Not for the faint of heart. Work is 100 hours per week
Students collaborate on homework and there is no competition, which is wonderful. No spiting, no envy. We are smart enough to realize that there's no point. Everyone does their best. The work is so hard it simply cannot be completed alone. The professors are friendly and always willing to talk to students. But people don't really have much time for anything but school. Outside of class, people generally spend 5-10 or more hours per day on schoolwork. Most of the times when people skip class, it’s because they have some urgent homework to finish. The core curriculum at Caltech is very hard and there are a lot of classes required. All undergrads, however, can get a summer job in research if they want, and Caltech has an awesome summer program for that called SURF.
The classes are hard, but they teach you a lot. So be prepared to work your ass off, but get a world-class education because of it. You'll get treated with a lot of respect when you graduate, too :)
Caltech is consistently ranked as one of the top ten universities, and easily one of the best places to study engineering, science, and math. If you are unfamiliar with Caltech, academically speaking, we are MIT on the west coast, and professionals are aware of this and treat us accordingly. As a freshman, it is difficult to report on the classes, since I've only taken 'core' classes - classes that everyone is required to take. So far it has not been as difficult as I expected, but upperclassmen have assured me that changes. Additionally, all of my classes thus far have been pass-fail (your grades don't matter as long as you pass the class). Consequently, I don't typically go to class, and I probably spend about 25-30 hours a week working on my classes. Outside of classes, intellectual conversations are quite typical and enjoyable. I have talked to many people, and later found out he got a gold metal at an international physics competition, or she won a $100,000 scholarship for proving an original math theorem. Nonetheless, few people have an "I'm smarter than you" attitude, and the ones that do quickly learn they aren't. Many members of the administration are quite accessible. I've played poker with the Vice President at his house, eating lobster sauted to perfection by his cooking class. I've also seen a nobel laureate walking around in his pajamas helping us with our physics project, and my chemistry teacher (a very respected chemist) takes 5 students to lunch every week. Though there aren't any official programs that encourage students to work with their professors outside of lecture, I have never had difficulty meeting with a prof, no matter how many prizes he's won.
Caltech students work hard and work most of the time, but they work in a collaborative environment that reflects the culture in science. The education is geared toward learning and preparing the students for research, but it does give students the skills needed for a job after graudation.
Everyone who's even considering Caltech knows that Caltech's academics are incredibly challenging. The learning done at Caltech is indubitably one of the best in the nation. To get into this place, you'd have to be an incredible scholar. They wouldn't let you in otherwise. However, the biggest problem with Caltech's academics is that our professors are very good at their research. They are so good with their research that they value their research above their teaching and above the people they teach. It's not like they hate people (for the most part), it's just that they're less of a priority for them. Techers don't learn quite as much from their professors as they do from figuring out the problem sets with each other. In some classes, most of the students taking that class won't even show up to lecture regularly. It's a running joke that professors hold lectures in lecture halls that can accommodate fewer people than the number of people in the class because by the end of the first week of term, already half of the people won't even show up. Since Techers learn from each other, competing with each other is out of the question. Collaboration is essential for completing the otherwise-impossible problem sets. As far as core goes, Techers learn math from the phys majors, chemistry from the chem majors, and so on. Also, all the upperclassmen have taken the core classes, so the frosh can just find an upperclassman that remembers what to do (harder than you'd think) and ask how to do the set. Finally, the deans' office provide free tutors for everyone who would ask. What about core? Core is five terms of physics (covering classical mechanics, relativity, electromagnetism, waves, quantum mechanics, and statistical mechanics), five of math (single and multivariable calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, probability, and statistics), two of chem, and one of bio. Core is a good idea before and after you go through it, but while you're going through it, it's not as pleasant. Most colleges go through quantum mechanics in at least a semester. Non-phys majors at Caltech go through quantum in six weeks. Granted, if you're in a major that actually needs quantum, they reteach it to you in even more gory detail, but Ph 002A is still pretty bad. The honor code ("any member of the Caltech community shall not take unfair advantage of another") is amazing. Take home quizzes and finals are common. You can take your finals in your room and time yourself. You get access to buildings. You can even buy lunch and pay for it the next day if you want. People trust you with almost anything. Don't break that trust.
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