California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) is a world-class science and technology university tucked into suburban Pasadena. This campus has a reputation for brilliance, boasting over 30 Nobel Prize winners among their professors & alumni. At any one time, there are about 1000 undergrads enrolled and about 85% of students live on campus all 4 years. Cal Tech’s atmosphere advocates an attitude of love for science, learning and discovery that students say is truly exhilarating. Trust & collaboration reside at the heart of the school and the Honor Code is a long-standing tradition at Cal Tech—take home exams are common for example, and that Honor Code is serious–the students enforce it! Freshmen are given a chance to adapt to the intense academic environment for a full year with a measure of pass-fail grades.
Students say if you prefer biomedical engineering to partying, then Cal Tech is the place to be. The campus is pretty sedate, “but there are plenty of adventures to be had around Los Angeles if you are doing it right,” said one student guide. Having said that, we saw a lot of evidence of fun at Cal Tech. The “Hogwart’s-style” house system really pushes community and creative collaboration. Students go through a sort of “rush” or rotation as freshmen and get placed in a house for the full four years at Cal Tech. Each house creates and hosts an elaborate “in-house party” and there is a ton of preparation and theming. All Cal Tech students are invited to all parties.
Pranks are big at Cal Tech. These young geniuses devise all sorts of nutty contraptions and plans. MIT is their big rival so there is always some sort of dreaming up of antics involving them. The senior class organizes the annual “ditch day” and then vacates campus, leaving all the younger students behind to figure out how to solve the pranks that have been left in their wake. This “prank” tradition at Cal Tech is legendary. Nearly 60 years ago one of the greatest Rose Bowl hoaxes of all time was pulled off—a group of ingenious Cal Tech students secretly altered the flip card routine so that the word “CAL TECH” appeared on the field at halftime instead of University of Washington. Needless to say, they pride themselves on pranks at Cal Tech!
The SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships) is said to be one of the “crown jewels” of Cal Tech. Students can apply for paid positions to do research at JPL and Cal Tech, and are given priority over all other students around the nation, quite a notable advantage.
Students will not receive credit for AP classes, but could test out of some freshmen classes due to the preparation they got taking those classes. We were delighted to hear there are twelve humanities courses required of all Cal Tech students—they pointed out the need for mathematicians and scientists to be well read & well spoken. There are also a number of “humanities-related” majors at Cal Tech such as English, Philosophy and Political Science.
There are 16 Division III sports on campus and our student guide told us “if you try out for a team, you are going to make it.” There is also a three class PE requirement at Cal Tech which we suspect exists to help students deal with tension.
Cal Tech’s admissions essays are meant to paint a vivid picture of applicants ranging from talking about your three most meaningful books to a discussion of ethical dilemmas that high school students have faced. Cal Tech takes great pride in not making admissions mistakes!