Caltech’s scientific reputation ranks it among the world’s preeminent research universities,
but it is the school’s small size that sets
it apart from its peers. This is the place where Linus Pauling determined the nature of the
chemical bond, where Theodore Von Kármán developed the principles that made jet flight possible,
where Charles Richter created a logarithmic scale for the magnitude of earthquakes, where Nobel Laureate in physics Richard Feynman—
one of the most original thinkers of the twentieth
century—spent the better part of his preeminent
career, and where physicists and engineers are currently
working toward the first detection of gravitational
However, Caltech is also a place where
more than half of students participate in on-campus
research before they graduate, where eighty-five percent
of students participate in intramural or intercollegiate
athletics, and where students have lived under
a student-run honor system since the 1920s.
As a high-powered research institution, Caltech has produced some of the greatest
scientific achievements of the past century. Caltech’s undergraduate program trains scientists
and engineers for the great discoveries of the next. In class, you don’t just learn the
answers to questions in your textbook; you learn to ask your own questions and are challenged
to find the answers. Professors often treat students as intellectual peers, and while
this creates a very demanding curriculum, it also gives students the opportunity to actively
participate in cutting-edge research. Many undergraduates work as research assistants on
campus, and more than 300 participate in the Summer Undergraduate Research
Fellowships program each summer. Many of these students will be named as authors or
coauthors of articles in major scientific journals, a rare honor for undergraduates. This
unadulterated exposure to the real world of science means that graduates are well
prepared for a career in research.
The academic experience here is unlike that of any other university in the world.
Every student has to learn the fundamentals of each major aspect of science while staying well
rounded with a required number of humanities courses. Homework is done in collaborative
groups and tests are almost all take-home. Participation in scientific research is easily accessible
to every undergraduate and world-renowned faculty members interact with students on a
daily basis. With big-time scientific research happening in an intimate small-school environment,
the academic environment at Caltech is like no other.
When freshmen arrive, they are all
enrolled in math, physics, and chemistry courses. This
is the beginning of the core curriculum, which is the
heart of a Caltech education. Every undergraduate,
whether majoring in biology, economics, literature, or
chemical engineering, has to take five terms of
physics, two terms of chemistry, one term of biology,
two terms of introductory laboratory, two terms of science
writing, twelve terms of humanities and social
sciences, three terms of physical education, and one
term of freshman “menu” course.
At the end of the freshman year, students must
declare an option, the school’s version of the major.
There are options in every aspect of science and engineering,
with the most popular being physics, engineering and applied science (which
includes computer science), biology, chemistry, mechanical engineering, mathematics, and
electrical engineering. A few students each year graduate with degrees in history, economics,
or literature, but they are very different from their peers at other universities—through
the core curriculum, all humanities and social science majors will have taken differential
equations and quantum mechanics. Changing options is generally very easy, and double
options are pursued by a few students each year. Every few years, a student designs his or
her own curriculum and graduates under the Independent Studies Program.
Often unnoticed is the fact that students here tend to take more classes than their
peers at other universities. Caltech operates on a trimester system, with three terms a year
that are each eleven weeks long. In addition, students take an average of five
classes each term, while students at other universities generally take only four classes.
After four years, students almost always find themselves well ahead of their
peers in the first year of graduate school.
The Honor System
The fast pace of of this Institute is more than almost any student can handle on his or her own,
but fortunately, nobody is expected to study without help. Collaboration with peers is
strongly encouraged under the more than eighty-year-old Honor Code. Instead of
strict rules handed down from the administration, students are held responsible
for their own actions and are on their honor not to cheat, plagiarize, or steal.
The greatest benefit of the Honor System is the fact that no tests are proctored. In fact,
almost all quizzes, tests, and exams are take-home. The professor will set some ground rules for
each test, and each student is responsible for respecting the given time limit and whether the test
is open- or closed-book. Students are allowed to take tests wherever and whenever they want;
some students sit in the privacy of their own rooms with their favorite CD or album playing, some
prefer the quiet desks in the library, and some even take their tests out on the lawn or at the
beach. Rather than having to wake up at 9:00 A.M., students can take their tests after dinner or
even late at night; the professor won’t care as long as it is turned in by the stated deadline.
The Honor System also applies to homework, where students are generally free to share
their answers with each other. As long as each student understands everything written on his or
her own paper, the professor will give full credit. This atmosphere of collaboration virtually eliminates
competition between students for grades. Every student is happy to help a friend
with a lab or homework assignment because some day, he or she may need the favor returned.
This training in the Honor System is part of a strong focus toward scientific
research. In the scientific community, researchers share their results openly and are
held on their honor to conduct experiments with integrity. Undergraduates can experience
this firsthand in numerous research opportunities on campus. The most popular way to do
research at here is through the SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships)
program. SURF provides grants of over $5,000 to students who want to do research with a
faculty member over the summer. Each “SURFer” must write his or her own proposal, submit
progress reports through the summer, write a final paper, and present his or her
research on SURF Seminar Day.
