Caltech vs MIT

Padya Paramita

Caltech vs MIT

You’re conducting your school research and when you look up the best colleges for science focused students, the same two schools come up over and over again: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Or, you may have always known that these are the two universities that have caught your eye and you can’t wait to apply to when it’s time. But, how does Caltech vs MIT play out when it comes to academic opportunities or chances for undergraduate research?

As a STEM candidate, you might pay a significant amount of attention to the facilities and resources a school can provide you when it comes to Caltech vs MIT and you may experience college differently depending on which of them you attend. To help you better understand what your time at the two institutions could entail and ways that they vary from each other, I have outlined the similarities and differences between the two, and elaborated more on academic opportunities, research prospects, campus life, and alumni success at each.

An Overview of Caltech vs MIT

You’ll immediately notice that both schools are labeled as “Institutes of Technology.” Unsurprisingly, they are STEM-heavy colleges that offer a lot of specialized courses and opportunities in the sciences. 

The most notable difference between Caltech vs MIT upon immediately hearing the two names is that they’re in two opposite ends of the country. Caltech is located in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, whereas MIT is located in Cambridge, just outside of Boston. If you’re a student who’s deciding between the two and you’ve got a clear preference of coast, this will be a big point of consideration for you.

The table below features an overview of the statistics that distinguish Caltech and MIT from each other.

Criterion Caltech MIT
Location Pasadena, CA Cambridge, MA
US News Ranking 9 4
Acceptance Rate 6.4% 6.6%
Total Undergraduate Enrollment 938 4,530
Total Graduate Enrollment 1,299 6,990
Median SAT Range 1530-1570 1520-1580
Tuition $54,600 $53,790
Number of Majors Offered 28 54
Number of Professors 300 1,067
Student to Faculty Ratio 3:1 3:1
Implementation of Core Curriculum Yes Yes
Median Alumni Salary $82,300 $83,200

The sheer difference in the size of the student body and faculty size might strike you. Both in terms of undergraduate and graduate population, MIT is much larger than Caltech. Even though the student to faculty ratio is the same at both universities, the students at MIT have access to over three times the number of professors that Techers do. 

Your decision to apply or attend one between Caltech vs MIT may end up depending on your ideal class size and campus population. Both these schools are large private research universities, so you won’t receive any in-state benefits when it comes to acceptance rates or tuition. To further understand the similarities and differences, let’s look at each of the above categories in greater detail.

Location and Living

The 124-acre Caltech campus is located in the city of Pasadena, California, about 11 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Students interested in exploring the streets of LA can easily drive for half an hour, or take advantage of the bus and metro options that are available near campus. Techers are also a walking-distance away from both Old Town Pasadena with its Victorian buildings, live music scene and active nightlife, as well as the more up and coming Playhouse District, which caters to students with interests ranging from bookstores to comedy clubs.


Most undergraduates live in one of Caltech’s 11 residence halls and are divided into singles, doubles, and suites. Each dorm has its own tradition and history, and student can participate in residential life activities - including field trips around Los Angeles - as little or as much as they want. Unlike at most colleges, where students are pre-assigned a first year dorm, at Caltech, all incoming first years are invited to visit each res hall and meet some of the current residents. At the end of the week the students rank their choices and are usually assigned their first or second pick!

MIT also has an urban location - in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This 126-acre campus along the Charles River is divided by Massachusetts Avenue. On one side of Mass Ave lies the more residential area, while the other features the academic building. Surrounded by options for food, entertainment, and even networking, MIT’s campus is right by the Kendall stop on the Red Line of Boston subway. Students can easily take the train to travel all across Somerville, downtown Boston, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and more. 


Like Caltech, MIT also offers 11 housing options for undergraduate students. Each residence hall is equipped with a house team, a house government, dining options, networking opportunities, and own lifestyle and spirit. All freshmen live on campus, and then have the option to continue living in a dorm or seeking a nearby housing option.

Academic Offerings

If you’re a student excited about Caltech vs MIT, you obviously have questions about the academic experience at each institution, what majors and minors you can pursue, and what the expectations from undergraduates are.

