How To Get Into Caltech

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Hello and welcome! How are you? Up to your eyeballs in college websites? Struggling to narrow down your list of potential colleges to something manageable? 

We get it. It can be overwhelming. And we want to help. 

We’ve made it the mission to scour the internet for all of the information that we can find about popular colleges and universities, then condense that info into something quick and easy to read. 

Today, we’re focused on Caltech. By the end of this article, you’ll have a feel for the university and whether or not you want to include it on your list of colleges to research in depth. What’s more, you’ll know what it takes to get into this institute of technology. 

Let’s dive in!

All About Caltech

The California Institute of Technology is a world-renowned private research university located in Pasadena, California. It’s one of the most selective universities in the United States, making it a good fit for students who are highly driven and passionate about the pure and applied sciences. 

Caltech was founded in 1891 by Amos Throop. Originally called Throop University, the California Institute of Technology acquired its current name in 1920. It joined the Association of American Universities in 1934; this organization of research universities now includes 65 schools dedicated to maintaining the highest possible standards in both academics and research.

There are currently 987 undergraduate students and 1,410 graduate students at Caltech. The student-faculty ratio is three to one. 

Caltech’s Pasadena campus is located just eleven miles from downtown Los Angeles. The campus spans 124 acres. Students are required to live on campus throughout their first year of school, and the vast majority of undergraduates remain in campus housing for the duration. 

It’s an easy walk from Caltech to Old Town Pasadena and the Pasadena Playhouse District. Students love to walk into town to enjoy its independent bookstores, free outdoor concerts, comedy shows, art museums, and other attractions. Old Pasadena has an active nightlife and connects to downtown Los Angeles via the Metro light rail. 

Caltech is not an inexpensive university, but need-based financial aid is available. 

Caltech Academics

Caltech runs on the quarter system, with the fall term beginning in late September and ending before Christmas. The second term begins after New Year’s Day and ends in mid-March, and the third term runs from late March or early April through early June. Each term is ten weeks long, so classes move quite quickly. 

The university is organized into six primary academic divisions: 

  • Biology and Biological Engineering
  • Chemistry and Chemical Engineering
  • Engineering and Applied Science
  • Geological and Planetary Sciences
  • Humanities and Social Sciences
  • Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy

The core curriculum at Caltech is built to encourage learning across disciplines. Every student completes this curriculum, regardless of their area of study. This core curriculum is designed to be intensely difficult. Caltech wants “to take the best and the brightest STEM minds in the world and challenge them beyond what they believe is possible.”

The core curriculum at Caltech includes the following:

  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Humanities and Social Sciences
  • Physical Education 
  • Scientific Writing
  • Introductory Labs

At Caltech, majors are referred to as “options”. Students choose one at the end of their first year, after completing their core curriculum classes. 

Caltech offers the following options:

  • Applied and Computational Mathematics
  • Applied Physics
  • Astrophysics
  • Bioengineering
  • Biology
  • Business, Economics, and Management
  • Chemical Engineering
  • Chemical Engineering (Biomolecular)
  • Chemical Engineering (Computational)
  • Chemical Engineering (Materials)
  • Chemical Engineering (Process Systems)
  • Chemical Engineering (Sustainability)
  • Chemistry
  • Computation and Neural Systems
  • Computer Science
  • Economics
  • Electrical Engineering
  • Engineering and Applied Science
  • English
  • Environmental Science and Engineering
  • Environmental Science and Engineering (Chemistry)
  • Environmental Science and Engineering (Physics)
  • Geobiology
  • Geochemistry
  • Geology
  • Geophysics
  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science
  • Information and Data Sciences
  • Interdisciplinary Studies Program
  • Materials Science
  • Mathematics
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Philosophy
  • Physics
  • Planetary Science
  • Political Science

It also offers minors in Aerospace, Control and Dynamical Systems, Neurobiology, Structural Mechanics, and Visual Culture.

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What Sets Caltech Apart?

“A Teacher is a smart, curious, and driven person who really wants to be surrounded by, learn from (and with), and hang out with others who want the same.”

Caltech is consistently ranked as one of the ten best universities in the world. It’s been found to have the highest faculty citation rate of any university. Its programs in Engineering, Technology, and Physical Sciences are often considered to be the best programs available in each field. 

Nine out of ten Caltech students conduct research during their time at the university. 

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory located at Caltech is a federally funded research and development center owned by NASA. This laboratory is operated as a division of Caltech through a contract between the university and the government. They’re responsible for the Mars 2020 mission, the Mars Science Laboratory mission, and the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter.

Caltech has large-scale research facilities, including the Seismological Laboratory and a global network of astronomical observatories. 

Caltech also houses the Einstein Papers Project, which transcribes, translates, annotates, and publishes the collected writings and correspondence of Albert Einstein. There are currently sixteen volumes in the series, and it’s expected there will be about twice that many by the time they finish. 