Some of the most advanced laboratories in the world are run by Caltech. The Jet
Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is the largest of these facilities. Located about fifteen
minutes northwest of campus, JPL is NASA’s center for robotic exploration of the solar system.
It has been run by the school since the 1930s and is the place where Voyager I and II,
now heading toward the edge of our solar system, were designed and built. JPL also produced
Galileo, which orbited Jupiter and its moons, and the highly successful Cassini,
which is now orbiting Saturn, its rings and moons. JPL was also in the news for the multiple
probes it has sent to Mars: Global Surveyor, the Pathfinder, Odyssey, and rovers Spirit
and Opportunity. A van runs daily between the campus and JPL, and many undergraduates
make the trip throughout the summer.
Several telescope facilities are operated here, including the Palomar Observatory north
of San Diego housing the 200-inch Hale Telescope, and the Keck observatory on the summit
of Hawaii’s dormant Mauna Kea volcano, home of the world’s largest optical and infrared
telescopes. They also operate the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, a collection of radio
telescopes 250 miles north of campus. On campus, there are 0.35-meter and 0.25-
meter telescopes atop the astrophysics buildings that are used for undergraduate
classes. Also, plans are underway, in collaboration with the University of California,
to design and build the Thirty-Meter Telescope, the world’s most powerful telescope.
In conjunction with MIT, the school operates the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave
Observatory (LIGO), a facility dedicated to the detection of cosmic gravitational waves.
LIGO is the largest project ever funded by the National Science Foundation, and consists
of two widely separated installations within the United States—one in Hanford,
Washington, and the other in Livingston, Louisiana. They are each massive L-shaped structures
with four-kilometer-long arms held in a vacuum, the largest high vacuum ever constructed.
A one percent-scale prototype sits on campus, and a few undergraduates
work there every summer, experiencing the cutting edge of experimental physics.
Caltech is also home to Nobel Laureate Ahmed Zewail’s Laboratory for Molecular Sciences,
the headquarters of the Southern California Seismic Network, and a new initiative to
improve voting technology. A new nanotechnology center and a state-of-the-art MRI facility are
two more projects that are keeping the school at the forefront of scientific research.
Most Popular Fields of Study
Caltech is not for everyone, and getting in is not easy. By campus tradition, the target
size of the freshman class is always 215—the number of seats in the physics lecture hall.
Although there are no strict requirements for test scores, the academic achievements of the freshman
class are always very high. The middle SAT scores range from 700–770 Verbal, 770–780 Math,
700–800 Critical Reading, and 680–770 Writing; ninety-nine percent graduated in the top tenth
of their high school class.
The goal of the Admissions Committee is to admit students who will become the “crea -
tive type of scientist” that the school seeks to produce. Members of the committee find these students
by carefully reviewing the more subjective parts of the application—essays, choice of
high school curriculum, extracurricular activities, and teacher evaluations. Prospective students are encouraged to attach a research paper to their application, which is one
of the best ways to evaluate how well an applicant will do in a research-oriented environment.
Applying for first-time financial aid is a simple process that mirrors that of other universities.
Every applicant must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA)
and the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Financial Aid PROFILE Application. These documents
enable the Financial Aid Office to determine the amount that the student and his or
her family can reasonably be expected to contribute toward an education. Any difference
between that amount and the cost of attending is considered the student’s
financial need, and the Financial Aid Office will prepare a student aid package consisting of
a combination of scholarships, grants, loans, and work study that will fully meet that need.
The sum of a student’s contribution along with the financial aid award covers the entire cost
of attending: tuition, room and board, student fees, health insurance, money for
books, extra meals, and personal expenses, even travel money if you live far away. There aren’t
any hidden costs.
Many students receive federal work-study as part of their financial award, and it is very
easy to find opportunities to work on campus. The number of job opportunities far
outnumbers the number of students on campus. The Financial Aid Office is very flexible
with switching between loans and work-study, and many students work off a significant portion
of their costs before they graduate. Some of the best-paying jobs are research assistant
and teaching assistant. Students can also earn work-study by performing community service
such as tutoring, reading to kids, or feeding the homeless. Other students work as
office assistants, tour guides, ushers, or waiters. Many of these jobs have very flexible hours
and pay reasonably well.
Many scholarships that are need-based are awareded, but in recent years, several
donations have allowed the school to give a limited number of merit-based scholarships
to incoming freshmen. These merit awards come in a range of values. There is no separate
application for the merit awards; all admitted students are automatically considered. There
are also a number of upperclass merit awards given to sophomores, juniors, and seniors on
the basis of academic excellence. These awards cover up to the full cost of tuition, and the
Scholarships and Financial Aid Committee awards them to many outstanding continuing
students each year.
