely academic. The main aspect to focus on is the fact that you can be an independent learner–you take matters into your own hands and deeply delve into any topic that captures your interest. Again, you can use the opportunity to tell Caltech about one of your quirkier passions–something that wouldn’t come across on paper anywhere else in the application. No matter what you choose to write about, make sure it is something you pursued outside of the classroom and unrelated to any school activities. Any topic will work as long as it highlights your curiosity and motivation.

Here are some questions from Caltech to help guide your response:

“We would like to learn about the nature of your own curiosity and drive to learn independently. Here are questions that may help guide your response: What was the situation, story, or topic? In which ways did it spike your curiosity? Down what path did this newfound interest lead you? How did the pursuit of a deeper, more focused understanding of this prove valuable or satisfying to you?”

Tell us about how you have collaborated with and worked together within a small group of your peers on some task or endeavor in the past, or about how you imagine you will work with your Caltech peers in the future. (100-250 words)

Again, Caltech is all about research, research, research. While the other questions allow you to give some insight into your own mind–your psychology, determination, curiosity, and passions–this question will help your admissions officer better understand your relationship to others. A successful member of a laboratory team will be able to work well with others, navigate interpersonal relationships with maturity, and contribute to a group effort.

Your academic background and performance in high school will give Caltech a decent understanding of your intellectual potential as a student, but it doesn’t get at your emotional intelligence or EQ. You may be the brightest student in the classroom, but if you aren’t able to properly communicate or coordinate with fellow students, your learning will most likely suffer as a result. Nobody can come up with solutions entirely in isolation! Collaboration is key.

You will want to tell a story that demonstrates your ability to work with others, simple as that. Take time to explain the project or endeavor, including any setbacks or challenges you may have faced as a group. Talk about your role in the group and how you understood the best way for you to support others. Explain how the group dynamics were organized and what you learned from the experience. More guidance from Caltech:

“We would like to know more about your potential to collaborate and work together with others as you reach your own understanding of the problem and solution, whether it be an academic assignment or a research project. At Caltech, it is often the case that problem sets assigned during the first year can be challenging enough that any one student is unable to come up with the solutions in isolation. This has fostered a tradition of small groups of students forming to work together to solve these problems, such that each team member also reaches a deep understanding, both of the solution and the path taken to get there as a collaborative group.

Here are questions that may help guide your response: What have your peers told you about the ways you contribute to working in groups? How do you approach problem solving in groups? What would your peers tell us about how you collaborate and work together with them?”

(FOR TRANSFER AND 3/2 APPLICANTS ONLY): Tell us about any research experiences you have had thus far as an undergraduate. This may include extracurricular research or a class project that you have done under a professor’s direction. (100-250 words)

This question should be fairly straightforward. You can write about both experiences working under faculty and/or assignments you might have completed for a class as long as they are self-directed explorations of a research question (rather than, for example, looking into a particular subject so you can get the right answers on a problem set or a test). Make sure to be very clear and provide all of the information they are asking for. What was the goal of your research project? If you worked in a group, elaborate on your specific role within the team. If you were a research assistant for a professor’s work, explain how you interacted with that professor and what you specifically contributed to their end goal. Go into detail about your day-to-day responsibilities and contributions and/or detail your individual research approach. Which resources did you use to design your study and collect data? What was the outcome of your work? Be sure to mention any publications or awards you received.