Caltech's academic preparedness expectations for admissions are aligned with the breadth and depth of the academic lives of our undergraduates. Prospective students should first understand that their completion of secondary/high school work marks the beginning of their collegiate academic lives.
The first year curriculum at Caltech is highly prescribed, and we seek to enroll students who see that first year more as an opportunity than simply coursework to push through in order to get to your major-specific coursework. A student's first year experience creates important scaffolding for their sophomore year, which is known as the most challenging year in a student's undergraduate career here. Thus, an admissions decision centers on the Admissions Committee's confidence that a student will succeed in this rigor in their first year and beyond.
Core Curriculum Preparedness
The Admissions Committee will be interested in considering students who are as stimulated about the Core Curriculum overall as they are looking forward to studying their specific major/option. In order to be prepared for the breadth and depth of the Core Curriculum, the Committee will want to see the following:
- Student has completed among the most advanced and rigorous English coursework offered by the school.
- Students attending school in the U.S. have completed at least one course in U.S. history/government. Students attending school outside of the U.S. are not required to demonstrate a completion of this subject area.
Mathematics is the bedrock of all coursework at Caltech. The mathematics foundation and starting point for incoming students is rigorously proof-based, abstract math. Overall, we acknowledge that most students are not interacting with proof-based math at the secondary/high school level. Therefore, in order to be academically prepared for this curricular rigor, applicants should be able to demonstrate to the Undergraduate Admissions Committee a mastery of calculus and a proficient readiness to study math topics beyond calculus. These topics include, but are not limited to: Set Theory & Logic; Differential & Integral Calculus; Linear Algebra; and Ordinary Differential Equations. These topics are among those covered in the first year of math at Caltech.
If I've never covered those math topics, how do I know I'm ready for Caltech math?
Applicants are not expected to know how to solve pure, abstract math problems. You are not evaluated on that ability when you're being considered for admissions. Rather, the Committee is focused on how well prepared you are to learn how to solve problem sets. For instance, if you go to the textbook that has been used for Math1a and look at the practice problem sets, we do not expect you to know the answer or how to get to the answer. Instead, we want to know if you are motivated about what you'll learn at Caltech so that you will be able to solve those practice problems. If you are, then Caltech could be a great fit for your undergraduate career.
Yes, I am excited about the idea of Caltech math, so how do I demonstrate my readiness?
The demonstration of a student's mastery of calculus will be different depending on the context of the curriculum available to the student. The Undergraduate Admissions Committee takes into consideration the coursework and material that is available to a student with a complete understanding that not all schools offer the same math curriculum and resources.
What matters to the Committee is that you've covered the material and have been evaluated for your proficiency at calculus, which is why we require seeing coursework with your final grade(s) earned. MOOCs or other online courses that do not provide a grade will not suffice as direct evidence of your readiness. For some students, covering material through calculus happens all in their high school, and for other students, covering or mastering calculus material might mean extending beyond high school to a local college or taking an online course route. Students are not scrutinized for how they have learned the material; we focus more on the fact that you're demonstrating a readiness for the curriculum here.
The Committee is also focused on seeing indicators that you've grasped the material through calculus, more than they are paying attention to how many years you've taken math courses. The typical number of years that students take to complete coursework through calculus is four (4). For students who exhaust their math curriculum before their senior year, you should be aware that the Admissions Committee will still want to see indicators that you continue to engage in the material through your senior year and that you will be as ready as your peers for your first math course.
Some of the typical ways that applicants demonstrate their mastery of the material include, but are not limited to:
- Coursework completed (including the course grade) through the highest level calculus class offered at the school. The typical classes we see include AP Calculus BC, IB Math HL, Multivariable Calculus, Linear Algebra, and/or Differential Equations. We cannot stress enough that these specific courses are not a requirement; the context of what your school offers is paramount. These are merely examples of the more traditional coursework. There are many students to whom we will offer admission whose schools or academic pathways do not offer Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses or any courses beyond calculus.
- Math teacher recommendations that speak to a student's readiness and desire to be immersed in pure or abstract math throughout their undergraduate career.
- Students who show us that they naturally use math and quantitative reasoning through multiple aspects of their lives. This can appear in extracurricular activities, information students share about their hobbies, and/or be evident in the way a student shares their narrative through their short answer responses and essays.
Applicants should be aware that the Caltech Core Curriculum includes coursework in Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. Therefore, in order to be academically prepared for this curricular rigor, applicants should be able to demonstrate to the Undergraduate Admissions Committee a proficient readiness to study these subjects throughout their undergraduate career.
How do I demonstrate my readiness for these science subject areas? The demonstration of a student's mastery of these subject areas will be different depending on the context of the curriculum available to the student. The Undergraduate Admissions Committee takes into consideration the coursework and material that is available to a student with a complete understanding that not all schools offer the same science curriculum and resources.
With an understanding of the variations of academic paths and curricula, there are three things that we can offer for consideration in secondary/high school course selection that lead to indicators of your readiness:
- The Admissions Committee expects to see the student has completed the equivalent of one (1) year of physics and one (1) year of chemistry. We do not require biology coursework, but we will look for indicators that you are prepared for taking biology coursework as part of your Core Curriculum.
- Wherever available, a student's science preparedness in their secondary/high school should also reflect their command of calculus. For example, if a school offers calculus-based physics or a chemistry class that incorporates calculus, the Admissions Committee would like to see that an applicant has taken this class.
- A student's science preparedness typically goes beyond foundational science classes taken in their earlier secondary/high school years. While not a concrete requirement, the Admissions Committee will prefer to see science classes – especially physics and chemistry – taken at the most advanced level offered by the school.
As with the evaluation of calculus, the Committee is focused on seeing indicators that you've grasped the material in these subject areas, more than they are paying attention to how many years you've taken the courses.
Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and College Credit
Caltech encourages all prospective undergraduate applicants to prepare by challenging themselves with the most rigorous course of study available, including the Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. However, college credit for AP or IB classes is not automatic. Course credit and/or placement in an accelerated program is sometimes granted as deemed appropriate by the department faculty. The awarding of Caltech course credit takes place at the time of registration each fall.
Diagnostic/Placement Exams for Incoming First-year Students
Prospective undergraduate students can gain insight about what the Committee is seeking in a student's academic preparedness by looking at information about the diagnostic/placement exams. Diagnostic/placement exams in math and writing are required of incoming first-year students prior to enrollment for the first term.
Prospective students may not have covered the material in these exams prior to engaging in college-level coursework, but it does benefit them to know that the Committee is looking for indicators that the student will be prepared for this material.
For more context about these exams, please use the links below:
- Mathematics: The scores on this test are used to determine placement in Math1a. Students are placed into 1 of 3 groups.
- Writing: This placement test allows our faculty to assess your work as an academic writer, and the results of the test determine what humanities coursework you will do during your freshman year.
- Physics: Ph1 is an Institute requirement for the Core Curriculum, so you must either take Ph1abc, or place out of the course through taking the exam.