Student Financial Aid Details
Social life is generally not one of the reasons a high school student chooses to study here, but
every year, freshmen are surprised to find an active social scene centered around the
seven undergraduate houses. Blacker, Fleming, Lloyd, Page, Ricketts, Dabney, and Ruddock
House are descendants of fraternities that dominated the campus in the 1920s. This fraternity
lineage is most obvious at family-style house dinners each night. Student waiters set
the tables, serve food, and refill drinks; everyone must ask permission to get up from the
table, and dinner ends with announcements from the house officers. Dinner is certainly not
a formal affair though; each house adds its own quirky rules; for example: no “nerd talk,”
and no freshmen sitting at corners. Breaking the rules results in a variety of interesting
punishments and the nightly ritual serves as an entertaining diversion that makes each
house seem more like a family.
Getting into a house gives each freshman an instant circle of friends and a constant
source of social activity. Each house hosts one large “interhouse” party during the year, as well
as many smaller parties. Every house elects a social team that plans other events such as ski
trips, concerts, and trips to various L.A. tourist locations, but most social activity isn’t incredibly organized. Nightly, students can be found relaxing and socializing in the common areas
of the house, getting to know the group of people who will be their neighbors for four years.
Many students happen to be talented musicians, so the school sponsors a variety
of music and arts programs. There is a concert band, two jazz bands, chamber
music, a symphony orchestra, men’s and women’s glee clubs, and a theater program that
performs three shows every year. A growing number of arts programs are now
being organized by students. There are several a capella groups, multiple rock bands,
dance troupes, and a literary magazine, all run entirely by students.
Student government is centered around a nonprofit
organization known as the Associated Students of
Caltech (ASCIT), Inc. Completely independent of the
Institute, ASCIT publishes the student newspaper, yearbook,
student handbook, and literary magazine. ASCIT
is also in charge of administering the Honor System: suspected cases of cheating are investigated
and adjudicated by the Board of Control, a committee of twelve students. Student representatives,
along with faculty members, also sit on the Conduct Review Committee, which
rules on disciplinary matters for undergraduates. Those students are just a few of the more
than sixty student representatives on various committees that review academic policies,
set the dinner menu, make admissions decisions, award merit scholarships, and determine
academic ineligibility, to name a few examples. Students are allowed to
participate in almost every administrative decision that affects student life, which is a rare
privilege in the present-day big business of higher education.
Student Enrollment Demographics
Student Graduation Demographics
While academic competition is almost nonexistent, the seven houses engage in constant
competition through a year-round schedule of interhouse sports. The houses play softball,
soccer, swimming, track, basketball, tennis, Ultimate Frisbee, and football, earning
points for compiling the best record in each sport. The house with the most points at the end
of the year wins the interhouse trophy. The games are competitive, but everyone gets a chance
to play—eighty-five percent of students play in interhouse sports before they graduate.
Intercollegiate sports are open to almost any student who can commit to daily practices,
and almost thirty percent of the student body plays on the school’s eighteen NCAA, Division III
teams. There is cross-country, soccer, basketball, baseball, fencing, and more, but for over a
decade now, no football team. There are also a wide variety of physical education classes for
students to fulfill their PE requirement, ranging from traditional sports to yoga, scuba diving,
and rock climbing.
Over the years, students have been able
to shape their own unique way of life without much
administrative interference. This has created
many quirky traditions, one of the wackiest being
senior Ditch Day, which was featured on the
Tonight Show with Jay Leno. One day every May,
all the seniors ditch their classes and leave campus.
Many years ago, underclassmen began to
prank seniors’ rooms while they were gone. The
seniors countered by “stacking” their rooms, creating
barriers to keep students from getting in on Ditch Day. Over the years, these stacks
have become more elaborate, and now most take the form of an all-day scavenger hunt,
where students run around campus collecting clues that will unlock the seniors’ rooms. The
Institute has relented to the students, and now cancels classes every year for Ditch Day.
Every year, this creates some unexpected sights, which can really be understood only by
those going through it.
Thirty-two Nobel Prizes have been awarded to alumni and faculty. A Cal Tech
education primes students for a career in scientific research, and a majority of graduates follow
that path. On average, about half of graduates go on to earn a Ph.D., which is a
significantly higher percentage than any other university. These are the students that the school
is designed for—those who will dedicate their lives to the study and teaching of scientific
- Frank Capra, Film Director
- Linus Pauling, Chemist, Political
Activist, two Unshared Nobel Prizes:
Chemistry and Peace
- Arnold Beckman, Chemist, founder
of Beckman Instruments, Inc.
- Vernon Smith, Economist, Nobel
Prize for Economics
- Ben Rosen, Cofounder of Compaq
- Gordon Moore, Cofounder of Intel
- David Ho, Biologist and Physician