Tips for “Techer” Hopefuls–Caltech (California Institute of Technology)

It would be hard to find a college where “fit” is more important for prospective applicants than at Caltech.  It takes a special kind of person to succeed at a place that discovered how old the earth really is–4.6 billion years. That’s what Caltech geochemist Clair Patterson figured out in 1953 by studying the decay rate of lead isotopes in earth's oldest rock.  How could we possibly make that up?

Grades and test scores alone won’t get you in to Caltech (but they sure can keep you out—the mid-50% SAT scores for the most recent freshman class were 2170-2310, and we’re fairly certain someone at Caltech calculated that figure in his or her head).  Successful applicants to Caltech couple extraordinary achievements in math and science with a genuine passion for those subjects and just enough personality and verve to succeed as a Techer.  You can't fake that.  

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you apply to Caltech.

1.  Decide for yourself if you really are a fit.

It would be difficult to understate just how much passion and aptitude the Caltech population has for math and science.  Lots of high school students are good at those subjects, taking AP Calculus and AP Physics, and maybe even going as far as to call math and science their favorite subjects.  But Caltech has the luxury of giving around 650 offers of admission to a pool of 4400 budding mathematicians and scientists from around the world.  And the 250 who accept an offer (yep, there are only around 250 in the freshman class) come to college ready to immerse themselves in the intensity on which Caltech prides itself. 

I'm not sharing those statistics to discourage you.  I'm sharing them because if the thought of surrounding yourself with that kind of talent and passion for math and science really excites you, you've probably already found ways to pursue those passions beyond your school.  You pursued those interests during the summers.  You probably would have pursued those interests even if they wouldn't help you get into a good college.  If that's the case, you probably should consider a place like Caltech.  And if it's not, believe me, there are plenty of other wonderful colleges from which to choose.

2.  Follow directions.  Really follow directions.  

Caltech is very open about the fact that professors participate in the admissions process.  If you ignore a simple direction in the application, how do you think that makes you look in a chemistry professor's eyes?  Will he or she want you in the lab?

We're not saying you should refrain from expressing yourself on the application.  But we are saying that if they tell you to limit your answer to the space provided, follow that direction.  Proofread your application carefully.  Make sure everything is just right before you submit it.  Remember, those Caltech professors are likely to expect attention to detail when you're working alongside them, so show them that attention in your application.     

3. "Techers" have passion and personality.  Let Caltech see yours.

Here's Caltech's supplemental essay question:

Interest in math, science, or engineering manifests itself in many forms. Caltech professor and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman (1918-1988) explained, “I’d make a motor, I’d make a gadget that would go off when something passed a photocell, I’d play around with selenium”; he was exploring his interest in science, as he put it, by “piddling around all the time.” In a page, more or less, tell the Admissions Committee how you express your interest, curiosity, or excitement about math, science or engineering.

Before answering this question, you might ask those around you—family, friends, or teachers—how they see you as a mathematician, scientist or engineer. They may offer insightful observations!

We think the most important part of that prompt is the " interest, curiosity, or excitement…"  This isn't a prompt asking you to recite your most impressive accomplishments.  Don't tell them that you were "extremely pleased to receive the math department award." This is the time to geek out for an audience who expects it.  They want to hear your passion. Do you do math problem sets with your friends at lunch?  Have you memorized pi to the 37th digit?  Did you lay awake for two nights trying to figure out how to solve a proof?  Did you wait outside a professor's office just for the chance to ask if you could do research with her?  Share things that really show your "interest, curiosity and excitement" for these subjects.

4.  Have fun with the short answers. 

It's great when a college actually tells you, as Caltech does in its directions for the short-answer prompts,

"Don’t over analyze. These aren’t trick questions and there are no wrong answers. We are interested in learning more about your personality, values, and interests."

If you spend time on the Caltech campus, you'd see pretty quickly that there's a playful spirit to the student community.  Just because they love math and science doesn't mean they don't have personalities, and it certainly doesn't mean that they don't have fun.  So don't agonize over "which three adjectives your friends would use to describe you," or "which books have been most meaningful to you."  This isn't a test; don't treat it like one.  Have fun.  Be honest.  Be yourself.  Let them see that you're more than just a collection of grades, test scores and scientific achievements. 

It's hard to stand out in the Caltech applicant pool.  But given that Caltech is unlike any other university, it makes sense that they don't expect you to be like any other applicant.  Take them up on the opportunity to show them who you really are.   

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.