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For Prospective Caltech Pre-meds (and everyone else)

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.

— D
Email 1 Response (Me to D)

Hi 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 you can’t find a lab, that’s no problem. Just don’t say, "over the summer, I played computer games all day long and did nothing else!" That’s not to say you should say you only work and have no life. Balance is the key with a leaning toward science! Research didn’t really play a role in transitioning to college, but it did help a little when I started my research internship over the summer last year. That is to say you don’t need research to get in. I also know people who have never done research in their lives that have gotten into Caltech. It’s the passion for science and how you show it** in ways that are available to you that count! I must say, if learning is what you consider a pastime, then Caltech** may be right for you. In fact, that is a recommended skill for any college if you want to be successful there without problems. If you have any other questions, please feel free to ask. Finally, thank yourself for being dedicated. If you keep that up, you will go far. Also, I’m glad you plan to take it easy after applications. As a general rule of thumb, it’s always good to not** overwork yourself to keep low the chances of burning out. -Yang

Email 3 (D to Me)

Yang,**I was hoping to ask you about house life and that process. As in, how are they selected, what sort of community is in each house, etc. I had read that each house tends to have its own ‘personality’, and the students joining that house tend to reflect that. Would you agree/disagree, and how would you describe each of the houses’ characteristics? Housing was just another topic that doesn’t have much first-hand coverage on the internet (at least, none that I’ve found). However, I’ve also read that some of the processes behind the housing are a bit hush-hush, and I would understand if you weren’t really able to share information. Thank you again for any answers you can give.**– D

Email 3 Response (Me to D)

Hey D,**You’re right that the process involved in Rotation is kept quiet. By Rotation, I refer to the first 2 weeks of freshmen year, where students "rotate" through all the houses, where they have a meal with the house residents (lunch or dinner) and are given time to interact with them. The whole point of Rotation is for the new student to get acquainted with the house culture. You have to understand that it is unfair for the houses to carry stereotypes in new students’ minds without the students actually seeing what the house culture is like for themselves. We try to keep the houses unbiased for that reason. What I can tell is that students are temporarily situated in one of the eight houses upon entering Caltech. After rotating through the houses, they are given a sheet to rate the houses on a scale of 1-20 with 1 being the house they enjoy the most and 20 being the one they really don’t want to live in. After that, behind closed doors, the eight house presidents and a couple others convene and officially decide where to allocate the new students. I cannot give you any information on how this is done neither do I know how this is done since I haven’t served in a capacity that allowed me to make decisions on which house to put freshmen in. Also, Rotation rules, which all Caltech students are subject to (like the Honor Code) prevents me from going into further detail since violation of the Rotation rules is akin to violating the Honor Code, which forms the heart of how Caltech operates. You can read more on rotation rules here: https://ihc.caltech.edu/rotationrules.html What I can tell you is a little about my own experience. I wasn’t put into my first house choice. However, if you come here, you will know that at least 9 times out of 10, a student will be put into a house where they can live happily and thrive in. Houses may have distinct personalities, which you’ll have to find for yourself once you get here, but in all honesty, I think I can live in any of the eight houses without a problem because they are ALL fine houses! With that being said, if you still feel that you belong more to another house, you will be given the option to become a social or full member of any of the eight houses. By becoming a full member, you can even move off of your primary housing assignment and into that house of which you are a full member. Of course, students rarely move out of the house they are assigned unless there are extraordinary circumstances. I hope that answers your question. ** -Yang

Yang Hu