I've provided this letter in PDF form here: http://www.its.caltech.edu/~tgwinn/Caltech.pdf
If for some reason you don't want to read the PDF, I've pasted the entirety of its text below. Of course, it's not nearly as pretty as the PDF original.
Please feel free to use this thread as a place to discuss the letter or ask questions about what I wrote. I unfortunately had to be pretty brief on each topic simply to keep the letter from turning into a book :P
Caltech Open Letter: v1.0
Dear Prospective Caltech Students:
This letter will mainly address what makes Caltech different from institutions of similar academic caliber. I won’t spend a lot of time discussing our top-notch academics, famous alumni, exciting research at the professorial/grad level, etc. because these things do not differentiate Caltech from other schools you might be considering.
With that in mind, what is different about Caltech?
o Caltech is known for its status as a research institution, but you may not know that getting involved in undergraduate research at Caltech is easier than at virtually any other university in the world. The 3:1 student-to-faculty ratio at Tech allows students to casually approach professors and discuss the possibility of working in a lab. Additionally, the SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) program makes it almost trivial to do research over the summer; the majority of Techers participate in at least one SURF during their time here. In any case, I certainly feel that students at Caltech are in general given more opportunities to pursue significant research as undergraduates—anecdotally, I work in a lab where I am allowed full access to equipment that at some other big research universities not even most graduate students are allowed to touch.
• The Honor Code
o Many schools have honor codes, but Caltech is one of the few schools where the honor code is an absolutely integral part of student life. The honor code is really simple: “No member of the Caltech community shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community.” It allows students to be given access to labs and equipment 24/7, it allows our exams to be almost all take-home, and it allows students to trust each other. A recent survey stated that 93% of Caltech undergraduates felt that the honor code was effective (i.e. it prevents students of taking unfair advantage of one another through means including but not limited to academic dishonesty). The honor code also lends to my next “difference”: the noncompetitive nature of Caltech.
o Caltech is special in that its curriculum encourages collaboration. The combination of mutual trust among students and the lenient collaboration policies of most homework assignments at Tech lead to students working together with high frequency. In my opinion, this really helps students get a better understanding of the material—you get a chance to discuss the problems you’re facing with other students. Even if you already know the material you are working on, sharing this knowledge with someone else really helps cement it in your mind. Additionally, the low-competition environment makes work a lot less stressful—for the most part, you’re just concerned about understanding the material, not necessarily scoring higher than your peers.
• The House System
o The House System is the primary social hub of students’ lives at Caltech. I really like the house system because it allows students to live in small (houses usually contain somewhere between 100-150 members) tight-knit environments that are comfortable and supportive. The houses are like co-ed fraternities in many ways: students join houses through a rush-like process called rotation, once you join a house you stay a member for your time here, many social events are organized through the house, etc. Of course, there are also a few noticeable differences worth mentioning: no hazing and all students who want to live in a house have the option to. It’s hard to summarize the house system here—I could write another entire letter on the subject—but it is one of my favorite things about Caltech. I think many Techers feel the same way—and this is evidenced by interactions between alumni. The first question they always ask each other is, “What class?” and the second is, “What house?”
• General Student Environment
o The student environment at Caltech is incredibly unique. There are many semi-related concepts that create this uniqueness, but only a few will be addressed here.
Students are incredibly well represented at Caltech. We have undergraduate teaching assistants, undergraduate representatives on undergraduate admissions, a strong student government, and an administration that is content to let Techers for the most part police themselves. Our primary methods for dealing with bad conduct (whether academic or not) are run by students. It’s something we’ve grown to take for granted.
Because the school’s curriculum is so focused, and the admissions process is based almost entirely on a student’s ability to do well here academically, students here are surrounded by their intellectual peers. It’s quite nice to be able to converse easily with any of your friends about your research/classes and have them not only be able to understand the subject of interest to a reasonable extent but also appreciate the knowledge they gain from the conversation.
If you’ve read this far, you should have a pretty good idea of how Caltech is different from its peer institutions. Even armed with this knowledge, you might wonder if Caltech is the right fit for you. The best way to discover this is to visit the school; something I would strongly recommend. Below I have provided some [highly subjective] supplemental tips that can help you decide if Caltech is a good fit.
You should probably not come to Caltech if:
• You’re obsessed with your GPA
o Yes, you might be able to make a 4.0 at Caltech, but the odds are against you. By far the happiest people I know at Caltech are those who came in with the expectation that they would do their best and then take the GPA they received.
• You care more about being a doctor/lawyer than you do about learning math/science for learning’s sake
o Anecdotally, medical school admission is more GPA-based than graduate school admission. As mentioned before, getting a high GPA at Caltech is harder than at many other institutions, so as you might imagine it might take more effort to get into med school from Caltech than from other schools. That being said, there is a sizable number of students who attend med school from Caltech each year—it’s just that if your main goal is to attend med school, you can get in a lot easier from other institutions. Of course, if you’re just as passionate about learning a lot and doing research as you are about going to med school, Caltech could work out great for you.
o As for law school, given that Caltech has no prelaw major and limited courses in law coming here for prelaw doesn’t make much sense unless you have a particular specialty of law in mind (for instance, possibly patent law).
• One of your primary reasons for attending Caltech is the prestige
o Yes, we’re in the top ten on US News. No, we’re not like any other school on the rankings. Not even MIT. Unless you like the idea of five terms of required physics (mechanics, e&m, waves, quantum, thermo), five terms of required math (proof-based calc, linear algebra, multivariable, ode/pde, stats), two terms of chemistry, etc. If your idea of a dream school is Harvard, you should think very hard about whether Caltech is the school for you. There are people at Harvard who would do well here, but definitely not the majority.
As you might have heard, Caltech is very hard. You can take difficult classes at many schools you might apply to, but only at Caltech are you required to take many difficult classes no matter your major. Let me address two misconceptions related to this:
• I got into Caltech, but I don’t think I can handle it.
o If you got into Caltech, you can handle it, period. Admissions does not admit anyone incapable of doing the work. The question you need to ask yourself is, “Do I want to do all of this work?” If the idea of learning all you can learn (and then a little bit more) excites you, then Caltech might be right for you. If you view college as just means to an end (even if the ‘end’ is grad school) or a four-year party, Caltech is probably not right for you.
• Caltech won’t be too much harder than high school
o As I mentioned above in the paragraph about GPA obsession, a big part of being happy at Caltech involves adjusting to life here. The work is very difficult, and it sometimes seems endless. If you are a prospective student reading this, you were probably at the top of your class in high school. At Caltech, you probably will not be. We were all at the top of our class in high school. These things aren’t bad (and in fact can be pretty good) but you must adjust to them. You must be capable and willing to manage your expectations of yourself.
I hope that this letter has provided some insight to you that you might not be able to find in a pamphlet or in a campus tour.
Lloyd Class of 2010