Being a humanities major at CalTech/MIT vs an LAC like Williams/Amherst/Pomona

Does anyone have experience with being a humanities major at a school like CalTech/MIT/Stevens or any other very STEM based schools? How does this experience compare to being a humanities major at an LAC?

Also, share which type of school you think is better. Obviously people can have very different experiences throughout their academic career, but share WHY you think one is better than the other. That way we can make our own judgements.

STEM-focused schools tend to have very few humanities majors due to self-selection as well as resource allocation by these colleges. However, if you broaden beyond humanities to include social sciences, then some of these schools could be a fit for certain types of non-STEM students. Aspects of social sciences use quantitative tools that students at these STEM-focused schools tend to be well equipped. As a result, the social sciences courses offered by them tend to dive deeper quantitatively than similar courses offered elsewhere. On the other hand, because they’re primarily STEM schools, their offerings in non-STEM subjects are not as broad and more narrowly focused.


Thanks for the reply.

It actually could be a possibility to be a humanities major at MIT, but definitely not at Caltech which is a much smaller school. You will have a very limited selection of courses. Also the core requirements are all science and math based.

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Caltech offers majors in English, history, philosophy, and other humanities with a good number of available courses; so it is possible to a humanities major at Caltech as well. However, hardly anyone chooses these majors. In some years, zero Caltech students major in these fields. For example, College Navigator lists 0 students in the majors listed above. There were Caltech 2 kids who chose the major “Business, Economics, and Management.” Nearly everyone else majored in something STEM related. As a general rule, students don’t go to Caltech with the intention of majoring in humanities. A humanities major more likely indicates that there was a change of plans during college.

In contrast, MIT does get a few humanities each year. The major totals for 4th years include the following, as listed at Statistics & Reports | MIT Registrar . Other pages suggest the bulk of these were primary majors, rather than secondary.

1 in Music and Theater Arts
1 in Literature
1 in Writing and Humanistic Studies
1 in Comparative Media Studies

There is a lab at MIT doing something that my non-STEM daughter thinks is as close to her life passion as in gets (fMRI applied to study polyglots, Is the polyglot brain different? MIT researchers are trying to find out. | The World from PRX). Yet, considering all the compromises involved in being a non-STEM person among some of the brightest STEM kids in the world, she decided to apply to Pomona, successfully. Just imagine how many math, physics, etc. concepts these students know and you, the typical high-achiever do not (I don’t mean YOU, the OP, just a person who’d typically consider this), and think for a moment - even if they take you, wouldn’t it be a constant impediment? If you live in the universe where the answer is “No, it wouldn’t,” by all means, go for it - but I can’t imagine such a universe.

I think there is a small subsection of people for whom every subject comes quite easily. These folks might end up pursuing a non-Stem field within a STEM school( by choice or by chance). I’ve known a few MIT folks who have followed unusual paths which involve both a STEM subject and another major field. They were mathy people who like to apply things in a broad context. Can definitely work. One did nuclear proliferation (Masters) and another did things which fell into artificial intelligence and wearable art. They were both geniuses but not at all conventional. Noam Chomsky is at MIT for good reason.
I don’t think that anyone at these schools doing a non-STEM subject is lesser or cannot compete at the highest level STEM, they just chose something else. I have a kid who is very mathy but will likely go into a non-STEM field or combine things. I think either a Caltech or a pure small LAC might not be broad enough to accommodate these type of students who want to go very deep in multiple areas (mainly because they are small). But students can make it work esp. at the undergraduate level.
There are many multi-faceted folks at every college and university. Ideally, I think it’s easier if a student knows what they want and gets the right fit. For some that might be a hyper-mathy place. For others, it might be an LAC or something entirely different. YMMV.

I was a math major at MIT. I did take some humanities courses.

I took one music course at MIT. Based on what I thought of it, the following semester I took a music course on exchange at Wellesley College. Harvard would have been another place that I could have taken a music course.

I took a few history courses that I liked. One person that I knew switched from being a CS major to being a history major, and graduated as a history major.

MIT has a significant number of math and science requirements that every undergraduate student has to take if they want to get a bachelor’s degree. Whether you like this or not of course is up to you.

Personally if I were a humanities major I would go somewhere other than MIT or Caltech.

For reference, below you can see the distribution of chosen majors for Caltech, MIT, Stevens and a top college for the study of humanities, Kenyon:

There’re few, very few, students who go to MIT or Caltech with the intent to primarily major in anything other than STEM. After all, these two schools look for people who are passionate about STEM. Non-STEM majors are generally intended to be secondary majors for some students. For a few students, their primary interests may change once they’re there, for a number of different reasons. They may end up majoring in a non-STEM subject only.

In considered humanities programs, it seems essential to include classics. If a school doesn’t offer a concentration in this field (and the array of courses associated with this), then a student with an interest in the breadth of the humanities may properly be advised to look elsewhere.

Looks like MIT requires 9 subjects* in math and science and 8 subjects* in humanities, arts, and social studies for graduation:

*MIT jargon reverses the meaning of “subject” and “course” compared to most other colleges.

MIT has as a humanities and engineering major(course 21). I hear about engineering majors switching into this after discovering that they don’t really love engineering as much as they thought.

Major in humanities at MIT if you love both STEM and humanities because everything there has STEM references from the street names to the names of the singing groups it is a STEM immersion.

