I've been a bit immersed in application things lately; not only am I working on my own grad school applications, but I have been involved in advertising for Caltech admissions as well. The admissions office sent me a packet of information that they thought would be useful to disseminate, but I think my version of Caltech might differ a bit from theirs.
After attending a Caltech info session a week ago, I decided to write up my own blurb about who should go to Caltech, and how to get in. Please understand that this is my own opinion, and might not match up with other Techers or the admissions office... but I figure, I went to Tech, I might as well share what I know and you can decide what to believe.
Why should I know? Let me first tell you about me. I attended a science/engineering magnet program in high school, before attending Caltech from 1997-2001. I finished my BS in Engineering & Applied Sciences (concentration in Mechanical Engineering) a trimester early, and worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab for the remainder of the school year, doing initial mechanical design for the Mars Rover (yes, the one that is currently tooling around on Mars this very moment.) After Tech, I attended MIT and got my SM in Mechanical Engineering in 2003. At this time, I am working in the immunology lab of a Harvard professor, and am applying to Systems Biology/Immunology ph.d. programs.
So that's who I am. Who do I think belongs at Caltech?
You belong at Caltech if you know for certain that you want to be involved in science or math. Does labware give you a hard on? Love calculus? Think string theory is the neatest thing since sliced bread? You'll love it at Tech. No other university will challenge you harder in these disciplines, not even MIT.... what other place makes quantum physics mandatory for EVERYONE? And on top of the challenging classwork, there's no other place that has as many opportunities for undergraduate research, which is a very key thing for getting into grad school. I was generally an average student at Tech, but even I was able to get an internship at an immunology start-up, and then do design for the Mars Rover.
That said, if you are uncertain about what you are interested, if you have even the slightest leanings towards literature, history, art, you should stay away from Tech. Admissions likes to talk about how Tech has alternatives for those who find out that they don't want to do science, but really, what employer is interested in someone who has a history degree from Caltech? You'd be better off going somewhere with liberal arts program, so you can explore the other options, and make an informed decision in such a way that you are well prepared whether you do science or something else.
Another sore point is pre-meds. The Admissions office sent me a whole packet on how pre-meds at Tech have all these opportunities, etc, and how pre-meds would do awesome at Tech. Which I think is bullshit. Sure, the opportunities exist. There are plenty of volunteer opportunities at the nearby hospital, and you can definitely be involved in great research. However, from what I remember about classes, I have no idea how the pre-meds had any free time to spare for volunteering and all the other things you have to do as a pre-med. And let's face it, med school applications are about grades. How many pre-meds do you think are going to get A's in quantum physics? In linear algebra? I know several people who were pre-meds at Tech. The few that were super stars, who were extraordinarily talented, got into med school, and are doing fantastically. But I know of others who were average students and were rejected from med school, and years out from Tech are still trying to get in.
In summary, I wouldn't recommend going to Tech if you are dead set on being a doctor, or if you think you might be interested in humanities. But if you love science and math, then there's no better place to get your feet wet.