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.