5 Things to Know Before Applying to Caltech

Caltech-Beckman-Auditorium

US News ranked Caltech #10 this year, a place it’s held pretty consistently over the last few years.  

In the last decade, after moving up and down in the top ten, Caltech has settled on the outer fringe of this bracket, despite its high overlap in applicants with the higher-rated MIT and Stanford (#5, together) and Princeton and Harvard (eternally #1-2), and despite consistent top-3 dominance in the Times Higher Education ranking of global research universities.  

Caltech is known as a tiny powerhouse in science and engineering.  While sometimes inviting the comparison as the “MIT of the West,” Caltech is much smaller than its east-coast counterpart, with just 979 undergraduates on its 124 acres in Pasadena, CA.  This concentrated and intense academic environment produces millions of dollars in research grants every year, and a formidable list of Nobel Prizes, patents, tech company CEO’s, and the like, lending Caltech a well-earned prestige in scientific circles.

This small-but-mighty outpost of research awesomeness, unsurprisingly, attracts some of the most high-achieving high-schoolers among top schools (as in, 75% of admits scored above 770 on SAT Math).  But Caltech also has a reputation for students who are just a bit…different.  Caltech’s supplemental essays target both ethical integrity and “unusual interests,” alongside focused goals and experience in STEM fields.  As befits a small, prestigious undergraduate program, students who apply here are intense and competitive,  with a bit of oddness thrown in for fun.

1. Techers take pride in their “different” House system

Caltech housing is a unique blend of traditional and innovative.  Somewhere between fraternity and Hogwarts house, Caltech dorms are described as “self-governing living spaces,” featuring student-waited dinners, and even a first-year “sorting” (Ok, it’s actually called Rotation).  Each house has a different personality and vibe, and students apply for the ones they vibe with the most in the first month of school.  No matter which House you join, you are probably in for some unusual dinner traditions and, in true Caltech form, very intense party planning.

2. Academics will be a balance of stress and support

Have we mentioned that Caltech is intense? And tough? Caltech’s high-achieving cohort of students and comprehensive core curriculum make for a reputedly, you guessed it, intense academic experience.  But its small student body allows Caltech to provide unique support mechanisms as students transition to college-level classes.  Your first two quarters at Caltech are pass/fail, and Caltech’s Honor Code means all tests, for all four years, are take-home, allowing you to find the most stress-reducing setting conducive to test-taking.  With almost all first years taking the same subjects, Caltech students have a common body of knowledge, which means your fourth-year hallmate can probably help you with your Bio homework, and hey, nothing makes a community tight-knit like shared suffering, right?


>> Recommended Reading: 5 Things to Know Before Applying to Yale University


3. Caltech has AMAZING Research Facilities

Caltech is home to or oversees many of the world’s top scientific research facilities, including (for the astrophysics nerds out there) NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and the Palomar and Keck Observatories.  Non-astronomers will also not be disappointed to visit the Seismological Observatory, or get involved with research breakthroughs from jellyfish dreams to DNA robots, or perhaps attend a champagne-and-cake celebration honoring two Caltech professors’ recent Nobel Prize. #casual

4. Caltech humor is quirky humor

Aside from a shared academic intensity, Techers are united through a series of elaborate and unusual traditions, each with a touch of science, humor, or just plain nerdiness.  Caltech’s comically humble mascot, the beaver (“nature’s engineer”) perfectly exemplifies this blend.  Lest you worry that your time at Caltech will be purely academic, the undergrad experience also includes an annual Ditch Day, in which seniors plan themed activities for underclassmen, and an ongoing prank war with MIT so intense, it has its own Wikipedia page.  On Halloween, students gather to witness or realize the annual “Millikan Pumpkin-drop Experiment,” – all in the name of science, of course.

Caltech Science

5. Southern California contains a host of off-campus opportunities

Aside from sunshine and pleasant temperatures year-round, Caltech’s situation twenty minutes north of Los Angeles means its off-campus opportunities have a west-coast flavor.  On weekends, students can go hiking in Santa Monica Mountains or the Angeles Forest (in between p-sets of course), or even trek to the beach in Santa Monica or Venice.  Silicon Valley, with its opportunities for summer jobs and tech internships, isn’t too far off either.  Pasadena and LA offer high-profile locations for some of Caltech’s more famous public pranks as well.  Even in this intense academic community, Techers find time to take advantage of Caltech’s prime SoCal location.


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