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For anyone wanting to know their 'chances' of getting into Caltech

Michael WoodsMichael Woods 60 replies2 threads Junior Member
It seems like every time I check this forum, there are pages of new "What are my chances" threads. Sometimes the titles are polite, sometimes they're gimmicky, and sometimes they're written with the letter z replacing all of the normal s's--all in the name of getting some current Caltech student to read the thread, and then pass some sort of speculative judgment on the possibility of the original poster being accepted by Caltech.

I'm going to take a moment, and go through what I believe a typical high school student should 'look like' in order to stand a good chance of being accepted at Caltech. This is also what most new Caltech students 'look like,' and it's based heavily on my perceptions of the student body as biased by the people I interact with on a regular basis. Take it for what you will.

SAT scores (I & II):

All of your math and science scores should be around 800. These tests should be so easy that there's nothing to it for you. Now, I'm not suggesting that you should go out and take *every* SAT II science subjective (lord knows I'd tank out on the biology test, just out of a lack of interest--I'm a physicist), but the science subjective tests you do take you should get an 800 on. Seriously. However, we're decent, understanding people, and we all know that sometimes people make mistakes on things, or are just better at different sorts of problem solving, so we'll be generous and say that if your score is between 750 and 800, you're fine. If you're seriously having trouble getting your scores into this range because you're having difficulty understanding the material, then you should start considering other schools.

As far as your writing/verbal/essay/etc scores go, we really don't care that much. Honestly, your essays will be a far better way of finding out your writing ability than trying to judge you on the basis of a 680 versus 710 on your SAT I verbal. That said, most Caltech students score highly on these tests just because we tend to read a lot. Really, if you're applying to Caltech, then I'm going to go ahead and assume that your writing/verbal/essay/etc scores are just fine. They probably are. Seriously.

Got all that about SAT scores? Good. I'm not going to mention them again.

ACT Scores:

I don't know a single thing about ACT scores. Perhaps somebody could post the statistics about the average ACT scores of Caltech students?


There's basically not a single high school math or science class in the nation that the average Caltech student couldn't get an A in. Yes, I know you go to an elite private school, but please don't get a B in calculus. If you're able to pull easy Cs and Bs take effort, then consider a different school. That's all there is to it. If you go to a high power school (several students each year attending Ivy Leauge/**** Institute of Technology schools), then it's ok to be in the top 3-5 students in your year in math/science classes. If nobody at your school has gone to Caltech/MIT/etc in the past ten years, then you better be the best math/science student of at least the past ten years at your school.

Your 'soft' class grades should be up there too. Go get As and Bs in your AP english and history classes. If, for some reason, you're taking non-honors/AP 'soft' classes, then please get As in those too. If you don't, it just looks bad.

Everyone at Caltech was in the top 10% of their graduating class. I'd venture a guess that most of us were even in the top five people in their graduating class. Certainly we were all the best math and science students in our years. If you're not absolutely confident that you're the best math/science student in your year (again, high powered high schools give you some leeway here... let's say top five is acceptable at those schools), then you might want to consider different universities.

An additional note about classes--many Caltech students exhaust their high school curricula early and end up taking math/science classes at local universities or community colleges. This is a good thing to do, and again, you should be receiving top marks in these courses.

Extracurricular Activities:

Sports - If you do sports, you do it because you enjoy it and it's worthwhile to you, not because you want to use it to get a leg up on being admitted to Caltech.

Clubs - I actually don't think I know anyone at Caltech who wasn't in some sort of math or science club in high school. If you're not, you should probably be considering other universities. In fact, a large number of us were the presidents of math or science clubs in our high schools. We competed in math and science competitions, and when we compete, we do well. Now, I'm not saying that if you weren't a USIMO finalist, you can't make it here, just that you should be winning competitions at some level. If you're from a high powered high school/state (say, something good in San Fransisco or New Jersey) you should be at least winning high school wide competitions, and scoring extremely highly (if not outright winning) county-wide competitions. If you're from Utah or North Dakota, you should be at the top of your state.

Cultural clubs, community service clubs, and other such things are nice, and show yourself to be a well rounded person, but they don't score any extra points. Just like sports, do them because you want to and they're important to you, not to score extra points on your Caltech application.

Research - Some of us have done research and some of us haven't. Some Caltech students never knew research was possible to do in high school, and some are the offspring of professors. If you've done research, it'll help you (and include a copy of your research paper!), and if you haven't, then don't sweat it.


