How to Get Into Caltech

Padya Paramita

How to Get Into Caltech

If you’re a student who is passionate about STEM and looking at competitive colleges, you likely have your eye on the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Consistently ranked among the top universities every year — and undoubtedly one of the best for STEM — this Pasadena school provides coveted research opportunities and individualized mentorships for aspiring scientists and researchers. Now, you may be wondering how to get into Caltech....

Well, it’s easier said than done!

With an acceptance rate of only 6.4%, Caltech is extremely selective. To guide you through the question of how to get into Caltech, I’ve elaborated on Caltech’s academic programs, the academic requirements, understanding the recent test blind policy, how to take advantage of your extracurriculars, ways to write your essays, and finally, the requirements and deadlines as set by the school.

The Undergraduate Student Population

Caltech’s low acceptance rate is intensified by the fact that it has a total undergraduate population of only 938 students. Unlike the other most prestigious STEM-centered, MIT, which has over 4,000 undergraduates, Caltech is far smaller. The class of 2023 only has 235 students!This is smaller than most high school classes or even liberal arts colleges. This should give you a sense of exactly how difficult it is to get into Caltech.  In order to vie for one of these coveted spots, you have to work extremely hard. This means demonstrating a strong interest in Caltech alongside building a stellar academic and extracurricular profile, with an emphasis in the sciences.  

The Caltech Academic Programs

If you’re looking up how to get into Caltech, chances are, you’re interested in the sciences. But, you’ve got to be more specific than just a general interest in STEM — you need to be highly specific in your interests and goals.

The Caltech majors 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 concentrations such as “Business, Economics, & Management,” “Geobiology,” and “History and Philosophy and Science.” If you’re a STEM-focused student who is still curious about other topics, 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 most likely to declare. Think carefully about your choices, and make sure that you’ve worked hard in those areas so that admissions officers understand why you’ve chosen them.

Test Blind Policy

After eliminating the need for subject test score submission in Math 2 and a science subject in January, Caltech recently declared that it will be completely test blind for at least two years, starting the 2020-21 admissions cycle. This means that the school will not even look at your test scores if you submit them. This decision, made as a result of test cancelations due to the outbreak of COVID-19, has come as a shock to many; historically, Caltech is near the top of the list of highest SAT median scores. Applicants to this university bring impressive numbers, showcasing their academic prowess — particularly in math — for decades.

For applicants hoping to get accepted, the rest of your academic profile matters more than ever.  

Academic Requirements

The average GPA of accepted students at Caltech is 4.0. So, if you know from an early age that you’ll be curious about how to get into Caltech, you’ll have to work extremely hard.

Even though standardized tests are no longer in the picture, Caltech’s standards are still incredibly high. They expect students to excel in their courses throughout high school. To get into a school as competitive as Caltech, you must challenge yourself by taking the most difficult courses available to you. Caltech will look at your school context, but the website states, “Students are not compared to one another, even if they come from the same high school, because each student has a different set of life circumstances.” So it’s not about whether you’ve sought out the most challenging courses in the entire country, but rather that you’ve taken the ones available at your school, whether that’s AP BC Calculus or IB Advanced Math.

Example Coursework

In our experience, students who get accepted to Caltech have taken advanced coursework in both math and science. This means taking AP Calc BC at minimum, and in many cases (when available), taking more advanced courses like Multivariable Calculus, Linear Algebra, or even advanced seminars. When these classes have not been readily available to our talented math students in high school, we’ve encouraged them to enroll in local community colleges. For science, this means taking AP Physics 1 at minimum, but in most cases, taking AP Physics C and beyond.

Letters of Recommendation

The university highly values your teacher recommendations. Since these letters provide the reader with an idea of what you’re like in the classroom, you must choose instructors who know you well. 

Some of the best people to ask are:

  • Teachers who have known you the longest
  • Teachers you’ve had more recently
  • Teachers you’ve worked  most closely with
  • Teacher with whom you’ve worked with in an extracurricular setting, such as your debate team coach or dance teacher
  • Teachers who taught the subjects that align with your goals and interests
  • Teachers with connections to one of your top-choice colleges

Especially now that the school is test blind, the reader will carefully evaluate these letters to understand what it’s like to have you in the classroom. If you’ve got Caltech in mind, note that one of your recommendation letters must come from a math or science teacher. The other should come from a humanities or social sciences teacher. So, don’t just work hard in your science classes or get to know your math teacher. Your humanities teachers should also know you well enough to provide you with a glowing letter. 

Academic Research

Since Caltech is a big research university, you should also be seeking research opportunities — or initiating your own — in a field of your interest. This could entail participating in a research-based summer program such as:

Another option is conducting your own research project. While not particularly uncommon, admissions officers appreciate students who pursue this route, as it showcases initiative and independence. A teacher from your school may help guide you and provide you with the resources you need.

Extracurricular Activities

Caltech wants to know whether you have demonstrated a consistent interest in science, technology, engineering, or math, not just through your classes, but also through your extracurricular activities. This means striving for leadership positions in your STEM-related activities.

