Not good enough preparation for Caltech?

I applied to Caltech this fall, fully expecting a rejection. So, after learning that I had actually been accepted, I was (and still am) shocked, confused, and very unsure of what to do.

I do realize how special the opportunity to go to Caltech is, but, honestly, I’m pretty terrified that I would be poorly prepared to succeed academically at Caltech and that I would be completely out of my depth intellectually.

I say that because:

  1. I come from an area with not-so-stellar academic resources, and in high school I never took AP Physics, AP Chemistry, AP Biology, or the like.

  2. In terms of test scores, I’m below Caltech’s typical standards. For example, I’m below the 25th (Caltech) percentile for ACT scores and SAT Math II scores.

  3. I am definitely not someone who is used to learning things quickly and effortlessly. If I’ve done well in my classes, that’s only because I’ve put in extra work and time. (In fact, during class, I tend to take careful notes, but, typically, I only internalize the material and fully understand the lecture later, on my own time.) My fear is that thinking quickly on your feet is a prerequisite for succeeding at Caltech.

I would very much appreciate some fresh perspectives on my situation, including advice both on choosing whether to go to Caltech and on getting up to speed with my classmates if I did go. Thanks in advance!

(P.S. Just for context:

  1. Some of my other options are Cornell, Columbia, Northwestern, and Harvey Mudd.

  2. I do have strong interests in the humanities, but, if I knew for a fact that I could do well at Caltech, I would go there in a heartbeat.)

You have a very legitimate concern.

Many folks have a tough time even with near perfect scores and with 5s in AP Physics, etc under their belt. The important thing is that there are only 24hrs in a day, and difficult abstract concepts take a long time to settle in the brain for everyone. When someone else is having an easier time, it’s often because they have already been exposed to similar concepts in the past (math/physics camp, math/physics olympiad, dual enrollment college courses during high school, etc). If you haven’t been exposed to similar concepts then you will definitely have to spend more time than your peers and since Caltech will pile it on, it becomes more and more likely that your life will become severely unbalanced, from a work / everything else that’s important in life, point of view.

Worse, when put in a very stressful environment, some folks may drink the kool-aid and praise the masochistic attitude of studying 24/7 in an effort to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

You don’t have to do this! The fantastic thing is you have some great alternatives for college, that I would strongly suggest considering. Don’t get caught up in the “prestige” of drinking the kool-aid. You are much more likely to stay in (and complete) a technical major if the learning environment is supportive and better matched to where you are currently at. Google “Malcom Gladwell” and “if you want a science or math degree”. He says that “as a rule of thumb, your odds of successfully getting a math degree fall by two percentage points for every ten point increase in the average SAT of your peers.”

Congratulations! You have so many great choices. Caltech and Harvey Mudd can be in the “punishing to attend” category, depending on the student. Cornell, Columbia and Northwestern will not be much “easier”, but maybe might allow for a somewhat less demanding course load.

CalTech may be the most rigorous, but the other schools are very close. The good thing is that you will have more options at the other schools in case you find STEM overwhelming, and that should be a real concern. A humanities or social science degree from Columbia will be much better then from CalTech.

Google “Calculus for Cranks” - Nets Katz’s course notes for the first year math class at Caltech. It is supposed to be the most rigorous first year calculus class in the country. Read a few pages and see if you’re excited or scared by the prospect of taking this class in your first year. This may just give you an answer.

So… I can’t speak to Caltech, but my kid was a Mudder in a similar boat. Her HS only went through AP Calc AB, and had no AP sciences. Not gonna lie, her 1st few semesters were intense. She worked crazy hard for middling grades. But she passed everything, and by junior year was fairly comfortable and “caught up” with her peers. She got an astonishing education, with great mentoring and wonderful research opportunities. She loved it in spite of the crazy hard work, would not have picked another school for anything. She’s in grad school now, but misses Mudd a lot.

You might think more about Mudd. It is firehose intensity, but with a lot of support. Tons of tutoring, some half credit classes in some areas that they just put you in if you need extra prep, older students in your dorm or suite to help, a cooperative vibe in general among students, and profs that will spend tons of time as needed. They are really invested in helping students with lesser prep levels. I suspect my kid might have crashed at Caltech, but she made it through Mudd and wouldn’t trade it for anything. PM me if you want more info.

My son was the first from his SE HS to attend Caltech. Fortunately, the first 2 terms were P/F. My impression is that everyone goes to study groups. Since many enter a House for all their years, there are older students offering help.

I think he liked that exams were take home. Joining a lab was pretty easy. Like many, he stayed on campus the first summer to do a SURF.

It is too hard to give you advice, as I don’t have experience with the other schools. What helped was spending 2 days on campus to get a feel for the classes.

You have applied to and been accepted by excellent schools, so they must think pretty highly of your accomplishments and capabilities. In the case of Caltech and HMC (and maybe the other schools), you convinced them that you had a passion for STEM. Reexamine the reasons why you like Caltech so much that you would “go there in a heartbeat”? It’s very exciting to go to a school where nobel-caliber research is being conducted but realize that the students are “drinking from the firehose” and that they are self-motivated to do so.

Caltech professors teach the courses.

CAVEAT: The GA’s grade the courses and your labs.

The tests can be confusing because the GA’s are learning and practicing on you.
It’s a good school for people who can think on their own. Communication isn’t the best and you need to learn to be an “independent learner” on a few hours of sleep.

Is it April fools day somewhere?

Shrug. This thread passes my sniff test. Imposter syndrome is alive and well, and U think that is what this is.

Newbies with “interesting” dilemmas are often cause for question.