The single most important thing for being admitted into Caltech is a passion for math and science. It's so important, that I'll say it a few more times-- passion for math and science, passion for math and science, passion for math and science. It doesn't have a definition, but if you've got it, you know you've got it. When you're writing your essays, and preparing your application materials, relax and let your passion show.

If you read through all of the above, and find that your statistics, scores, and class standing match with what I've presented, then you stand a good chance at being accepted to Caltech. Period.

If you were on an International Olympiad team (or some similar honor), then you stand an excellent chance at being accepted to Caltech.

If your statistics don't *quite* match up with what I've talked about here, then your acceptance is much more iffy.

It's completely possible that you have some very good reasons for not matching up in some category with the above. If you've got a good reason, then it's a good reason. This ranges from family difficulties to just being too damn preoccupied with math/science extracurriculars to finish that last Calculus problem set in order to bump up your grade from an 89% to a 90%, even though you already understand all of the material. If you've got a good reason for not matching up to some of the above, then make sure to discuss it in your application--how else will the admissions committee know about it?

The last possibility is that you don't really match up with my discussed statistics, but nevertheless you're determined, stubborn, or otherwise utterly convinced that you're a good fit for Caltech, and that Caltech is where you want to go. In this case, please throw out my guidelines. You'll probably not listen to them anyway (and it's likely a waste of your time to do so), and there's probably something I don't know about you that makes all the difference. If you're in this final category, then good luck with your Caltech application, because there's really nothing that I, or anybody else, can say about you and your chances without actually reading your entire application.

Now, can we please post fewer "What are my chances?" threads? Really, you're not going to learn anything new, or even remotely useful from them, and they're not going to help anyone else, either. If you've got a specific question about the application process, or about something you're considering including in your application, then sure, go for it; but don't post asking for your chances and expecting to hear back that you have exactly a 73.8% chance of being accepted, because nobody can tell you that. Most likely you'll hear some variation on the above five paragraphs.

That all said, good luck to all of you!
edited November 2012
154 replies
Post edited by Michael Woods on
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Replies to: For anyone wanting to know their 'chances' of getting into Caltech

  • sonofsamsonofsam 87 replies1 threads Junior Member
    A well-said answer to these pesky chance threads...
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  • cghencghen 612 replies1 threads Member
    Nice Woods.

    It may be worth emphasizing that the reason admissions really requires high math/science grades/test scores it for fear of students not being able to pass core (specifically the math and physics requirements). This is why even prospective geology or biology majors (for example) need to demonstrate exceptional ability in math and physics. If that seems absurd to anyone, then he or she should probably look into a school with a smaller core (or seek an explanation of why Caltech's core is the way it is).

    Also, it should be stated gender or race have no bearing on admissions.
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  • tech_fantech_fan 2793 replies29 threads Senior Member
    Good post! I would agree with almost everything Mike said.

    I would also highlight the following point he made: while it's true that most techers have 800's on the math part of the SAT I, don't sweat it if you don't. My math scores were always only okay (by Caltech standards) and I managed to do okay as a math major anyway. Basically, in looking at scores and grades, the question that's being asked about you is whether you will be able to handle core and other technical classes you'll have to take at Caltech. You can demonstrate that by topping out on all the tests you take, but also by doing well in hard university classes or doing well on olympiads etc. The main idea is that the admissions committee is looking by the overall picture of your ability, painted by many individual statistics, not at some single number.

    As for science clubs, they help a lot if they were available, but don't go nuts if you don't have some huge official science extracurricular to write down. There are plenty of high schools without enough serious math/science interest to sustain many (or any) science clubs, and in that case you can show your passion by doing research in your free time or something similar. Once again, it's not about some arbitrary indicator but about how your application answers the following question: "Do you have a large amount of enthusiasm for math, science, and engineering, and then some to spare? Is there evidence that you think actively about some of these subjects even when you don't have to in the least? Is there evidence that these things are the top priorities in your intellectual life?" What kind of evidence isn't that important -- just make sure that it's there somehow.

    As I wrote in my very first post on CC a long time ago, people who read applications want (1) to be entertained; (2) to feel like they got to know you; (3) to feel that this entertaining person that they've gotten to know is a really natural fit for Caltech in terms of ability and enthusiasm. Rather than focusing on individual moving parts, focus on how you can make your application satisfy these requriements SOMEHOW. Focus on the picture that emerges at the end, and not on the individual brush strokes.

    With that said, some general advice on technique. Your rhetorical talent will be most important in those areas where objective indicators are weak -- again, this is something Mike noted. So, for example, if you lack a science extracurricular and maybe even lack a substitute, you can mention that weakness at least implicitly in your essays but then blow the committee away with your obvious passion for science in your writing. Obviously "academic" deficiencies are harder to compensate for, but you are creative people, and you can probably think of something.