Caltech is home to over 100 student organizations in academics, arts, hobbies, outdoors, politics, activism, community service, and more. Since almost every student will have involvements in STEM, as you build your extracurricular profile when researching how to get into Caltech, you should be working to find a nuanced angle to each of them. For example, you’re interested in both physics and gender studies, you can combine the two to work on a research project on the importance of female physicists.

Competitions

Building a profile in STEM can mean participating and performing well in esteemed STEM competitions such as:

Depending where your interest lies, seek out competitions that can help demonstrate your skills in your choice of field. 

Summer Programs

Many students also enroll in competitive summer programs to enhance their knowledge in the sciences, learn under esteemed professors from top universities, and conduct their own research projects. Some of the most prestigious STEM camps include:

Showcasing participation in such competitions and programs in your activities list can boost your application and exemplify how your interest in a specific STEM topic expands beyond just on paper.

Personal Statement

Your love for your field of choice should extend beyond just your activities list. If science is a big part of your life — or there’s a story that makes you unique — tell the admissions office through your Common App personal statement. Even though this essay isn’t Caltech specific, you can use your response to showcase who you are and help the admissions officers gauge what you can bring to the campus that no other student can. 

Even though you can’t rave about Caltech in this part of the application, the prompts still provide you with a chance to tell a story that doesn’t apply to 99% of other students. So, your response could also focus on a part of your background that has shaped you or it could highlight an experience that you believe distinguishes you from your peers. You must brainstorm your essay very carefully, as well as go through at least ten drafts in order to submit a polished version of Caltech’s caliber.

Supplemental Essays

As a prospective “Techer,” you’ll also have to write Caltech-specific essays to highlight your interest in the school as well as elaborate further on your interests, especially within STEM. The four questions you need to answer are outlined below:

  • Describe three experiences and/or activities that have helped develop your passion for a possible career in a STEM field. (10-120 words each)
  • Much like the life of a professional scientist or engineer, the life of a "Techer" relies heavily on collaboration. Knowing this, what do you hope to explore, innovate, or create with your Caltech peers? (250-400 words)
  • Caltech students are often known for their sense of humor and creative pranks. What do you like to do for fun? (250-400 words)
  • The process of discovery best advances when people from various backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives come together. How do you see yourself contributing to the diversity of Caltech's community? (Your response should range between 250-400 words)

Explore the Caltech website before sitting down to write your responses. You need to know what makes the school unique and which resources call out to you the most, whether it’s the Human Health Research Center or the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF). This knowledge will come in handy when writing your essays, as you’ll demonstrate knowledge of programs and opportunities at this prestigious institution. You must also make sure that each of your answers adds new information about you. Use every prompt as an opportunity to tell the admissions office something new. Never repeat content! Let your essays add depth to your application, and convince the reader more and more that you could be a good fit for Caltech.

And of course, be specific with your interests. Caltech admissions officers read thousands of applications every year. You need to make sure that you’ve conveyed why your interests — whether your experiences and activities, or your idea of a humorous or creative prank — are exceptional. Think carefully before writing the answers. You can learn more about how to tackle each question in our blog about the Caltech supplemental essays.

Requirements and Deadlines

When thinking about how to get into Caltech, you must also consider the logistics. It’s extremely important that you follow instructions and stick to deadlines when it comes to getting the required scores, recommendations, and other documents submitted on time.

The Early Action (EA) deadline for Caltech is November 1, while the Regular Decision deadline is January 3

Knowing these dates can help you start working on the Common App, writing all of the required essays, and providing your recommenders enough time to write their letters. Everything you need to submit for your Caltech undergraduate application is outlined in the table below:

Requirements for Caltech Application Deadlines and Notes
Common App personal statement The word limit is 650 words.
Caltech-specific essays These will appear on the Common App once you’ve chosen Caltech as one of your colleges.
Official high school transcript This must be submitted directly from your school.
School report This should be submitted by your counselor to summarize your academic performance, including your official transcript.
Counselor recommendation This letter is very important to help you stand out from your peers.
Two (2) letters of evaluation from teachers One of your recommendation letters must come from a math or science teacher. The other should come from a humanities or social sciences teacher.
Mid-year report If you are deferred from EA, this is due February 15. For Regular Decision (RD), this should be submitted whenever mid-year grades are available.
Financial aid documents U.S. citizens and permanent residents applying for aid must fill out the FAFSA, the CSS Profile and signed tax returns of parents and the student. Deadlines: Early Action: November 15 for FAFSA, January 6 for CSS Profile Regular Decision: March 2 for FAFSA, March 16 for CSS Profile

Use the table as a checklist to make sure you send all of the necessary documents and scores. Once you’ve submitted your application, Early Action applicants are notified in mid-December, while Regular Decision applicants are notified by mid-March. 

While it’s certainly difficult, conquering the question of how to get into Caltech is not impossible. You’ve got to work hard to demonstrate not just excellence in your academics but also in your extracurriculars. Plus, you must show admissions specific reasons for why you are a strong fit for their university. Research the school thoroughly before putting your application together and hopefully you’ll put yourself at a strong position to vie for one of these highly coveted spots. Good luck!

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