Crafting Your Caltech Application

Ashley Thommana
June 23, 2024

Caltech (more formally known as the California Institute of Technology) in Pasadena, California is a well-known university with a notably unique approach to STEM education. A visit to their website demonstrates quite plainly the school’s commitment to innovation in the sciences and engineering. News of research endeavors are scattered across the landing page, highlighting achievements and discoveries.

This mission translates very clearly to Caltech’s approach to admissions. Caltech’s website is a must-use resource for all students interested in applying to the school. It spells out what the school is looking for in the applications it reviews. Furthermore, it highlights the unique aspects of their decision-making that sets the school apart from most other universities and colleges. 

For example, as Caltech has an incredibly small class size (~250), it has very few seats to offer. In comparison, many universities such as state colleges can have around 40,000 incoming freshmen. Even other small schools like MIT have a class size closer to 1000. As a result, Caltech has a less than 5% acceptance rate and is incredibly competitive. 

Furthermore, Caltech also has faculty, such as professors, review student applications. The school lists three steps in its admissions process before its final decision:

  1. Admissions Review
  2. Faculty Review
  3. Committee Review

All these steps are meant to ensure that applications are reviewed by many people in the Caltech community. 

While this process and Caltech’s reputation may make it seem daunting, thinking ahead about what the school is looking for and highlighting your experiences through essays can help you streamline your application.

Among the biggest factors the school considers is deep passion and potential for STEM. They list out the following on their website regarding what they are looking for:

As part of its application, the school has required and optional essay prompts. Thinking through how to combine your experiences with the essay prompts and highlight the aspects of your journey that align with what Caltech is looking for is a great way to prepare for the application. Below are the 2023-2024 required essays and some points worth considering in this exercise.

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

Chances are, if you are interested in attending Caltech, you care about STEM. The school is very clear on their website that they welcome students discussing their passions for science and engineering. Thus, in this prompt, it would be more than appropriate to share your love for STEM.

Furthermore, since Caltech has a faculty review for applications, they state that sharing intricate scientific details in your application is welcome. Keeping this in mind, diving into the details, and even into niche fields, to really emphasize your passion and reflect curiosity are other steps one could take when answering this prompt, or another similar question. 

“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?” (WC: 200 per experience)

This essay will largely be dictated by your own experiences. Importantly, it can serve as a space for you to show why you love STEM (potentially even the inception of your passions). Beyond this, as you think about what made you want to learn more, you can also reflect on how you hope to take that forward with you at Caltech and beyond. 

“How have you been a creator, inventor, or innovator in your own life?” (WC: 250)

A few of the values that CalTech mentions it looks for are resilience, collaboration, and creativity. In a prompt like this one, emphasizing these qualities as you reflect on a time you have been innovative can help demonstrate several key characteristics in a single essay. As you brainstorm ideas, think about how you can communicate multiple values from a single experience. 

"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." (WC: 400)

For prompts like these, thinking about not only your perspectives on these values but how you gained those perspectives is an important step. What experiences did you have and what actions did you take that make you feel the way you do about these values? How has that shaped you? Reflecting on these additional questions can communicate how you hope to carry these values with you, moving forward in the Caltech community.

The 2023-2024 application also has a few optional questions students can answer. 

Caltech emphasizes that these questions are meant to be optional. Working with a Dewey Smart admissions counselor to tailor and refine your answers to these additional questions (as well as the required prompts) to your individual experiences and story can help bolster your application.

Most importantly, when it comes to applying to Caltech, or really any other college, thinking about how you can align your story with the essay prompts provided is an essential part of a successful application. 

Interested in learning more about a student’s successful experience with Dewey Smart in their application to Caltech? Read more here.


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