If you are an incoming freshman at Caltech and wondering what you should do or not do – read this guide to find out!
- Do not be afraid to not know what you want to do. This was probably the most difficult thing for me to do, because I am interested in so many different things and you can only do so much in 4 years. Many of the freshman you meet will be confident in what they want to do, not only in their major and/or minor, but also in what type of career they want after Tech. If you have no idea or only a vague idea, just make sure that you are trying to find out what you are passionate about rather then sitting and festering. You declare third term, but you can always switch majors.
- While at Caltech, your goal should be to learn, not to get your name on a degree (biased viewpoint). I say this because at the price most people are paying to attend, you should take full advantage of what the institute has to offer. This is especially important to consider when it comes to the awesome collaboration policy. When you have a set to complete, try not to go to someone who has completed it and then have them quickly teach you all of the answers. As Sarah said, you will get wrecked by your quizzes/exams because you haven’t actually learnt how to solve any of the problems. The best way to use collaboration is to (1) solve problems with someone else, as it is extremely satisfying to prove something with a friend, or (2) if the set is mostly doable alone, do as much as you can yourself and then check with a friend to make sure you are on the right track.
- Use Pass/Fail to develop good habits, not bad ones. While it is tempting to go #yolo P/F on everything, it will probably hurt you come third term because you’ll suddenly be on grades and have no good habits that help you get sets done in a reasonable amount of time or study for quizzes and exams. I just talked to a Caltech graduate student yesterday about how examinations and grading is for them, and was told that at least for the Physics department, they have few exams and are always on pass fail for their classes, so they do not have to develop good study habits and can focus on their research. It’s different for undergraduates because the switch from Pass/Fail to grading is very quick and most students focus on academics, not research. For most undergraduates getting a decent GPA is probably important, so at least keep in the back of your mind “I have grades third term” while having fun during the first two. I’m anxious for grades but not terrified because I have learnt how to stay on top of my work and still have a good time.
- Office Hours and Tutoring are excellent resources. Some of the people you will meet will have a ridiculously easy time with theoretical computer science, or math, or chemistry, or physics, or etc. However, the academics are rigorous enough that for the average student, going solo is not an option for most subjects. If you are having difficulty with set or need help reviewing for something, go to office hours and ask a TA for guidance. If you feel that you are underprepared for a class or that certain subject matter does not come easy to you, get a tutor (they are free). I haven’t used a tutor yet, but I know a few freshman who have gotten one and they have said that they are extremely helpful for the subjects they weren’t strong at.
- Find the classes that you need to go to, and go to them. Some classes you will find easy and a quick read of the assigned reading for the week will be enough to prepare you for a set, so attending class might actually be a waste of time. However, for most classes the assigned text is either used to present additional information or doesn’t match well with the actual material covered in lecture. Waking up and going to lecture is difficult, but one of the reasons high school was so easy is because you were always in class and at least getting exposed to what you needed to know.
- Get some sleep, unless you actually have something better to do. If all you were going to do is stay up playing video games, it’s probably a good idea to go to sleep so you don’t miss lecture/lunch and then have an off-schedule day. If you and some friends are going to into the city for this really cool event going on, go for it, you are on Pass/Fail.
- Go to all of your rotation dinners/desserts. You’ll make friends with other freshman and upperclassmen, and find out which house fits you the best. Don’t stress about getting into a certain house because the picks committees for each house are really good at telling whether or not you would be best as a Pageboy or a Darb or a Mole. If you don’t attend rotation events, then no one on Picks will know whether or not you are a good fit with the house, and you will get shuffled somewhere you probably don’t like. Also, if you still feel like you did not end up in the right place you can ask to be moved or become a member of another house later on.
- Get involved in your house. For me, intramural sports has been one of the great things about belonging to a house, so that is why I am on the Ath team for Page. The houses are self-governed and all of the social events for a house are planned by members of that house, so if you want to have a fun time, make sure get involved in some way.
- Get of campus once in a while. The bubble exists, and if you don’t get out of it you are going to miss out on a lot. As a freshman this is probably the first time you are living without your family and with your peers. This means you can go into the city with friends and have a good time, so make sure that you do.
- Be nice. Most people you meet will be nice, so if you are nice, you’re going to make friends and have a good time.
- Be responsible when drinking. If you decide to drink, make sure you know your limit and that you are with people that will help you if you are in trouble. No one who matters will judge you for drinking/not drinking, so just make sure that you don’t regret what you did last night.
Some other things…
- Call your mom at regularly. You probably don’t miss her as much as she misses you, but that doesn’t mean you can just cut off contact. Also, she’ll probably send you food if you do call.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. You were one of the smartest kids in high school, but that isn’t necessarily true at Tech. Be willing to admit you don’t know something or that you were wrong and others will respect you for it. Don’t be afraid to look like a fool because when it does end up happening it will be a lot more fun if you can laugh at yourself.
- Take pictures. Something I haven’t been doing as much but will be from now on. Time flies quickly while you are at college, so make sure you can at least look back at what you did and how stupid your hair looked.
- Try to eat at least 3 meals a day. No weekend board means you must buy your own food for two days a week, so find some friends to order out with or cook with. The 24 hour day often times doesn’t apply (talking about midterms week), but try and make sure you don’t sleep through lunch too often. Chandler lunch is pretty good and you have way too much DBAL anyways.