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The Valedictorian of the Class of 2018 at my high school is currently at CalTech pursuing a History major. It wasn’t her intention to go to CalTech, her dream schools were UChicago, Harvard, Yale and Stanford, which obviously have just as strong and emphasized social science / humanities programs as much as their other programs (maybe not Engineering with Yale and UChicago), but CalTech was really the only ultra-elite school she got into, and she only even applied to CalTech cause of her strong subject test scores, expecting to get somewhere that had a better History program. Even for History, I’d imagine CalTech isn’t really a school you’d pass up on if you got in. We were in a community college course together, and I kept touch with her after she graduated but I haven’t talked to her in like a year. I was interested in how she managed CalTech to begin with, and I remember her saying it’s not what she imagined. Even for a small school, she said her major had less than 5 students. I remembered her saying she felt out of place doing International History / Society assignments at her dorm when all her other roomates were studying Engineering / Natural Sciences. It turns out her major to be exact is a History and Philosophy of Science major (HPS), and that the following quarter she began to learn a lot about the origins and applications of quantitative and scientific methods, such as how the applications of Physics and Chemistry dervied and evolved from. She also noted that despite her major being somewhat humanities, her curriculum had very few literal history courses and more so the ‘history and philosophy of science’ courses and a core cirriculum comprimising of primarily natural science courses. Another thing she mentioned was that research at CalTech is phemonimal, and even for a History major, her directed research was catered towards her aspirations. As for the why part of the question you asked, we can’t really base her going to CalTech as the artiber of the experience, but rather what she gradually experienced. Two things can be noted from this experience: She came into CalTech expecting a flush History major, but rather a lot of STEM aspects were embedded. Yes you might expect that from a STEM school and the HPS major, but even then the regular History major itself has a recurring theme of embedding STEM, such as the history of science and technology courses into both the History and HPS majors. A second note is that many students pursue these majors to supplement other desires / majors. For example, the very few students that majored in humantites / social sciences at her school mentioned that they did it for that reason, such as majoring in English to ehnance the strength of writing when pursuing a doctorate or career in STEM. I’d imagine LAC’s, and many other non STEM-focused schools tend to focus greatly at providing the most out of that one major, whilst providing the opportunity to pursue other focuses in the form of GE’s or another degree. At schools like CalTech and MIT, the emphasis on STEM is so focused that either inherintly or forcefully, you’re going to be involved in STEM one way or another, which is probably what some people might do a humantites majors in CalTech or MIT. And, students going to CalTech and MIT inherintly have STEM passions. This is demostrated through the required (required, thanks COVID) subject tests, which my friend really only took for fun, and at least for CalTech, the questions asked about STEM activites. My friend was part of the Science Olympiad, MESA, and did some hospital work, but nothing huge or impressive with STEM. Rather, she poured her heart in taking all the history courses offered in our school, as well as getting her Associate’s degree in History as a High School Junior, among other impressive extracurriculars Another thing to note is that the flip side can occur. My other best friend just started Engineering at USC, and he told me he took two humanities courses already as part of a GE requirement. I’d imagine CalTech and MIT provide and / or require students to take humanities / social sciences courses. She didn’t really expect to immerse herself into STEM as she really wanted to pursue just History, but she really did end up liking both dynamics, and with a school like CalTech emphasizing natural sciences, it was bound to happen. Hopefully this information helped you, might not sound as insightful as the other comments since I’m literally reading the text conversations I’ve had with her and basing the information from there as well as some google searches, and I don’t also know much about College in general yet, as I’m still a High School senior myself, but I hope the perspective of a student doing humanities at CalTech helped. As I saw this question, I actually just remembered about her for the first time in months, I think soon I will give her a text to see what’s up, maybe she can provide more into what she’s done at CalTech the past year :slight_smile:


Except that a student with this background might have gotten into Williams, Bowdoin, Hamilton, Haverford, Colgate, Bates, Kenyon or Trinity, of which any it seems would be better for the study of history.


VeENTURE ‘s post was helpful. What my son noted at Caltech was how good the social science courses were. One psychology prof was particularly popular. There was a literature course on history of science fiction. Students put on plays and lots of music opportunities.

MIT offers many exploratory classes during the month of January, like glass blowing.

Still, the students I met at both schools were STEM majors, but had other interests. My son and his roommate became serious cooks.


Thanks for sharing the story. It illustrates that 1) these STEM schools could be a good fit for someone who wants to study a humanity subject from a science angle, and 2) there’re research opportunties (even in humanities) at these STEM schools that are unlikely to be as readily available elsewhere. The second point is really worth emphasizing. At either Caltech or MIT, students in humanities (or social sciences) are practically guaranteed paid summer research opportunities every year through their summer research programs.

These subject requirements aren’t apple-to-apple comparisons. The STEM core is expected to be completed within the first two years, if not sooner, while the HASS requirement is over four (or more) years. HASS requirement translates into roughly one course per semester. A typical student takes five courses per semester, so HASS is about 20% of her/his course load, assuming s/he doesn’t go beyond the minimum requirement in HASS.

Make sure you check the registration offerings for the last few semesters and understand the required courses and any sequence for a major. Some college catalogs list tons of courses but they are only offered every other year or not even that often. Also know if majors get priority registration or you may be fighting with non-majors who have higher priority (athletes, seniors, honors college).

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