All students who enter Caltech have to complete the following core courses and distribution requirements, regardless of their major:

  • Freshman Mathematics: 36 units (covering Multivariable Calculus and Linear Algebra)
  • Freshman Physics: 36 units (yearlong course)
  • Freshman Chemistry: 15 units (classes) and 6 units (lab)
  • Freshman Biology: 9 units
  • Menu Class: 9 units (subjects include Astronomy, Environmental Science and Engineering, Energy Science, Geosciences, Information, and Logic)
  • Additional Introductory Lab: 6 units (multiple options)
  • Scientific Writing: 3 units
  • Humanities and Social Sciences: 36 units in Humanities, 36 units in Social Sciences, and 36 additional units in either
  • Physical Education: 9 units

The majors themselves are divided into 6 divisions: Biology, Chemistry, Engineering and Applied Science, Geological and Planetary Sciences, Humanities and Social sciences, and finally, Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy. Students can choose from a variety of specialized majors such as “Business, Economics, & Management,” “Geobiology,” and “History and Philosophy and Science.” If you’re a STEM-focused student who is still curious about the humanities, the latter major, as well as other courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences division can be your go-to for an interdisciplinary approach to your interests. When you apply to Caltech on the Common App, you’ll need to indicate two majors that you’re likely to declare the most.

MIT on the other hand has a wider range of academic opportunities, and comes with different undergraduate schools:

  • School of Architecture and Planning
  • School of Engineering
  • School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
  • Sloan School of Management
  • School of Science
  • Schwarzman College of Computing

Unlike Caltech, MIT doesn’t use the CommonApp, and comes with its own application system. When you apply using MIT’s portal, you have to indicate your choice of major, each of which belongs to a particular MIT college.

But like Caltech, MIT also has a set of general requirements and core classes that students have to meet regardless of major in order to graduate. These are:

  • Science core: six foundational courses in mathematics, physics, biology, and chemistry
  • HASS requirement: a minimum of eight subjects in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, including three to four in a concentration of your choice
  • Communication requirement: four communication-intensive courses, including at least two relevant to your major, to develop effective writing and speaking skills
  • Laboratory requirement: a minimum number of credits of practical, project-based work to stimulate your resourcefulness, planning skills, and analysis of observations
  • REST requirement: two subjects of Restricted Electives in Science and Technology to give you the opportunity to proceed further in areas already studied, or to explore other areas of potential interest outside your major
  • Physical education requirement: a minimum of four physical education courses, plus passing a 100-yard swim test, because your mind is in your body and we want both to be as capable as possible

Like Caltech’s Core Curriculum, MIT’s requirements also have expect students to have laboratory credits, as well as complete courses in physical education and writing. 

Because MIT’s academics are arranged by school - and it’s catering to a far greater number of people with varied interests - it’s unsurprising that there is almost double the number of majors at MIT than at Caltech. Some of MIT’s particularly unique concentration options include “Urban Studies and Planning,” “Comparative Media Studies/Writing,” and “Brain and Cognitive Sciences.”

When comparing Caltech vs MIT, you should definitely go through the course catalog and list of majors and minors to ensure that you’ll be able to explore topics that you’re passionate about and can help you reach your goals.

Research Opportunities

Since you’re wondering about Caltech vs MIT, chances are, you’re a prospective STEM major or at least have some interest in the sciences. So, you might be curious about the research opportunities and scientific facilities that you can benefit from at either or both of these universities.

At Caltech, over half the students begin participating in undergraduate research starting their first year, and 80% of the entire population conduct research during their time in college. Students work closely with faculty members - many of whom are top scientists - in one of Caltech’s 96 innovative facilities. Each of these centers are dedicated to a variety of topics within fields of Astronomy and Planetary Science, Chemistry, Computing, Earthquake Science and Engineering, Engineering and Technology, Humanities, Social Sciences, Human Health, Neuroscience, Physics, and Social Sciences.

Caltech also has several specific research programs and funding opportunities including: 

  • Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF)
  • Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) 
  • Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships Exchange Programs
  • GROWTH (Global Relay of Observatories Watching Transients Happen) SURF
  • LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) SURF
  • Amgen Scholars program
  • WAVE Fellows program

The Mellon Mays and Amgen Scholars programs are research grants on a national level, and the others are Caltech specific. They might be dedicated to specific fields or mission, for example, the WAVE Fellows program aims to foster diversity in the sciences. Or they might be sponsored by bigger outside institutes, such as the LIGO project is funded by the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program of the National Science Foundation.

