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Touring the Southern California “Ivies:” Pomona and Cal Tech

Uploaded: Aug 16, 2014
(written by John Raftrey) The first in a series.

I survived 5 nights sleeping in an LMU dorm room on disposable paper sheets, eating fancy dorm food and enduring endless bus rides to 19 different colleges with 50 other college counselors to bring you my take on why you might want to attend one of these schools.

Today let's visit the two Southern California "Ivies" on the list - Cal Tech and Pomona, the Southern California version of Harvard and MIT. These schools get their pick of the country's elite students. They are hard to get admitted to and the classes are challenging. Pomona's SAT scores are a statistical dead heat with Harvard and Stanford, but Pomona only sends out 1000 admit letters, half as many as Harvard and Stanford do. Cal Tech admits about 600 students - one third the number of MIT admits

Pomona – I asked our tour guide what surprised her the most about Pomona. "It's hard, the classes are hard." she said. To help with the shock of serious rigor, the school has a Quantitative Skills Center, a Writing Skills Center and a Foreign Language Resource Center. Our tour guide found her way to the centers after she got the first C's in her life. This is a school where you have to be genuinely smart, hardworking, and it helps to be a jock. 20% of the students are varsity athletes. Although it is a small liberal arts school modeled after New England colleges like Williams and Amherst, it is part of the Claremont Consortium of five undergraduate and two graduate schools whose campuses touch each other. Sometimes you can go from one campus to the next without even realizing you are at a new school, so it doesn't have the small isolated feeling you get at a lot of residential liberal arts colleges. If you are class valedictorian, captain of your nationally ranked basketball team and want to work hard, this might be the place for you.

Cal Tech – We asked our Cal Tech tour guide the same "what surprised you" question. He smiled and said, "When you get a problem set and you have no idea how to solve it and you think they made a mistake letting you in, you just have to tell yourself the admissions office knows what it's doing!" The admissions department told us about one unexpected, but not too serious, issue for some freshman is that they are used the being the only one like them at their high school and they don't have much experience partying. Then, they get to a school with other kids like them and they finally let loose!

The school balances the mind bending classes with proactive support. They don't give out letter grades the first semester. All freshmen get a progress report before the deadline to drop a class. A copy is sent to the student's advisor and the advisors reach out to students who are in trouble academically to step in with tutoring and support. These are students who are used to being the tutor, not the student, so it can seem strange to be on the other side of the relationship. But I definitely got the feeling that by the time graduation rolls around, everyone has gotten help from somebody. Cal Tech's pranks are legendary. Most recently a group traveled to Boston, got dressed like MIT students and met high school seniors who had been admitted and were invited to MIT for Admitted Students Day. The Cal Tech students, feigning helpfulness, handed out coffee mugs with the MIT logo on them But when you filled the cup with coffee, the logo changed to Cal Tech's! So if you are a true engineering nerd with a 4.0 and a wicked sense of humor, this might be the place for you. It would save your parents from having to pay the air fare to Boston to attend MIT.

The next blog post will be on the Southern California Elites.

Comments

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Retired Teacher, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Aug 16, 2014 at 5:22 pm

Ah, the temptations of facile comparisons and wit! It's so easy to choose the facile path. Nevertheless, I claim some experience with these colleges.

First, one of my kids went to Pomona. And loved it. True, the smog was not good. Then, there was the Wash. Check it out. Pomona lore.

Yes, the classes were rigorous, and taught by faculty, not graduate assistants. Different from my Stanford experience. Not that Stanford was bad. Far from it. But, in its way, Pomona was better. Not computer-wise, but in other ways. We loved our visits to Claremont, and we loved the education our daughter received there.

Second, about Caltech. It's a lovely place, where I took a ton of tennis lessons, and where a couple of my best buddies went and graduated. But I need to say that the comments on this blog do not capture the essence of this place. Yes, the pranks are elaborate. But this is a college for people who live, breathe, and die with science and math. It is one of the more incredibly intellectual places I have ever experienced. MIT? Yes. Wonderful school. Very different from the atmosphere in Pasadena. Boston? One of the great college cities in the US. And Legal Seafood--unmatched anywhere in the US.

