June 25: The Awesomeness of Internet and Email
The following is a recent conversation I had with a rising junior in high school whom I will call "D" from now on over correspondence by email. Some interesting facts about this conversation are:
1) I don't know D at all
2) D apparently knows some information about me including that I am attempting premed at Caltech
3) The primary reason for emailing me was that D wanted to know what it is like to be a premed at Caltech
The first two facts would make D seem like a pro stalker, but I made a personal website last summer for fun, which I kind of abandoned once I finished the project, yes, some of my information is freely available to the public. I should probably update it, but in the meantime you can check out the old stuff here if you're interested. The website itself was only made as an alternative to facebook just in case I decide premed isn't right for me and instead, look for a job right after college I would have somewhere other than my facebook to refer people.
The third fact is, however, is probably the most interesting for those of you premeds out there, who want to get a head start on knowing what it's like to be a premed at Caltech. I corresponded with D over three emails and will post the questions D asked and my response. I don't know if this will be extremely helpful for everyone of you, but my hope is that some of you will get a better understanding of premed at Caltech, even if it's only a little bit more. If you have questions after reading this, you can put them in the comments section. If you're reading this way after 2011, then drop an email, which can be found on my website.
Before I sign off, I want to wish you all a happy July 4th! If you read this afterwards, I hope you had a fantastic July 4th!
Until next week!
**===Correspondence between D and Me begins here=== **
**Note: permission was obtained from D to have this correspondence posted**
Email 1 (D to me):
I'm a sophomore (soon-to-be junior) at my highschool, and have always had a certain attraction to the idea of performingsurgery, and medicine in general. With the idea hitting me that I have two years until I'm done with high school, I started doing some research on colleges and found CalTech.
I'm in my school's I.B. Program, carry the workload fairly easy, and have always considered myself a fairly dedicated, driven, and intelligent student. My fear with CalTech -- if I'm even able to get in, when the time comes -- is that I'll get there and find myself among an echelon of genius so farout of my reachthat I can't even hope to make it through the classes.
Combined with this, I've heard that pre-med students in CalTech are rare, and ones with a GPA above 3.5 (like yours) are even more rare. I'm also torn because I enjoy challenging myself, and I enjoy learning, but I don't want to ruin my GPA in the process. Math is a strong focus in CalTech, even for Biology majors (or so I've read), and I've always been interested in and fascinated by math, but have never been exceptionally skilled in it. I can pull a low A fairly casually, but I imagine that CalTech would require something better.
Basically, this e-mail is asking advice from a person that I would wantto be likein about four years. Did you find the core classes drastically different from your courses in high school? Did you at any point regret your choice of CalTech? How many Pre-Med students that you know don't have a GPA above 3.5, or have completely dropped the idea all together?
Believe me that I'm willing to do the work, but I also understand that sometimes, hardwork doesn't equate to thorough understanding.
Thank you for your time and any answers you can give.
**Email 1 Response (Me to D)**
**Thank you for your email. I'm really glad you're considering Caltech**** as a possible place to spend your college years. Reflecting back on my**** admissions experience, I am very grateful that my mother made me apply**** to this institution. It was probably one of the best decisions in my**** life so far. You seem very dedicated starting your college search at**** this time and sending emails to current students (how did you find out**** about me?)! Keep up the good work!** ** You are right that I am studying premed at perhaps one of the most**** difficult institutions to uphold a decent GPA. In fact, when I was**** applying, I had the same worries. I wasn't confident that I would even**** make it in! I remember being really afraid of starting classes because**** I had this premonition that everything would be so difficult and I**** would be starting at the bottom of the pack. It turned out many of my**** peers had the same worries. Don't get me wrong. It was difficult. It**** is still difficult. Some days I feel really small, but I never**** regretted and will never regret coming here. While academics can be**** strife on some days, it is the smart individuals here that make the**** college worth attending.** ** Now before I get further, I need to debunk a myth. If you are admitted**** by Caltech, then you are capable and expected to graduate; otherwise,**** you wouldn't be admitted in the first place. The caveat for premeds is**** that in addition to graduating, we need to get good grades. Is it**** impossible? No. Is it difficult? Very much so. Caltech is an**** institution that takes pride in its students' ability to work hard,**** but at the same time, the school gives many tools and resources to**** help every student succeed including our wonderful collaboration**** policy. The only thing necessary from the student is dedication to do**** homework almost everyday of the week and to put in the necessary hours**** to study study study. I can't stress that enough. Your ability to**** study independently and to seek help when needed in the form of office**** hours or tutors is really important for the premed. That being said,**** half the students get 3.5 GPA or higher, so you don't have to hole up**** in your dorm all day long and study every minute in order to get a**** good GPA. In fact, Caltech encourages its students to be involved, and**** as a premed, it is good to be involved anyway, so the school in**** most cases is very supportive of the premed student. In fact**** (debunking another rumor you brought up), we have quite a large**** population of premed students at Caltech that we even have a**** student-run premed association with many many members.