Admissions

“Here’s the not-so-secret truth of our admissions process,” Caltech says on their website. “There are way more qualified applicants than there are spaces.”

Caltech is notoriously difficult to get into. CBS News ranked it as the third hardest college to gain entrance to within the United States. Ninety-nine percent of Caltech students placed in the top tenth of their high school graduating class.

This past year, Caltech received approximately seventeen thousand applications and accepted only two percent of applicants. The admittance rate the previous year was closer to four percent. Of seventeen thousand aspiring students who applied in 2022, only 235 enrolled. 

The middle 50% range of SAT scores for enrolled freshmen in recent years were 740–780 for reading and writing, 790–800 for math, and 1530–1570 total. The middle 50% range for the SAT Subject Tests in Physics, Chemistry, and Biology was 760–800 for each. 

That being said, there is currently a five-year moratorium on SAT tests (through Fall of 2025), and SAT subject tests are never considered. AP test scores are never required.

There is no GPA requirement, but students are expected to attain a proficient knowledge of calculus and succeed in high-level STEM courses. 

How to Get into Caltech

Here’s the official TL;DR of what it takes to be ready for Caltech, straight from their website:

  • Love STEM. Love it.
  • Love something that isn’t STEM, too.
  • Take the most challenging classes you can in high school. Especially in math and English. (And do well in them, but you probably knew that.)

Above all, Caltech wants to see that you have a hunger for knowledge and the ability to solve unique problems. They’re looking for students who challenge themself and thrive even
with an intense course load. 

Prospective Caltech students will need to take the following courses in high school:

  • 4 years of math, including 1 year of calculus (at the highest level available)
  • 1 year of chemistry
  • 1 year of physics, preferably calculus-based
  • 3-4 years of English
  • 1 year of U.S. History or Government (US Schools)

What about summers? Does Caltech expect you to continue your rigorous academic training over summer breaks? Well, they have a page for that here. And if you click through, you’ll see that there’s no clear answer. 

Caltech accepts a wide variety of students. They recognize and embrace the fact that everyone has different strengths and interests, and they’re not looking for students to conform to a mold. And they recognize the need for rest.

The best thing that you can do is to spend your summer pursuing your unique passions.

Colleges love to see students spend their summers engaged in productive and meaningful activities like volunteer work, internships, and independent community service projects.

Students who have just completed their junior year may also want to apply to the school’s Fall Fly-in Program, Caltech Up Close. This program gives prospective students the opportunity to explore the campus, connect with faculty, and get a feel for student life at Caltech.

Caltech strives to consider students within the context of the opportunities available to them. They take a holistic approach, considering each student’s background and life stories. If students haven’t completed STEM courses at the highest level available, Caltech wants to know why. Students are encouraged to take online or local college classes as well. 

How to Apply To Caltech 

Students can apply to Caltech by submitting an application through Common App, Apply Coalition, Powered by Scoir, or QuestBridge. You will need to provide a school report and letter of recommendation from your high school counselor in addition to your official transcripts. They also require a mid-year report, so your senior year matters. 

Caltech requires letters of recommendation (called letters of evaluation) from two secondary school teachers. You’ll need one from a math or science teacher and one from a humanities or social science teacher. Letters from freshman-year teachers are not recommended. 

Students are also permitted to submit an additional letter of evaluation if there’s a mentor, coach, or supervisor who can provide Caltech with important information about you that goes beyond what’s included in the two letters from your teachers. Some students also submit research papers along with “an additional recommendation from someone who can comment on the research experience that produced the paper.”

Caltech will also consider supplemental materials such as maker portfolios, visual art, and descriptions of internships that you’ve participated in. 

International applicants are required to submit English Proficiency Exam scores, an International Financial Aid Statement of Intent, and translations of any research papers published in languages other than English. 

Caltech also requires supplemental application essays “on the STEMiest of STEMmy topics” (yes, that’s a direct quote from their website). 

Applicants will need to write about their areas of interest, STEM experiences from high school, their experience as an innovator, and how their background informs their approach to the world. There are also optional questions where students can speak to their hobbies and interests and/or describe extenuating circumstances that have affected their coursework.

Caltech also accepts homeschooled students, who are required to submit grades even for their classes that were completed independently at home and a secondary school report from their homeschool supervisor (usually a parent). Homeschooled students will still need to submit letters of evaluation from instructors. If all of your instructors have been parents, they also require a recommendation from someone who can describe your ability to do demanding college-level academic work. 

Conclusion: How To Get Into Caltech 

Caltech is a fiercely competitive school that only accepts a tiny percentage of applicants.  

Are you wondering whether you have what it takes to apply? Or wondering which other schools might offer you a comparable education… with a better chance of admittance? 

Leave your questions below! We’d be happy to help. 

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