MIT’s Undergraduate Research Program, or UROP, is a huge part of the academic culture at the school and very much ingrained into a typical student’s undergraduate trajectory. It functions on different participation levels. Students may pursue a UROP for pay, academic, credit, or or volunteer as part of one. They can take place in one of MIT’s 68 research centers, or off campus, or even abroad depending on what the research entails. Students may join a pre-existing UROP or pursue their own topic, as long as it meets the guidelines. Some current UROP among the hundreds of options that students may join are:

  • 3D Textiles
  • A Novel Solution For Treatment of Obstructive Sleep Apnea
  • Acoustic Localization and Classification of Motion through the Floor
  • AI for Library Archiving
  • Algorithm to enable cameras to see around corners
  • Bike Swarm - Synchronize lighting for Micromobility
  • Cell Imaging and Culture with Novel Hydrogel Microcarriers (MCs)
  • Characterization of New Thermoelectric Materials for Waste Heat Recovery
  • CityScope Interactive Developer and Hardware design
  • Combining touch and vision to learn robotics tasks
  • Decoding the Brain Using Deep Learning
  • Designer and Developer for Giving Profiles Website
  • Designing Low-Cost Technology for Coastal Ecosystem Science
  • Faults Diagnostic Sensors
  • Hands-On Space Exploration for Informal Learning Settings

Most of MIT’s students participate in a UROP and enrollment is very much treated like a job board. Once there’s an opening in a project, supervisors post on the website and include what they are looking for, what the project involves, and what the prerequisite courses are. 

Campus and Social Life

Caltech is home to over 100 student organizations in academics, arts, hobbies, outdoors, politics, activism, community service, and more. For musicians, Caltech has a symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra, and concert band, two jazz bands and over 25 chamber music ensembles, men's and women's and several chamber singing and a capella groups. Sports enthusiasts can participate in club sports such as badminton and karate. Some unique student organizations include Caltech Electric Vehicle Club (CEVC), Caltech Electric Vehicle Club (CEVC), and Caltech Falun Club. Caltech Public Events also hosts performances and lecture series on campus. 

Caltech also offers 8 Houses, which are similar to fraternities. Unlike fraternities which involve rushing or pledging, students interested in the Caltech houses have two weeks of “rotation” and they usually remain associated with the same House throughout all four years. 

MIT provides you with the option of choosing from more than 450 student groups. The organizations at this university are quirkier than the ones at Caltech. You might find joy in the Laboratory for Chocolate Science, a club dedicated to the cultural appreciation and scientific investigation of chocolate. You could be more excited by Puppy Lab, which provides the entire campus with access to the joys of animal interaction. MIT is home to 33 varsity sports teams and 35 club sports teams. For students interested in different activities, there are 9 different fitness and rec centers, including a sailing pavilion, boathouse, and indoor golfing range. No matter where your interests lie, there is an activity for everyone. 

If you’re looking for a more traditional Greek life environment, MIT has twenty-five fraternities and seven sororities. 50% of MIT students choose to participate and live in one of these after their freshman year.


As a prospective student, you might also wonder what the profiles of alumni look like for Caltech vs MIT. Caltech has a four-year graduation rate of 84% and the average starting salary for alumni is $68,400. 60% of Caltech alumni directly went on to jobs, while 35% attend graduate school immediately upon completion of their Bachelor’s. Most students from Caltech - to nobody’s surprise - work in STEM. There are many Caltech alumni in organizations such as Northrop Grumman Corporation, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Apple, The Aerospace Corporation and more. 

With a 82%, four-year graduation rate, the average starting salary of MIT alumni is $70,300. 53% of MIT graduates have gone on to the workforce, while 41% are in graduate school, and the rest are pursuing fellowships or taking time off to travel. MIT graduates work for companies across the globe in a degree of fields, particularly in tech. There are MIT graduates in organizations such as Apple, Google Facebook, Accenture, McKinsey and Company, Microsoft, Boston Children’s Hospital, Capital One, and more. 

As you continue to think about what sets the schools apart in the Caltech vs MIT debate, carefully weigh your options and think about the particular courses, research mentors, and specific majors and how these would help you achieve your goals. Regardless of whether you end up in Pasadena or Cambridge, you will no doubt receive a superb scientific education. Good luck!

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