    I am realizing now that this advice is coming rather late. But for what it's worth :).
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  • jackwangjackwang 178 replies29 threads Junior Member
    nice post. BUT, my school doesn't have ANY academic club, and so no opportunity to competitions. Besides, yes, there's one major maths competition I can join, but usually I am participating alone since the whole has no interest in it. I just practice it in my free time.

    Will this affect my admission chance? I mean I can't help it if my school is not affiliated with any sort of cool science things. :(
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  • tech_fantech_fan 2793 replies29 threads Senior Member
    no, this won't hurt you much. this is precisely what people mean when they say context matters. just make clear in your essays etc. that you have tried your best despite these limited opportunities, and make sure to outline both the opportunities and your efforts.
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  • Not quite oldNot quite old 237 replies7 threads Junior Member
    Nice posts.

    I think one more thing should be emphasized. If you're not really Caltech material or if Tech is a bad fit and you're somehow admitted, it would be a serious mistake. You will probably live to regret your admission.

    At most top schools, someone who is at the bottom of the class can find a way to graduate -- sometimes with respectable grades -- through careful course selection. In that sense, it often pays for someone who is clearly academically weaker than the average to take a chance at Prestige U. I also suspect that the elites like it that way because it inflates their yields and "selectivity."

    At Caltech, core is a four letter word -- spelled H-A-R-D.

    I remember having a conversation with someone who was a Math prof at Michigan. When I mentioned that we all had to use Apostol in Math 1, she rolled her eyes and said, "I'd kill to have a basic calc class where I could require Apostol." Then she added, "Somehow, I think they'd kill ME."

    Even in today's kinder and gentler Caltech*, some students flame out or transfer to avoid flaming out.

    So please apply. But go with your eyes open and know what you're in for.

    *To quote an old schoolmate, "Today's Techers actually think a C is a bad grade!"
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  • jackwangjackwang 178 replies29 threads Junior Member
    thanks for the response, Ben. BUT, I always thought that universities are smart enough to find information about the profile of a school. In fact, I didn't mention anything about the circumstance of my school in one of my applications that I have sent off already.

    So, is it really necessary of me to inform the adcoms about the context at my school?
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  • tech_fantech_fan 2793 replies29 threads Senior Member
    ^ while universities can infer some limited information about your school based on data provided by the guidance counselor and/or publicly available data, this information is pretty coarse, meaning that it sorts schools only into a few broad categories -- 'highly competetive', 'competetive', 'somewhat competetive', 'not competetive' -- based on very general measures like what fraction of students go on to college, the average SAT scores, and other such measures.

    It is not at all in your interest to assume schools will magically infer how many science clubs your school has. How could they possibly do this? This information is not so easy to get publicly and also is relevant in fairly few cases. Your whole job in writing your application is to explain what you have done with the opportunities you had, and part of that job involves saying something about the nature of the opportunities.

    Universities will do their best, but it is fundamentally your responsibility to make the best case for yourself, and it is hard to do that without pointing out what parameters you had to work with. It can be especially important to make your own case like this when the challenges of your environment aren't obvious. For example, some very good private schools don't have many science-oriented students. They would rank as highly competetive based on college placement but would not be a good incubator for a Caltech-bound student.

    Sometimes teachers and guidance counselors will be helpful and will say something like, "Even though X is very gifted in math, he had somewhat limited opportunities outside of classes to explore this talent, and he would benefit hugely from a place with more of them." If you have a pretty good idea that this information made it into your application, great. But it is fundamentally your responsibility that all the relevant information gets conveyed, because you are the one who is hurt if it is not.
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  • jackwangjackwang 178 replies29 threads Junior Member
    So, Ben, as I'm international student, can you tell me whether or not my school is competitive based on the following information according to US standard?

    * about 25% (9 students out of 38) of last year's senior students failed to obtain their IB diploma.

    * There's virtually no academic club, or it's not really formal. Our school does have some non-science related clubs like reading or writing clubs, but any one can join or leave as he or she wants at any time, and these clubs don't participate at any level of competition outside school.

    * Probably the only events that my school has in contact with other schools are varsity sports (softball, basketball, and football), and MUN (model united nation).

    * My school has never (nearly) sent any one to top US school, or even any decent US school. Most people simply go to Dutch universities (which virtually any one with an IB diploma can get in irregardless of their scores), or UK universities.

