This article is based on an interview I conducted with Caltech in Spring 2018.
Caltech’s admission requirements
These refer to both homeschooled and traditionally schooled applicants:
You must have either completed the following courses or be enrolled in them at the time of your application. Students who have not completed these courses will not be properly prepared for Caltech’s core curriculum.
- 4 years of math (including calculus)
- 1 year of physics
- 1 year of chemistry
- 3 years of English (4 years recommended)
- 1 year of U.S. history/government (waived for students in schools outside the U.S.)
Caltech does not automatically grant credit for AP, IB, A Level, Pre-U, or college courses taken prior to enrollment. Each student accepted to Caltech will take a math and physics placement exam prior to enrolling. Based on the results of these exams, you may place out of courses and be granted credit for those courses.
Caltech is best for…
…students who love STEM. If you and your homeschooled high schooler are interested in Caltech, it’s very important to note that Caltech is unequivocal about being a STEM school.
The Caltech Interview
Q: What are Caltech’s highest priorities when deciding whom to admit?
A: Every year, we are looking at admitting a class of about 235-245 freshmen. Caltech is a small, and intimate campus. With those numbers in mind, we have no particular priority other than admitting students who are highly interested in STEM.
Q: How does Caltech assess homeschooled applicants? For example, are homeschooled students’ applications placed in a different application pile? And are the officers who read homeschooled students’ applications familiar with homeschooling?
A: Every member of our admissions office goes through training to understand the background of students from different regions. They are also trained to know what the homeschooling guidelines are for that region. Therefore, our officers are familiar with the homeschooling process. We don’t read homeschool applications differently although we know that some components of a homeschooled student’s application can be different from that of a student from a high school. With our homeschooled applicants, we do ask that they or their homeschool program director, which in many cases is a parent, submit details of their curriculum with the application through the same application portal.
Q: How much weight does a student’s grades contribute towards admission decisions?
A: Caltech practices a holistic review process. We don’t assign any component of the application a higher percentage of attention. We also don’t conduct applicant interviews. We like to see applicants work hard on every component of their application. We look at letters of recommendation, essays, and so on in the same way.
Q: How do you figure out a student’s GPA in relation to other students when different schools use different methods of calculating GPA?
A: We don’t use a standard GPA system to admit students. Instead, we compare students based on the high school that they are from and we look at how they compare within that same high school. We do this because we know that different schools follow different systems and sometimes, with international students, they might not even have a reported GPA. For homeschooled students, we look at how the grades and GPA are reported. We look at what the student’s program director says regarding how they calculate GPA.
Q: With the students who do report GPA, is there any preference at all to see a weighted GPA?
A: We don’t have any preference. We do ask that students or the homeschool program director make it clear that a reported GPA is either weighted or unweighted. They can explain how they calculate the GPA, for example, and provide us any other details we should know. We get both weighted and unweighted GPAs because everyone does this differently. I wouldn’t worry too much about this. And again, all of our counselors are quite well-versed in the requirements in the different regions. If someone in our office has questions, they will reach out to the school or to the applicant.
Q: Does Caltech like to see GPA from all four years of high school?
A: We want to see GPA from all four years of high school.
Q: Does the holistic review process mean that you also don’t place special weight on standardized test scores?
A: Yes, we don’t weigh the test scores more than the essay, for example, but we do require either the ACT or SAT with writing. We require the SAT Math Level 2 subject test and another SAT subject test in a STEM subject of which there are four (Biology Ecological, Biology Molecular, Chemistry, and Physics). If students take more than two subject tests we superscore and look at the highest scores.
Q: What if a student took a SAT subject test in the humanities?
A: We are a STEM school and very interested in how a student comes across as being STEM-passionate. It’s up to the students to challenge themselves in the humanities but it’s not a requirement.
Q: How important are Advanced Placement scores and AP/honors classes on the transcript?
A: We ask students to challenge themselves because Caltech is a challenging place. We are not looking specifically for AP and honors classes because we know that not all schools offer them. Some schools offer their own separate, challenging curriculum too. Our advice is that whatever it is you are taking, make sure you are challenging yourself with it.
Q: How do you perceive lower grades obtained in AP, college dual-enrollment, or honors classes vs higher grades obtained in regular classes?
A: Additional info in the application is always helpful. They should explain why they received the lower grade in the rigorous class. For example, they could say that the grade is lower because they chose to take a rigorous class and it is more challenging than other classes provided in their high school. I would encourage every student to provide us as much context as they can.
Q: Putting challenging academics aside for a moment, what other attributes would make an applicant compelling to Caltech? For example, what makes you smile and take note of a student when reading their application?
A: Caltech is a STEM institute so we are very keen to see a student’s interest in STEM. Our goal is to admit students who will be truly happy and enjoy their time with us. Caltech is such a small, intimate community and it’s important for students to be very passionate and STEM- focused. This might not be the best school for students who are only interested in sociology for example (although we offer such courses here). But it might be a good place for a student interested in sociology but with STEM as the main focus. As for what makes me smile (laughs), everyone brings different qualities to the application, and I like to see a student’s own voice and thoughts in the application. It becomes very clear when an essay has been edited by a parent or counselor or if someone else is writing it. I urge students to be true to themselves when applying to Caltech.
Q: I know Caltech is a school that asks applicants to report math competition scores if students have them. Is that an advantage in some way?
A: We ask for that but it’s not because it’s advantageous. Our applicants do participate in competitions and olympiads by virtue of loving STEM. But that’s not the only way to show interest in STEM. You can show interest in different ways for example, writing about your interest, fixing appliances at home, and so on, and the interest does not necessarily need to look like an internship or research. What we want to know is the way you are engaging with STEM. We also know that homeschooled students or even some high school students might not have access to well-stocked labs or even science clubs so we understand that each student’s background is different.
Q: Do you like students to submit portfolios or samples or links to their special interests?
A: We don’t look at samples for music or art for example, but if they have photos of something they have created that’s STEM-focused or if they have written research papers, then yes, they can show them to us. Once they complete the application, they will be given to the Caltech portal and they can send attachments there. If they are missing anything in the application, that’s also the place to submit edits and explanations.
Q: Does Caltech like to see their applicants demonstrate interest in the college?
A: No, we do not take demonstrated interest into account. We do encourage students to sign up for our mailing list. Through that list they will hear announcements about regional info sessions and reminders about applications. Apart from that, demonstrated interest does not play a role in our admissions process. Students will demonstrate interest by applying to Caltech.
Talk to me.
Interested in learning more about applying to Caltech? Consult The Homeschoolist.
Homeschooling to …? is a regular column where I will interview a college admissions officer to better understand what colleges seek in homeschooled students. This article is written by Suji Rajagopal and initially appeared in Simplify4You.com