Bottom line--don't go to Caltech unless you're totally committed to science and math. And fairly brilliant.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sea-Seelam Reddy, a resident of College Terrace,
on Aug 16, 2014 at 10:15 pm

I would like to share my experience with the two schools. I was a graduate of Claremont Graduate School (1994. I worked for CEOs at Aerojet (Ed Elko) DIRECTV (Eddy Hartenstein) Hughes (Tony Irillo) that are CALTECH graduates

Claremont is a town like Palo Alto with tall trees and village like similarities except it is not near the beach and about 35 miles east of LA.

The downtown Claremont areas remind me of Menlo Park size. Claremont is comprised of about 6 colleges including Pomona, Harvey-Mudd, CUG and other. Very nice for students that want to study and study; like east coast schools and good faculty student relationship.

For social activities; LA is about 30 miles away

I studied at Claremont Graduate University (then called Claremont Graduate School) and graduated with a Certificate in Executive Management by 1994.

In regards to CALTECH, it is some thing else. It is a jewel in Sciences.
Once you graduate from CALTECH, sky is the limit. The world knows you and respects you.

Many that graduate from CALTECH quickly get recognized and get high value high-tech assignments at workplace.

And Claremont colleges are private college schools with fantastic teacher student interaction and research facilities. I read that Harvey Mudd graduates are highest number that ultimately get a PhD else-where.

great place for northern California parents to be proud of their children attending nationally reputed schools while enjoying the weather.

Respectfully


 +  Like this comment
Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Aug 18, 2014 at 2:12 am

The Caltech tour guide had a good response. Another thing I've heard from new students is "I've found my people!" after being lonely at the top in their high schools. @Retired Teacher's comment appears to be an accurate assessment of student suitability for the place. Something else not to be overlooked are the numerous research opportunities and encouragement at the undergrad level -- heck of a faculty-student ratio. Still it must be a difficult decision as only about 250 of the admitted 600 each year actually attend. There are plenty of recent Caltech alumni around Palo Alto willing to give their opinions to high schoolers who are considering the leap.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by MIT Grad, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Aug 19, 2014 at 6:21 pm

Caltech has a program where people can go to two-year junior colleges and transfer for the remaining 3 years of undergrad. People I met from that program probably couldn't have gotten into Caltech straight out of high school, and found the program so rigorous they had no other life. Contrast that with friends who went to Caltech out of high school and found it like finally being on the mother ship.

At MIT, the administration encouraged people, badgered people, to develop outside interests and if they already had them, to actively pursue them during school in order to create some kind of stress relief and balance. My description of running cross country and being in plays at MIT was met with scorn and horror by the aforementioned 2/3 Caltech grads.

Stanford is just frankly a more well-rounded place than either of the above. I wouldn't have liked it because I don't like the learning culture, students at MIT seemed to work together more collaboratively and support each other more and Stanford seemed to have more inter-student competitiveness. It seemed almost like a competition to give the appearance of inherent brilliance without working hard for it, which was kind of anathema at MIT which was very egalitarian and people were all assumed to be brilliant and the education was about what you could make of it through hard work. Whereas Caltech seemed to have a lot of the people who really were truly exceptionally brilliant and didn't at first know how to cope with finding there were other people like them. My very egalitarian father hated it because of that experience as a post-doc. But I knew really brilliant, well-rounded, and I must say, also good looking, nice people who went to Cal Tech in the regular undergrad program, too, and since their self worth didn't hinge on being the best in every pond, they were fine.

Was that too cynical? Students should remember that admissions officers are looking for a good fit with the program, too, not just academic excellence. Don't feel bad if you aren't admitted to all your favorites despite having a great record. They're just reducing your chancing of making a bad mistake.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by MIT Grad, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Aug 19, 2014 at 6:24 pm

They're just reducing your chances of making a mistake... (I figure people in the age of ipads edit as they go anyway, but it seemed the right thing to correct a sentence with the words "reducing" and "mistakes" in it...)


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Daniel W, a resident of Bailey Park,
on Sep 5, 2014 at 10:01 pm

As a proud Sagehen alum, I'm glad that Pomona is getting some recognition. Most people even today confuse it for Cal Poly Pomona.



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