    * SAT not applicable. No one really took it except me.

    So, Ben, I am allowed to elaborate as detailed as I can about my school's situation without hurting my chance, right? For example, can I simply send Caltech the official data of where the alumni ended up?
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  • rainynightstarzrainynightstarz 881 replies35 threads Member
    i think instead of saying how bad your school is, you should focus more on how much you've tried...or else you don't have much of a case since most top school look for those who take all the opportunities that they could and when they ran out... they find and make more!

    keep in mind that going to school will less opportunities will never really be able make up for those who have the competition opportunities and awards.
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  • tech_fantech_fan 2793 replies29 threads Senior Member
    Right so I definitely don't mean that you should complain about how bad your school is. The limitations of the school should be woven into your discussion of your efforts to work with what you were given.

    Also, since you're international, the committee is aware that extracurricular opportunities are quite limited relative to US schools. My advice was aimed at typical (i.e. US) applicants and the international strategy is a bit different. In particular, since most international schools are like yours in terms of extracurriculars, you can just mention this fact once and then talk about what you tried to do given that limitation. The committee will weight academic factors more since the extracurricular information is limited by the nature of your circumstnaces.
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  • jackwangjackwang 178 replies29 threads Junior Member
    yeah, that's what I have done, rainynightstartz, for the first US application I have sent a month ago. I didn't say a single word about how competitive my school is. I just focussed on what I have done, but I'm really perplexed about whether or not top schools like Caltech will know that I have taken all available challenges, even beyond. I am doing various national olympiads alone and I'm learning the local language hard because they are not in English. Just imagine doing the olympiad type questions in Chinese!

    Bottom line is: I am just worried that whether or not by just saying what I have done is already sufficient enough to let top schools know my context and how much I've tried.
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  • jackwangjackwang 178 replies29 threads Junior Member
    So, for my US applications, I can just describe about the level of opportunities in terms of science-related activities available at my school. This alone wouldn't make me sound as I'm trying to criticize my school, right?
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  • Michael WoodsMichael Woods 60 replies2 threads Junior Member

    That should be fine. Remember, there's a very finite number of people who read through your application, and there are tens of thousands of high schools in the united states alone (just a guess, but I think it's pretty close). They can't possibly know what *your* situation is like at *your school*, and you'll only be helping them to understand you if you tell them. While you do that, remember that the people reading your application are actual, real *people*; pick your words and phrasing well, because nobody likes to read complaints. I'm sure you'll be fine, and if you're worried about Caltech understanding your situation, you can probably just write something up and email it in to the admissions office, requesting it be added to your file.
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  • jackwangjackwang 178 replies29 threads Junior Member
    thanks Mike for that info. :)
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  • auronaaurona 190 replies12 threads Junior Member
    "We competed in math and science competitions, and when we compete, we do well. Now, I'm not saying that if you weren't a USIMO finalist, you can't make it here, just that you should be winning competitions at some level."

    Do you have an estimate on how many people at Caltech ARE actually USA*O finalists? The original description fits me pretty well (in terms of SATs, classes, sports, etc.), but not the part about science/math competitions. I was admitted during EA, but Caltech is really starting to scare me. I compete in just about every math/science thing that I can at my school (and some out of school), but I don't do well at all. The only competition I've won was a team-based math competition at a local college. And there was a tie for first.
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  • tech_fantech_fan 2793 replies29 threads Senior Member
    I would say about 20% of Caltech undergrads competed at a pretty high level (state awards or higher in a competition whose name everybody would recognize). Plenty of the most successful ones did not or did not get amazing awards. Indeed, about 50% of undergrads have a contest background pretty similar to yours or just a little (but not overwhelmingly) better. Don't sweat it.
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  • stupidkidstupidkid 546 replies61 threads Member
    I always wanted to know Caltech's acceptance rate for USAMO qualifiers. Is it over 50%?
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  • tapedDucktapedDuck 685 replies20 threads Member
    The math competition thing worries me a little bit, too. I do well (top 10) in regional competitions, but I have not done well at state (Minnesota) level. I'm also a little worried about the whole 'passion' thing. I have taken every science class that is worth taking at my school and I have taken A LOT of science classes at the local university and upto Calc III there, too. But, that's about as much as I can say for expressing my passion (other than Math League).
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  • CoolphreakCoolphreak 419 replies64 threads Member
    gah. my test scores are low for caltech. 760 math 2 and 720 physics. Also I have like 2 B's in math/science courses. I have tons of research though...national/international awards and such. so my passion should show through....
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