The Ultimate Guide to Applying to the California Institute of Technology

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Known for its incredibly strong science and engineering programs, the California Institute of Technology is recognized worldwide as one of the top universities in the nation. Caltech boasts prestigious academic programs, renowned faculty, and a strong emphasis on research. Every year, these qualities, among others, draw thousands of applicants to the school.


Caltech was originally founded as Throop University in 1891, and was renamed in 1920. Located in Pasadena, California, Caltech provides students with strong academic offerings and incredible research opportunities. Caltech prides itself on its emphasis on undergraduate teaching, has one of the lowest student-to-faculty ratios in the country. Approximately 300 faculty members teach 1,000 undergraduate and 1,250 graduate students. The Caltech faculty members are leaders in their fields, and among them are 34 Nobel Prize winners.


Caltech is also home to numerous prestigious programs related to science and engineering. For instance, the Institute is in charge of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and operates “large-scale research facilities such as the Seismological Laboratory and a global network of astronomical observatories, including the Palomar and W. M. Keck Observatories”.


Are you interested in applying to Caltech? In this post, we’ll walk you through the Caltech application and provide you with the tips, tricks, and insights you need to make your application to Caltech stand out.


Introducing Caltech


Caltech is a highly selective school when it comes to admissions. In the 2014-2015 admissions cycle, Caltech received over 6,500 applications. It accepted approximately 9% of those applications. 241 students ultimately enrolled in the Caltech Class of 2019. 54% of those students identified as male, and 46% identified as female. 15% were identified as being of underrepresented race or ethnicity, and 7% were international students.


On the old SAT scale, the middle 50% range for Caltech was 2230-2340. The middle 50% for ACT scores was 34-35. The middle 50% range for the SAT Math Level 2 subject test was 790-800. 99% of the members of the Caltech Class of 2019 graduated in the top tenth of their class, and all graduated in the top quarter of their class.


Caltech offers two programs under which you can apply: Early Action and Regular Decision. Caltech’s Early Action program is not binding, meaning that if you admitted under Early Action, you are permitted to apply to other and consider other schools. You also do not have to respond to Caltech’s offer until Decision Day, May 1st.


The deadline to apply to Caltech under Early Action is November 1, 2016, and applicants will receive their decision in mid-December. The deadline to apply under Regular Decision is January 3, 2017, and applicants will receive their decision in mid-March.


Caltech requires that applicants have taken the following courses, or be enrolled in them at the time of their applicants: four years of math, including calculus; one year of physics, one year of chemistry; three years of English, with four years recommended; one year of U.S. history/government, although this requirement is waived for international students.


Caltech accepts both the Common Application and the Coalition Applicants. Applicants must also submit a $75 application fee or a fee waiver. In addition, applicants must submit either the SAT with writing or the ACT with writing, the SAT Subject Test in Math Level II, one SAT science subject test (biology [ecological], biology [molecular], chemistry, or physics), one evaluation from a math or science teacher, one evaluation from a humanities or social sciences teacher, the secondary school report, and academic transcripts.


If you are international student, you must also submit your TOEFL scores and International Financial Aid Statement of Intent Form, which indicates whether or not you intend to apply for financial aid from Caltech. Note that Caltech is need sensitive when it comes to international students. Additionally, if you are an international student and plan to apply for aid, you are not permitted to apply under the Early Action program. Instead, you must submit your application for consideration under the Regular Decision program.


Caltech neither requires nor reviews arts and music supplements. You may submit an additional recommendation from an individual, such as an extracurricular mentor or work supervisor, who can add another dimension to your application. Caltech asks that applicants submit no more than five total evaluations. If applicable, you may submit a scientific research paper you have published to Caltech. You will receive information on how to send such a paper to Caltech in your application confirmation email, once you have submitted your application.  


Paying for Caltech


Caltech does not offer merit scholarships, and financial aid is solely determined by the applicant’s need. Caltech meets the full demonstrated financial need of admitted students.


Domestic students applying under the Early Action program must submit their CSS Profile and FAFSA by November 15, 2016. The Noncustodial Parent PROFILE, if applicable, and the IDOC are both due on January 6, 2017. California residents should ensure that their Cal Grant GPA Verification is submitted by March 2, 2017. The Caltech Scholarship Data Form is due by July 15, 2017. Domestic Early Action admittees will receive their financial aid offers in February.


Domestic students applying under the Regular Decision program need to submit their CSS Profile February 1, 2016. Their FAFSA and Cal Grant GPA verification (if a California resident) must be submitted by March 2, 2017. The Noncustodial Parent PROFILE, if applicable, and the IDOC are due on March 2017 2017. The Caltech Scholarship Data Form is due by July 15, 2017. Domestic Regular Decision admittees will receive their financial aid offers in April.


