Let's face it—we love all things quantitative at Caltech. And yet, here in the Undergraduate Admissions Office, our admissions decision-making process is much more of an art than a science.
Instead of simply putting your grades and test scores into a computer to calculate admissibility, we read every application—and every essay—to get a sense of who you are and whether you would be a good fit at Caltech. That's why our advice to all our applicants is to take your time preparing your short answers and your essays. You are more than a GPA and a set of test scores!
So, how do we make decisions? We start by asking ourselves the following three questions.
Are you academically prepared?
We first look for academic ability by evaluating test scores, grades, and recommendations. Caltech students are gifted in math and science and are also good test takers. If you have low math and science test scores, we will look for evidence of abilities in other parts of your application. Even if you have done well on your standardized tests, we will confirm that ability with your grades and teacher recommendations. Our admissions counselors read applications from the geographic regions they have visited and know well. Students are not compared to one another, even if they come from the same high school, because each student has a different set of life circumstances. We gather this information from the "personal background" portion of your application and from your secondary-school profile. If you have taken courses or done research outside of school, be sure to include those transcripts and, if possible, recommendations from those experiences.
Have you demonstrated a consistent interest in science, technology, engineering, or math?
Caltech students are not only good at math and science; they love those subjects, too. In the application, you'll have plenty of opportunities to tell us more about your math and science activities. What is it about STEM that excites you? Whether it's researching or tinkering that you enjoy, tell us about your experiences! If you have done research, feel free to submit an additional research mentor evaluation along with your research paper. We want to know what excites you about science, engineering, technology, or math. Are you ready to push the boundaries of scientific discovery?
How will you impact Caltech's campus community?
We want to know who you'll be in our labs, our classrooms, and our community. Techers are collaborative and trustworthy. In the application, you may wonder why we ask you about an ethical dilemma you have encountered. One thing we look for is your ability to live and work within our Honor Code: "No member of the Caltech community shall take unfair advantage of another member." Every piece of information you give us is like another pixel in the portrait of your life as a potential Techer. Feel free to even tell us about the things you do when you're not in school.
He also gained acceptance into Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of Chicago.
The high-school senior had stellar standardized-test scores — a 35 on the ACT — and a demonstrated interest in the sciences, attending a selective program at MIT during the summer of his junior year.
For his Common Application admissions essay, Altenburg, who also competes in cross country, track, and swimming, chose to write about the thoughts that race through his head on a distance run.
He graciously shared his essay with Business Insider. It's reprinted verbatim below.
My favorite time to run is at night.
This particular run in early August brought a break to the humid, muggy weather I left on the East Coast. I used my body as a human psychrometer, knowing that the cold feeling of evaporating sweat signaled much needed dry air.
I cross over the bridge into Minnesota. Out of my three sports, cross country is definitely my worst — but I continue to be hooked on it. Unlike swimming and track, my motivation to run is heavily intrinsic. I live for the long runs I take on by myself. While they rarely happen during our season, we were assigned a long run to complete over our first weekend of cross country. In reality, I was supposed to go six miles, but felt eight gave me more time to explore the home I had just returned to. My mind begins to wander as I once again find my rhythm.
My train of thought while running is similar to the way one thinks in the minutes before sleep — except one has more control over how these thoughts progress and what tangents they move off of. While special relativity would be the "proper" thing to think about, especially at MITES, I revive the violin repertoire I had turned away from for so long and begin playing it in my head. I'm now at the edge of town in between the cornfields. The streaming floodlights on the open road give me a sense of lonely curiosity, reminiscent of the opening lines of Wieniawski's first violin concerto. I come up with adaptations of the melody in my head, experimenting with an atonality similar to Stravinsky's.
I turn south onto a highway heading towards downtown. The dark night sky is broken by the oncoming light pollution. While I've longed for a road trip across the country, the neon lights from Sunset Lanes will have to do for Las Vegas. Turning west, I see a man and perk up as I try to look more menacing than I really am. But I relinquish. I realize that I did such an act simply because of the color of his skin. I kick myself for reverting to passive racism — something I spent much of the summer trying to overcome.
The bridge over Main Avenue leads me back into North Dakota and downtown Fargo. My city is on the eve of its annual pride week — the largest in North Dakota. Beyond the rainbow flags lining downtown, I see the Catholic cathedral I attend every Sunday outside of the summer. The juxtaposition brings back memories of trying to come to terms with my own beliefs. The conservatism on my mom's side of the family often clashes with the more liberal views of my dad's family. Fargo is known for its "nice" attitude, but the discussion of controversial issues is often set aside in favor of maintaining peace. On the surface this can be good, but it makes change a long and cumbersome process, and has caused me to become very independent in finding my own belief system — something especially difficult when these beliefs may have to do with your future identity.
The remaining part of my run is short and uneventful. The fact that the traffic lights have switched to blinking yellow and red means that I have been out later than usual. When I get home, I find that my run took somewhere around an hour — I honestly don't care about time during my distance runs. Longs runs are often seen as a runner battling the distance rather than time. But for me, long runs are a journey — both physically and mentally. Each time I run a route, I understand my surroundings and city more and more, and couldn't be more excited and sad to know that I'm leaving this place in a year's time.