California Institute of Technology


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 waves.

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.

Information Summary

Ranks 1st in California and 1st overall. See the entire top 2,000 colleges and universities list
Overall Score (about) 100.0
Total Cost On-Campus Attendance $72,084
Admission Success rate N/A
ACT / SAT 75%ile scores 36 / 1580
Student Ratio Students-to-Faculty 7 : 1
Retention (full-time / part-time) 98% / N/A
Enrollment Total (all students) 2,233


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.

Scientific Research

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.

Telescope Facilities

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.

Other Facilities

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


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California Institute of Technology


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.

Financial Aid

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

Ranks 5783rd for the average student loan amount.
Secrets to getting the best scholarships and financial aid in California.



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

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 knowledge.

Prominent Grads

  • 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 Computer Corporation
  • Gordon Moore, Cofounder of Intel Corporation
  • David Ho, Biologist and Physician

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