** ** In fact, biology is one of the top 5 most popular majors here, and the**** majority of all biology majors are premeds! Exciting!** ** Now to your questions: Core classes vary dramatically in difficulty. I**** found calculus to be much more proof-based at Caltech, which is to say**** there is more theory involved than using brute force and plug-and-chug**** formulas to get your way through homework. Certainly there are**** problems like that on your homework but Caltech emphasizes**** understanding the concept rather than being able to apply a formula**** because anyone can do the latter but not having control of the former.** ** Core was pretty difficult for me, but 2 terms out of 5 of it are not**** on grades but on pass/fail, so there is no need to worry during your**** first 2 terms. This may change to one term when you get here, but by**** that time, core will be reduced to 3 terms. I got almost straight A's**** through core. I remember getting one B and one A-. In reality, the**** courses in my major (biology) were much much more difficult than core.**** So, core for me was more of a grade booster. Core can be similar or**** different. I heard that the IB program prepares you more adequately**** for core than AP classes, so you will be fine if you get in.**
**You say you will work hard, which is definitely required here at**** Caltech if you don't have a wide knowledge-base to begin with. I**** believe you will work hard as you say, and will ultimately do fine if**** you come to Caltech. As for understanding, it is definitely**** recommended that you understand what you're learning, but I feel that**** sometimes we rush through courses at lightning speed that there isn't**** time to thoroughly understand every concept. This is where selectively**** studying for tests and quizzes help the premed student. You may not**** get a full understanding of what you're learning but you will know**** enough to get by, which has helped me tremendously with my GPA.** ** I wish the best for you in your college application journey. Work hard**** throughout your junior year because that is necessary and important**** for success but please do me a favor and enjoy the latter half of your**** senior year after you have applied to colleges. I remember working**** hard even after applying to colleges and reflecting back, I now know I**** lost time that I could have spent with people I will most certainly**** not see anytime soon.** ** I hope you find my advice helpful!**** **
**Email 2 (D to Me)**
Your e-mail has given me some confidence. Knowing that acceptance means that you already are believed to have the ability to pass clears up part of my doubt, but as you said, pre-med students' worries extend beyond that.
On more rumor for you to confirm or refute: I had read that certain pre-med students that are overly aggressive or serious about their grades (for reasonable concern) are sometimes ostracized at CalTech because that sort of behavior is a bit taboo. I have always been serious about my grades, though it's something that my friends and classmates accepted long ago as just an ingrained belief. That's not to say that I see them as the end-all be-all; I just know that GPA is something that will follow you for a long time.
I also wanted to know if you had any research experience before joining CalTech, like having a mentor and working at a university and everything, and if so, did it make transitioning to Caltech easier? Personally, that's somewhat diffcult; I live hours from any university with any sort of research opportunities.
The idea of everything being more about understanding than ability to mindlessly calculate is something I find interesting. That's the sort ofphilosophy I wish my high schools teachers would take on. Personally, learning a concept backwords and forwards makes it easier to remember, easier to use, and frankly, is somewhat exciting (nerdy, I know, haha). However,I understand that this isn't always true at CalTech (as you mentioned, certain times courses are rushed). As I said in my last e-mail, I find math fascinating, though I fear that pure interest may not be enough to get through the classes; I will still need a great amount of skill. In fact, learning in general is something I consider a pastime.
But thank you again for your answers. They *were* helpful and very in-depth, especially from a pre-med student who has made it part way through with a very respectable GPAand can give me the insight I want.
And I'll try to take it easy after college applications. :)
**Email 2 Response (Me to D)**
**In response to your first question, no one likes grade-grubbers, and unfortunately**
**sometimes there is that stigma associated with premeds. The good news is**** that at Caltech it is either unnoticed or very unpronounced. In fact,**** I always jokingly bring it up in front of people and it is actually**** the pure biology majors who have more of a problem with it than anyone**** else since a few of my pure bio major friends tend to not care so much about**** their grades than their research and sometimes I inadvertently give**** them a hard time by complaining about my own grades without realizing it. **
**In that situation, however, they have every right to criticize me since **
**I probably am giving them a hard time about their own grades without meaning to do so.**
**People here are too nice to give premeds a hard time for being premeds. **
** I did have some research experience prior to coming here. That is**** because nearby my home city is a national lab, so I got the opportunity to**** work in a lab during my senior year for a year. However, don't be let**** down. Admissions takes into account your location and resources, so if****