CMU vs Caltech - CS

Hey CC,

I was just admitted to CMU SCS and Caltech where I’d major in CS. I am pretty solidly sure that I want to study computer science.

After looking into both choices, I have found that CMU probably offers a better academic experience for me, insofar as it will have opportunities to take classes in certain areas of CS that Caltech might not have, for example natural language processing. The people I’ve talked to from CMU have also told me that CMU offers a really strong industry focus, while Caltech seems to be more oriented towards grad school and research, although the Caltech CS students I’ve talked to told me that most CS students end up in industry anyways. I should point out that I am not really that interested in working at a big tech company or in academia, and would rather work on a smaller company out of college and maybe get into entrepreneurship later on.

On the other side of the coin, I think that Caltech would offer a better college experience for me. Obviously this is only a guess, since I haven’t actually been able to visit either campus, but CMU strikes me as somewhat of a bland, grinder’s paradise, while Caltech seems to have more intellectual spirit and interesting people. I’m from Chicago, but I would much rather live in Pasadena than Pittsburgh, both in terms of weather and location.

I guess my question to all of you is, for those that are more experienced, will Caltech’s lack of notoriety in CS relative to CMU set me back in the industry? Do the academic differences between the two programs really matter for undergrads? Is CMU really as hellish as some people have told me? I’m still leaning CMU right now but that opinion is based solely on the fact that I have no idea how the differences in curriculum and reputation between the schools could affect my career in the long run.

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It won’t really matter if your resume says CMU or Caltech. You’ll be very employable. You’ll have your pick of big tech companies, small tech companies, or grad school.

I didn’t attend either school. My outsider’s impression is that Caltech is more “hellish” than CMU when it comes to teaching. I’ve long heard that Caltech was more a place for graduate students than undergrads, and that its approach to undergraduate teaching was akin to forcing you to drink from a firehose. That said, if it was me, I’d go to Caltech just because it’s such a unique place. Of course, you’re not me, and I’d probably flunk out after one semester or quarter.

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My son faced this choice many years ago. He was also interested in NS(neuroscience) and found that better at Caltech.

He chose Caltech. The housing system was terrific. You have a week to explore the Houses, and then rank order them. The Houses do the same. You can then chose a roommate. Meals are only lunch and dinner, 5 days a week. There are many social events on weekends which include food. Plus, Pasadena is loaded with eating places.

He got to be a big fish in a small pond, as did many. That means, being House leaders, on various committees, groups.

Lots of research opportunities. A lab, a start-up, industry. Helps narrow ones preferences. He didn’t like his first job and returned to Caltech as a research tech, then went onto grad school. He is now doing research in a tech company.

We’ve talked about how to know what would have been the best decision, and there is just no way to know. I think both are excellent choices.

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is there a difference in cost?

Both are going to be terrific options and terribly difficult :slight_smile: - if costs are equal, there’s no wrong choice: both will be recognized as incredibly high level academics and you’ll have good outcomes no matter what from either.

Pitt grad many years ago and currently live in Pittsburgh. CMU is next door to Pitt and had some friends at CMU back then. They studied…a lot. It was stressful. I don’t think that’s changed.

That said, the opportunities there are amazing. I’ve worked and applied to a few CMU startups. There’s always opportunities there. The CMU name opens doors. As for the weather…it can be a grind. Summer and fall are nice but by February you’re praying for it to be over.

I’m sure Caltech opens the same doors. If you want warm weather go there. Good luck.

(a) You rock
(b) As impressive as Caltech is - I think CMU would actually offer a better college
experience - larger school, UPitt close by, much better M/F ratio etc …

u have no bad choices here


They’re both very stressful. They’ll both open pretty much any door you want. Caltech is smaller and has the house system and better weather.

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Caltech also should have a better financial aid package if you qualify.

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Women make up around 45 percent of the undergrads at Caltech, so their ratio is much better than many tech schools.

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I don’t think there’s a bad choice. Given the resources, reputation, etc., I’d recommend CMU, but my immediate family has 4 degrees from there so maybe I’m biased. Yes, the weather is certainly worse, but that wouldn’t be at the top of my list for selecting a college and Pittsburgh has won many, many “most livable city” awards.

(Note that for Neuroscience, my answer would be very different. CS is maybe the only major where I’d recommend CMU over Caltech. And Drama…).

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If it matters, CMU is just over 50% female among undergrad (50.19%). SCS was 48%, 49%, and 50% female in the classes of 2016, 2017, 2018, the last classes for which I’ve seen data.

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Now CMU is a larger school than just SCS. And you got UPitt accross the street?
Way more oppty to mix it up … when all-nighters get old :slight_smile:

I’m more familiar with Caltech than with CMU SCS, so I’ll focus my comments on Caltech:

Caltech advantages:

  • More rigorous courses (and more difficult psets but not necessarily more work due to a more collaborative environment)

  • More intellectual interactions with students outside of your CS major (e.g. a physics major who interns at Google Brain, or a group of undergrads beating other teams with PhDs on them in Citadel’s Data Open Championship Caltech Team Wins $100K at 2019 Data Open Championship | C1 Insights)

  • No CS course is capacity constrained and students have the flexibility to take any (CS or non-CS) course (no enforcement of prerequisites/corequisites)

  • Quantum computing track for undegrads

Caltech disadvantages:

  • Doesn’t offer NLP or HCI specialization tracks

Edited to add: Caltech also offers more research opportunities for students who are more interested in research than in internships.


You very well might be right, it seems like one of those things that you really have to visit to figure out the vibes of.

The rest of CMU isn’t exactly chopped liver (and would include non-STEM talent).

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Caltech has more of an academic grinder reputation than any other college in the US.


Yes, CMU offers more variety outside of STEM, but my understanding is that CMU SCS students interact little with other students outside of SCS.


I have a current junior in CMU SCS - he has lots of connection and contact with kids in and out of SCS for sure. Including friends in drama, music, engineering, etc. They really mix it up, including the requirement in SCS for a minor outside of SCS, I believe (he’s a music minor).


I suppose it depends on how you define “grinder”. We’ve all heard Caltech is like drinking through a firehouse, but evidently a lot of them love their subject so much that a high percentage of them go on to get a PhD.

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Both schools will provide you with options; not necessarily the same options, but you would be hard-pressed to say one would set you on path to a better long term outcome than the other.

I recommend focusing on the shorter term: which better suits you for the next four years? And, if you pick your college because you like 70 degree days in January or because you want to tailgate Steelers games in October that is perfectly fine. You’ve got this.

Good luck.