Pre-med at Caltech
Despite being a school known for its scholarship and prowess in research, Caltech is not the most popular destination for pre-med students, largely due to its reputation of rigor. For many, Caltech’s degree of rigor is synonymous with grade deflation, one of the scariest English phrases to any pre-med student. As someone who started off on a completely different track, I matriculated to Caltech as a Computer Science major, and fully expected myself to be working in the tech industry when I graduated. However, as I went through a few different internships and also got exposed to different areas of science, I rediscovered my passion for biology, specifically neuroscience, and decided at the end of my sophomore year to embark on the pre-med track. In this blog, I’ll talk a bit first about the requirements for pre-meds, then he different opportunities available here for clinical work/volunteering, and finally some of the fears prospective pre-meds may have about attending Caltech.
The requirements for pre-meds at Caltech are listed in this slightly outdated (but still useful) document on the Caltech website. Please note that the pre-med track is not a major, certification or distinction. It simply refers to classes that are typically required as prerequisites for medical school admission. As the course list I linked earlier suggests, students typically need introductory biology, chemistry and physics courses, followed by organic chemistry + lab, biology lab, and higher level biology courses, not to mention humanities classes in history and english.
At Caltech, Bi8 and Bi9 refer to molecular biology and cell biology respectively, and taking either one of these courses exempts you from taking Bi1, which is the generic introductory biology course required for all undergraduates in the core curriculum. Unfortunately, as of the time this blog is being written, Bi10 refers to Introductory Biology Lab, a course that is no longer offered. For applicants with wet lab/benchwork experience, the absence of an official biology lab course may not be a big deal, but speaking as someone who has only done computational research, I’ve had to supplement the loss of this class by taking Bi1x, the rendition of Bi1 that includes a lab component. I’m actually currently enrolled in Bi1x and have already decided it is one of my favorite classes in my four years at Caltech, but other posts will elaborate more on this awesome course.
For higher level biology classes, the ones shown on the recommended list include Biochemistry (Bi/Ch 110, 111) and Genetics (Bi 122). I decided to pursue a Biology minor after deciding on the pre-med track. Especially if you are in a non-traditional major, it might be a good idea to do this, since the minor requires many of the courses in the pre-med class list. Then, of course, there’s the infamous organic chemistry requirement. Caltech has an extremely strong chemistry department and so while the course list recommends taking Ch41abc, which refers to all three terms of organic chemistry, students cover what other schools do in a full year of organic chemistry and more in just Ch41ab in the fall and winter, so the spring rendition is often not required.
Outside the Classroom
While Caltech is small, there is ample opportunity to volunteer and pursue clinical opportunities here for pre-meds. The Caltech Y is an obvious first stop to find volunteer opportunities. I started volunteering with the Y in my freshman year, while I was still CS-industry minded, and have continued since then. I volunteer as kitchen staff at the Union Station Adult Center, which provides meals for homeless adults and families in Pasadena; I also do RISE tutoring, which is a program that helps students do well in their STEM classes through after-school tutoring.
It is also fairly easy to create clubs at Caltech. All you need is a President, a Treasurer, and a faculty advisor – in essence, two interested undergrads and one interested faculty member. There are a few pre-med organizations on campus, such as MEDLIFE and the Pre-Med Club, both of which arrange talks with established physicians and send out notices of opportunities.
Off-campus, many pre-med students volunteer at Huntington Hospital for clinical experience and hours. There is also a summertime preceptorship at hospitals such as Childrens’ Hospital LA (CHLA) so that students can obtain shadowing experience.
Addressing the rumors
Below, I’ll list some common misconceptions about what being pre-med at Caltech is like, and hopefully convince you that many of them are untrue/dependent on an individual’s situation.
There’s too much grade deflation at Caltech.
While Caltech is a rigorous school that certainly won’t give out easy As, it provides a lot of resources for students to thrive. We have a 3:1 faculty to student ratio, so pre-med students can not only get more attention in their classes, but also form meaningful relationships with faculty members, which is useful for requesting recommendations later on. There are also recitation sessions for many classes, office hours, the focus on collaboration with peers, Dean’s tutoring services, and other ways for students to manage the rigor of the school and do well here.
Caltech is too research-centric and doesn’t have an associated hospital with the school.
Caltech is very research-focused, but many of the top medical schools value research experience in their applicants. Added in with the fact that clinical experience can be found in volunteering off-campus, the access to research opportunities stands to benefit pre-med students looking to work on something meaningful during their time on campus. The lack of an associated hospital does not mean a lack of collaboration with other hospitals. My research projects have been associated with various clinics and hospital systems in LA, including but not limited to Cedars-Sinai, UCLA, USC, etc.
It’s hard to do extracurricular things on top of schoolwork.
I don’t know anyone at Caltech that doesn’t have an extracurricular activity. It makes sense to have something to work on outside of school, since it’s unreasonable to work on academics constantly without a break. Understandably, many of the pre-med related extracurriculars are not exactly a “break” from school, but many pre-meds at Caltech have effectively managed these activities on top of the academic workload here.
I hope this blog gave you some insight into being a pre-med student at Caltech. As someone who started this whole process “late”, I was able to get many of my requirements and more done in time for graduation, despite majoring in a subject with virtually no overlap with biology/chemistry courses. If you dream of being a physician (or even a physician-scientist!) one day, Caltech can definitely be the perfect place for you.