It would be hard to find a college where “fit” is more important for prospective applicants than at Caltech. It takes a special kind of person to succeed at a place that discovered how old the earth really is–4.6 billion years. That’s what Caltech geochemist Clair Patterson figured out in 1953 by studying the decay rate of lead isotopes in earth's oldest rock. How could we possibly make that up?
Grades and test scores alone won’t get you in to Caltech (but they sure can keep you out—the mid-50% SAT scores for the most recent freshman class were 2170-2310, and we’re fairly certain someone at Caltech calculated that figure in his or her head). Successful applicants to Caltech couple extraordinary achievements in math and science with a genuine passion for those subjects and just enough personality and verve to succeed as a Techer. You can't fake that.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you apply to Caltech.
1. Decide for yourself if you really are a fit.
It would be difficult to understate just how much passion and aptitude the Caltech population has for math and science. Lots of high school students are good at those subjects, taking AP Calculus and AP Physics, and maybe even going as far as to call math and science their favorite subjects. But Caltech has the luxury of giving around 650 offers of admission to a pool of 4400 budding mathematicians and scientists from around the world. And the 250 who accept an offer (yep, there are only around 250 in the freshman class) come to college ready to immerse themselves in the intensity on which Caltech prides itself.
I'm not sharing those statistics to discourage you. I'm sharing them because if the thought of surrounding yourself with that kind of talent and passion for math and science really excites you, you've probably already found ways to pursue those passions beyond your school. You pursued those interests during the summers. You probably would have pursued those interests even if they wouldn't help you get into a good college. If that's the case, you probably should consider a place like Caltech. And if it's not, believe me, there are plenty of other wonderful colleges from which to choose.
2. Follow directions. Really follow directions.
Caltech is very open about the fact that professors participate in the admissions process. If you ignore a simple direction in the application, how do you think that makes you look in a chemistry professor's eyes? Will he or she want you in the lab?
We're not saying you should refrain from expressing yourself on the application. But we are saying that if they tell you to limit your answer to the space provided, follow that direction. Proofread your application carefully. Make sure everything is just right before you submit it. Remember, those Caltech professors are likely to expect attention to detail when you're working alongside them, so show them that attention in your application.
3. "Techers" have passion and personality. Let Caltech see yours.
Here's Caltech's supplemental essay question:
Interest in math, science, or engineering manifests itself in many forms. Caltech professor and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman (1918-1988) explained, “I’d make a motor, I’d make a gadget that would go off when something passed a photocell, I’d play around with selenium”; he was exploring his interest in science, as he put it, by “piddling around all the time.” In a page, more or less, tell the Admissions Committee how you express your interest, curiosity, or excitement about math, science or engineering.
Before answering this question, you might ask those around you—family, friends, or teachers—how they see you as a mathematician, scientist or engineer. They may offer insightful observations!
We think the most important part of that prompt is the " interest, curiosity, or excitement…" This isn't a prompt asking you to recite your most impressive accomplishments. Don't tell them that you were "extremely pleased to receive the math department award." This is the time to geek out for an audience who expects it. They want to hear your passion. Do you do math problem sets with your friends at lunch? Have you memorized pi to the 37th digit? Did you lay awake for two nights trying to figure out how to solve a proof? Did you wait outside a professor's office just for the chance to ask if you could do research with her? Share things that really show your "interest, curiosity and excitement" for these subjects.
4. Have fun with the short answers.
It's great when a college actually tells you, as Caltech does in its directions for the short-answer prompts,
"Don’t over analyze. These aren’t trick questions and there are no wrong answers. We are interested in learning more about your personality, values, and interests."
If you spend time on the Caltech campus, you'd see pretty quickly that there's a playful spirit to the student community. Just because they love math and science doesn't mean they don't have personalities, and it certainly doesn't mean that they don't have fun. So don't agonize over "which three adjectives your friends would use to describe you," or "which books have been most meaningful to you." This isn't a test; don't treat it like one. Have fun. Be honest. Be yourself. Let them see that you're more than just a collection of grades, test scores and scientific achievements.
It's hard to stand out in the Caltech applicant pool. But given that Caltech is unlike any other university, it makes sense that they don't expect you to be like any other applicant. Take them up on the opportunity to show them who you really are.