International students who are also applying for financial aid from Caltech must apply under the Regular Decision program. They are to submit the CSS Profile by February 1, 2017. If admitted, they must also submit the Caltech Scholarship Data Form by July 15, 2017. Admitted international students will receive their financial aid offers in April.


Applying to Caltech


The first section in the Caltech supplement to the Common App, titled “General”, asks a series of basic questions. You are asked which start term you plan to apply to (the only available answer is Fall 2017) and whether you plan to apply under the Early Action or the Regular Decision program. You are also asked if you intend to apply for financial aid from Caltech, and if you qualify for a Caltech specific fee waiver program. Caltech then asks if you are a U.S. citizen or a U.S. permanent resident. You also have the option of describing your sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

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The next series of questions focuses on academics. You are asked to indicate your proposed area of study at Caltech, and an alternate area of study. You can choose from any of Caltech’s majors. You should note that your response to this question is not binding, and is simply intended to give Caltech admissions officers a better idea of what you are interested in. The area of interest you indicate has no bearing on your application, and does not play any role in making your admissions decision. In this section, you also have the opportunity to list your scores in math exams like the AMC 12 or the AIME, if applicable.

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In the “Activities” section of the Caltech supplement, you are asked to list the extracurricular activities at Caltech that most interest you, in order of preference. You may choose from the following options:

  • Academic Clubs / Technical Societies
  • Athletics (Varsity)
  • Club/Interhouse Sports
  • BSCIT (Black Students at Caltech)
  • Bike Lab
  • Community Service
  • Cultural/Religious Clubs
  • Caltech Center for Diversity
  • CaltechY
  • Dance Troupe
  • Entrepreneurship Club
  • Feminist Club
  • Latino Association for Students in Engineering and Science
  • Music Ensembles
  • Peer Mentoring
  • Prank Fund
  • Premed Association
  • PRISM (LGBTQ Student Organization)
  • Puzzle Club / Rubik’s™ Cube
  • Robotics/Rover Team
  • Social Activism & Advocacy
  • Society of Women Engineers (SWE)
  • Student Government
  • Study Abroad
  • Sustainability Council
  • Theater
  • Visual Arts


You are also asked to respond to the following short answer question in 200 words or less:


What three experiences or activities have helped you explore your desire to study and possibly pursue a career in STEM? (200 words max)


The next section, “Contacts”, contains only one question. Here, you are asked if you have previously applied to Caltech. If you respond affirmatively, you are then prompted to list the month and year in which you previously applied.

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In the “Family” section, you are first asked if you have any siblings applying to Caltech this year. If so, you are prompted to provide their information. You are also asked if any relatives have attended Caltech, and if any relatives have worked for Caltech. If you respond with “yes”, you are then asked if any of these relatives are a parent, grandparent, sibling, cousin, aunt, or uncle. If so, you are asked to then supply their information.

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Caltech Essays


The last section in the Caltech Supplement to the Common App asks a series of short answer and essay questions.


The prompts are as follows:


  • Please list three books, along with their authors, that have been particularly meaningful to you. For each book, please include a sentence explaining their influence upon you (200 characters max). Please note that your response is not limited to math, science or school-assigned texts.
  • Members of the Caltech community live, learn, and work within an Honor System with one simple guideline; ‘No member shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community.’ While seemingly simple, questions of ethics, honesty and integrity are sometimes puzzling. Share a difficult situation that has challenged you. What was your response, and how did you arrive at a solution? (200 word max)
  • Caltech students have long been known for their quirky sense of humor, whether it be through planning creative pranks, building elaborate party sets, or even the year-long preparation that goes into our annual Ditch Day. Please describe an unusual way in which you have fun. (200 word max)
  • In an increasingly global and interdependent society, there is a need for diversity in thought, background, and experience in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. How do you see yourself contributing to the diversity of Caltech’s community? (200 word max)
  • Scientific exploration clearly excites you. Beyond our 3:1 student-to-faculty ratio and our intense focus on research opportunities, how do you believe Caltech will best fuel your intellectual curiosity and help you meet your goals? (500 word max)

For more information on how to write the 2016-2017 Caltech essays, check out the CollegeVine guide here.


We hope that this guide has helped clear up some of the questions you may have had about applying to Caltech. We at CollegeVine wish you the best of luck with your college applications!


Curious about your chances of acceptance to Caltech? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

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Lydia Tahraoui
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Lydia is a Social Studies concentrator at Harvard University who is deeply committed to helping guide students through the college admissions process. In addition to writing for the CollegeVine blog, Lydia enjoys analyzing Middle Eastern and North African politics and keeping up with all things pop culture.