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California Institute of Technology: Serious Science


I spent a few hours last week on the campus of the California Institute of Technology (a.k.a. Caltech), and was pleasantly surprised by the attractive campus, and our tour guides–both women–who demonstrated that not all Caltech students are total science dweebs.

There are only 800 undergraduate students and only 1500 graduate students in all disciplines. The rest of the campus community is made up of post docs, faculty, and research scientists. This place is not for anyone who wants merely to dabble in science. So while undergraduate students do pursue curricular and extracurricular interests outside the sciences, this would definitely not be the place for someone whose major is “undecided.”

Not that an undecided major could ever get in the place. Only 17% of applicants are admitted. It might help to be a woman: the undergraduate population is only 30% female. But our female tour guides expressed that this gender imbalance didn’t make much of a difference. All the kids on campus are scientists, and their peers treat them as fellow scientists. So while the administration would like to attract more women (they admitted a class in 2007 that was 37% women), the students on campus stressed that the gender imbalance was merely a fact of life in the sciences.

When asked about the differences between Caltech and MIT, this is what the admissions director had to say.

    1. MIT has more engineering, and more breadth in its academic majors and programs than Caltech.
    2. MIT has more undergraduate students: the culture of Caltech is older.
    3. The quarter calendar at Caltech makes the curriculum more compressed and therefore more demanding.
    4. 25% of Caltech students participate in varsity athletics (which belies the geeky stereotype).
    5. Most courses are capped at 15 students at Caltech.

Residentially, Caltech is divided into houses, which students apply to belong to throughout their time on campus. Just as other students on other campuses “rush” a fraternity or sorority, Calech students engage in a “rotation” to gain entry into the house of their choice. The tour guide likened these to the houses in the Harry Potter novels, and house spirit is very strong. Each has its own dining hall, and all except one serve sit-down dinners at which nearly all students are present. This helps build a strong sense of community among the undergraduates. It also provides personal and academic support in a very challenging environment.

Here are some other interesting facts I learned while on campus:

  • Interviews are not a part of the admissions process.
  • Extracurricular activities do count as part of the admissions process; academics are necessary but not sufficient.
    Caltech does not factor a “demonstrated interest” in the school into the admissions process.
  • Caltech has an incredibly effective honor code. All tests are take home. None are proctored. Trust is an essential element of the academic and professional community. Students have 24-hour passes to get into any building on campus.
  • Collaboration is an academic cornerstone of science education at Caltech.
  • Undergraduate students develop a strong adult network while on campus, in large part because they are completely outnumbered by professional scientists. Students are regularly employed in the major research laboratories.
  • The first two terms of freshman year are taken “Pass/Fail” no matter how good you are. Some kids find that their freshman year courses are the most challenging they have ever taken.

I really enjoyed my time on campus, walking underneath the olive trees that seemed to be everywhere on campus. This is fantastic place for the academically gifted math and science student who wants to launch right into his or her scientific career. As the director of admission stated, this is a place for kids who are academically prepared for graduate school, but who “need to get an undergraduate degree first.” This is a special place for special students.

Mark Montgomery
Student of California Colleges
Montgomery Educational Consulting


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