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Filed Under: Advice for specific colleges
You’ve stood in awe of JPL and its incredible feats of engineering. You’ve marveled at observations made at the Keck and Ligo observatories. You’ve even dreamed of registering for a Kip Thorne class or taking a seat in the hallowed Richard Feynman Physics Lecture Hall. The only thing standing between your STEM achievements so far and your dreams of attending the fabled California Institute of Technology—that storied STEM playground—are six little essay prompts. Consider this our small contribution to your STEM future—a bit of advice in tackling Caltech’s freshman application. Now get to it:
- What three experiences or activities have helped you explore your desire to study and possibly pursue a career in STEM? (200 words maximum)
This is your chance to highlight what’s inspired your love of math and science. But you don’t have all that much room here—two hundred words divided by three activities equals something like three sentences per activity. So aim for broad strokes rather than nitty-gritty detail. Feel free to write about classroom insights, informal hands-on build experiences in your garage, or formal co-curricular STEM activities.
- Please list three books, along with their authors, that have been particularly meaningful to you. For each book, please include a sentence explaining their influence upon you (200 characters maximum). Please note that your response is not limited to math, science or school-assigned texts.
Caltech is giving you plenty of space throughout the rest of your application to talk about your interest in math and science. Don’t feel compelled to let them know, three more times, about your love for computer science. You like it. They get it. Move on. This is an opportunity to broaden their perspective. So don’t aim for something you think will impress them, choose something meaningful—significant, relevant, consequential—to you. If it happens to be computer science, go for it, but don’t blind them to all your other meaningful interests.
- Members of the Caltech community live, learn, and work within an Honor System with one simple guideline; ‘No member shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community.’ While seemingly simple, questions of ethics, honesty and integrity are sometimes puzzling. Share a difficult situation that has challenged you. What was your response, and how did you arrive at a solution? (200 words maximum)
What’s your ethical dilemma? How have you remained honest when nobody’s looking? When have you had to take a principled stand? Caltech isn’t asking about the easy stuff here—“I never cheat,” or “I never steal”—they’re asking about a difficult situation. Has a friendship ever been on the line as a consequence? Any peer pressure involved? Have familial relationships—“I had to tell my mom this was my college admission essay to write, not hers”—ever come into play? Arriving at a solution isn’t simply about your having taken a stand, though—that’s just your response. How did you arrive at a solution—or rather—resolve the situation? Was there any deliberation involved, either mental or verbal? Your response isn’t limited to issues of academic integrity; you’re free to write about any “unfair advantage.”
- Caltech students have long been known for their quirky sense of humor, whether it be through planning creative pranks, building elaborate party sets, or even the year-long preparation that goes into our annual Ditch Day. Please describe an unusual way in which you have fun. (200 words maximum)
“Creative pranks”? “Quirky sense of humor”? “Elaborate party sets”? Caltech couldn’t be dropping any bigger hints for you here if they spelled it out in letters as big as the Hollywood sign. This prompt screams fun: idiosyncratic/offbeat fun. It’s about unconventional creativity, imaginative invention, or skillfully-deft silliness. If your prompt response ends up eliciting a smile, chuckle, or wondrous double-take from your admission officer, you’ve done good.
- In an increasingly global and interdependent society, there is a need for diversity in thought, background, and experience in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. How do you see yourself contributing to the diversity of Caltech’s community? (200 words maximum)
It’s the role of a scientist or engineer to either answer questions about our world or invent solutions to problems that need fixing. Those answers and solutions aren’t dependent upon the background of the person either making the discovery or solving the problem. They’re simply dependent upon scientific prowess or innovative problem-solving minds. Right? Not so fast: Think about it. Who’s asking the questions? And as a consequence, which questions are being asked? Does the person solving the problem impact whose problems get solved? STEM belongs to everyone. What is it about your background, your experiences, your thought that will enable you to think outside the scientific box, so far—that will diversify the questions asked or the problems solved? How will you contribute to Caltech’s STEM community?
- Scientific exploration clearly excites you. Beyond our 3:1 student-to-faculty ratio and our intense focus on research opportunities, how do you believe Caltech will best fuel your intellectual curiosity and help you meet your goals? (500 words maximum)
This is your basic “Why this college?” essay. But Caltech’s asking you to go beyond the obvious here; the admissions office already knows Caltech is small and that its students have opportunities to do incredible research—they don’t need to be reminded. They’re looking for fit. So rather than spend the entire essay writing about Caltech, spend a portion of it telling them about your goals and what makes you intellectually curious. How do you fit snugly into the Caltech puzzle? Connect the dots between your curiosity and dreams and Caltech—professors, classes, core curriculum, scientific exploration. Ideally, this essay should say as much about you as Caltech; it should describe, in no uncertain terms, the fit.
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Written by Zaragoza Guerra
Zaragoza Guerra is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Zaragoza previously worked as a senior admissions officer at MIT, Caltech, and The Boston Conservatory.