Caltech has rolled out an updated application for the undergraduate class of 2028, which encompasses students who will be applying for admission to the Institute in the fall of 2024.
In a continuation of changes to the admissions process that have been implemented over the past several years, the revised application includes a new pathway to application for students who do not have access to required STEM courses. Other adjustments include new short-essay questions and added guidelines regarding the ethical use of artificial intelligence (AI) in applications.
The changes were made effective on August 31, 2023.
"Our goal in admissions is to make barriers to access as low as possible for talented STEM students," says Jared R. Leadbetter, professor of environmental microbiology and chair of the first-year admissions committee. "The Caltech faculty recognize that one or more of the STEM courses that we require for admission may not be available to all students. The new policy aims to provide an avenue for such students to fill that gap in formal coursework by engaging in effective independent study of the relevant subject material."
Admission to Caltech requires applicants to have completed a minimum number of STEM and humanities courses in high school to ensure they are prepared for Caltech's rigorous core curriculum. However, some courses like calculus, chemistry, and physics are not provided in all schools.
To address these disparities, Caltech is piloting a new program with Khan Academy and Schoolhouse.world to offer free online courses, tutoring, and a certification process for potential applicants. The certification process allows students who do not have access to these courses or who have unresolvable course conflicts to take calculus, chemistry, and physics classes through Khan Academy. These students may then submit an examination score through Schoolhouse.world that is at or above 90 percent to meet the course requirement. Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam scores may also be submitted to meet the requirements for application.
A group of current Caltech students recently tested the online courses to ensure they will equip incoming students with the subject understanding needed to take on Caltech's core curriculum. Additionally, the Institute is conducting ongoing research on whether standardized test scores can predict accurately a student's future academic success at Caltech.
"The course content was pretty representative of topics in Caltech's first-year physics courses," says Ankita Nandi, a rising fourth-year student who helped test the Khan Academy physics course. "I think providing alternative options for students who did not have traditional calculus, physics, or chemistry courses is a good option because it encourages such students to apply to and potentially attend Caltech."
Along with these updated course requirements, the application's revised short essay questions are designed to provide applicants with the opportunity to convey how Caltech's values resonate with them.
"Communicating Caltech's mission to cultivate learning, discovery, and innovation for the benefit of humanity is an important message to applicants," says Tessa Tweet, senior assistant director of undergraduate admissions. "We are excited to read how these values are reflected in our applicants' own lived experiences and goals for the future."
The final change to the fall 2024 application is the inclusion of new guidelines regarding the ethical use of AI in Caltech applications. The guidelines, which were reviewed and approved by the Institute's first-year admissions committee, ask students to confirm that they have used AI ethically while crafting their applications.
Per those guidelines, ethical uses of AI include using large language models like ChatGPT or Bard to generate questions to kick-start the brainstorming process, to review grammar and spelling, or to research the college application process. Unethical uses of AI include using these tools to draft essay responses.
The guidelines compare AI to a trusted adult or teacher who could support a student by checking their essay for typos but would be crossing an ethical line by writing their essay for them.
"We are not looking for perfection in our applications," says Tweet, who led the development of the guidelines. "We are looking for authenticity and want students to feel confident writing in their own voice."
While the abuse of AI is a topic of concern in admissions, Tweet says AI tools can also create greater equity.
"Reframing the question from ‘What AI use is ethical?' to ‘What ethical support already exists for applicants?' was the most important factor in outlining our guidelines," Tweet says.
In tandem with these changes to the application and its requirements, Caltech has made significant investments in undergraduate admissions over the last year to further increase equity in admissions. These investments have helped double the number of admissions professionals to allow for broader engagement in historically excluded communities and more targeted recruitment of students passionate about STEM.
Caltech has also increased the number of faculty admissions reviewers, established a recruitment strategy that extends across the country and internationally, and expanded on-campus recruitment activities like the annual Women in STEM (WiSTEM) conference and the Caltech Up Close fly-in program.
"Equity at Caltech is about ensuring that we are continuously thinking about where talent lies and how we can make Caltech more accessible to the most brilliant STEM students in the world," says Ashley Pallie, executive director of undergraduate admissions and chief admissions officer. "We know that everyone has different educational opportunities, but a student's intellectual capacity should not be limited by the opportunities available at their local high school. The problems the world faces are greater than those limits, so Caltech Admissions is thinking beyond those limits too."