How is Caltech like?
I would describe Caltech as a paradise for scientists, engineers, and intellectuals in general. As a Techer, you are surrounded by extremely intelligent people, whether they be your peers, TAs, or professors. While this allows for extremely engaging conversations and career opportunities, what is more important is the open and welcoming atmosphere this breeds. Rather than the hyper-competitiveness that is often seen at large public schools, the emphasis at Caltech is a high level of education and understanding for every individual. There is a strong appreciation for each person’s unique strengths and weaknesses, and due to this, nearly all Techers (myself included) are genuinely happy to help each other out, not just in academics, but in all matters of life. On a social level, you also find a much more welcoming student body than the stereotypical cliquey high school environment. While our distinctive House system fosters strong friendships and gives students an ever-present community to fall back on, Techers in general will embrace anyone willing to be him/herself. We revel and share in people’s inner geekiness rather than make them feel embarrassed about it.
What is most misunderstood about Caltech?
The biggest misconception about Caltech is that students are awkward, socially inept bookworms. The truth is that 90% of the people you meet are very willing to open up and to welcome new friends. Everyone has their quirks and their nerdy sides, but we all have diverse interests and personalities to accommodate anyone we meet. I myself entered Caltech as a very one-dimensional (and admittedly somewhat anti-social) person, but I was quickly made to open up by excited, interesting people who later became some of my best friends. Through hanging out with people with all kinds of backgrounds and hobbies, I also became more optimistic and adventurous, expanding my own pool of interests greatly. Many people believe that academic and social intelligence are mutually exclusive—this is certainly not the case.
What surprised you the most in college?
The most surprising, and rewarding, thing about going to college has been just how much it has made me grow as a person. While I have gained incredible skills in electrical engineering, I have learned far more valuable lessons outside the classroom about attitude, professionalism, and even relationships. Having had considered myself a “lone wolf” in high school, I thought that my own abilities were all I needed to achieve what I wanted in life. However, through constant interactions with peers and professionals, I have realized how valuable the knowledge and support of others are, and the importance of being able to communicate and effectively create bonds with new people. It is not the technical skills and knowledge that I have picked up in college, but rather the confidence and ability to express myself to others, that has made me happier, more comfortable with myself, and (other people tell me) more mature than I ever was in high school.
What has been one of the greatest challenges in college, and what do you think high school students can do to best prepare themselves?
I do not think there is any single great challenge that one must overcome to make it through college; rather, college, and growing up in general, is made up of a long series of small tests that you struggle through and learn from. Everyone has different experiences and challenges, so the best way to prepare yourself is simply to be open to the idea of failure. Be aware that you WILL make mistakes, both academically (the smartest people I know at Caltech have gotten Ds on tests) and socially, but also know that, like everyone else, you will make it through them and become a better person for it. One slightly more concrete tip I can give is to learn to manage your time without the help of your parents, teachers, deadlines, etc. Push yourself to be as time-efficient as you can, in both work and fun. At a school like Caltech, every hour of the day matters, and there is so much going on; the ability to split your resources wisely and efficiently is extremely valuable.
How did you spend your time in high school?
Besides making it through my classes, I fully dedicated myself to my high school music program. I played percussion for the wind ensemble and orchestra and marched in the drumline. In order to uphold our history of excellence, my section regularly scheduled extra practices and hangouts, and we became very close. However, outside of band, I did not participate in many clubs, simply because they did not interest me. At home, I spent nearly all of my time playing various video games. I had a natural talent for gaming, and as cliche as it sounds, games really trained my critical thinking, hand-eye coordination, and programming abilities (all of which have been quite useful in EE). Finding my passions and giving them my full effort allowed me to enjoy my life and to be successful.
If you were to start high school all over again, what would you do differently?
When I compare myself now to who I was in high school, I realize I missed many opportunities to make what could have been important friendships, to learn about the dating scene, and a million other things amongst the mistakes of daily life. However (this is a little physics-y so bear with me), the state of my mind at that time was self-defined, and as such, no other decisions I could have made would have been made, except for the ones I did. That is, if I were to somehow rewind time and return to the start of high school, my beliefs and values would be the same as they were, and I would have the exact same experiences leading me to become the person I am quite happy to be today. More simply put, learn from the past, but don’t regret it, and do what you think is best on the way to becoming the person you want to be. 🙂
What advice would you give prospective college students to help them prepare for college?
See answer to “What has been one of the greatest challenges in college, and what do you think high school students can do to best prepare themselves?” above.
What kinds of students do you think are most likely to succeed at Caltech? And why?
Success at Caltech is not easily defined. In terms of academics, the ability to manage time well and to overcome failure helps immensely in maximizing the quality of education you achieve. However, it is easy to lose sight, especially when surrounded by people of such high—caliber intelligence, of the fact that simply by passing through and graduating from one of the high-tier universities, you are already by most regards successful—you will be able to find a respectable job that provides stable income for you and your family. The trick then, to success, is not achieving it, but rather the ability to reflect on one’s self and recognize that you have it. The solution to many of life’s problems is simply a matter of perspective. That is not to say that you should be complacent with your education and career aspirations; just remember that happiness and success are self-fulfilling prophecies.
What are the most popular majors at Caltech? And least?
Because the Caltech curriculum is so theoretical (too much so, some complain), the most popular majors at Caltech tend to be engineering (EE, MechE, ChemE) and applied math (ACM). This gives students the most balance between scientific theory and industry application. One of the great aspects of Caltech, and most small private schools, however, is the flexibility in constructing your own education. It is commonplace to see EEs taking MechE classes, ChemEs taking CS classes, and all other iterations of majors and fields. Because there are no restrictions on who can take what classes (only some suggested prerequisites), Techers are free to jump into whatever subjects they like to supplement their major requirements. In addition, the diversity and depth of Caltech’s core introductory requirements (which you can find out more about at admissions.caltech.edu/uploads/File/general/Core.pdf) allow Techers to work in nearly any field of their choosing, regardless of stated major (e.g. biologists working at Google).
What questions would you like us to ask that we have not asked?
Perhaps the most unique element of Caltech is our undergraduate housing system. The role that the Houses play in both your academic and social experience is unlike that found at any other university. In addition to providing the most reliable support network you will ever find (I do not make this claim lightly), each House has its own particular “personality” and traditions to engage its members with. Many liken the Houses to those of Harry Potter, and I find that it is a very good representation. There is so much to say about the House system that it could double the length of this questionnaire, so I urge you instead to ask every past and present Techer you meet for their individual experiences—they will be more than happy to share, guaranteed.
Do you recommend any websites and resources that will help students get to know Caltech?
Caltech provides many opportunities for prospective students to get to know the university and the people here. A few times throughout the year, current Techers will hold Q & A sessions, either over webcam or the phone. Many Techers also blog about their experiences at and around Caltech at caltech.typepad.com; I highly recommend checking some of them out, as they tell you exactly what’s happening here (my mom stalks this since I don’t tell her anything). Around the time of college applications, Caltech representatives will also give presentations about the university and their experiences in populated cities. The best opportunity to really experience life at Caltech, however, is simply to contact a Techer (our emails can be found very easily) and to come visit the campus. There are many people willing to host prospective students at any time of the year, and they can give you a true student’s perspective.
Lynbrook High School
California Institute of Technology