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FAQs for Prospective Undergraduate Math Students

Why Caltech Math?
I took an AP course/course at a local university or college; can I get credit for it at Caltech?
Can I do research?
What courses do you offer?
What are classes like?
Who teaches math classes at Caltech?
How many classes do I typically take at one time?
Can I double major?
Is financial aid available?
Will doing (insert activity/course/hobby) help me get into Caltech?
Can I study abroad?
Can I visit campus?

Why Caltech Math?

  • The purpose of the undergraduate option is to give students an understanding of the broad outlines of modern mathematics, to stimulate their interest in research, and to prepare them for later work, either in pure mathematics or applied sciences.
  • As a small program, there are very low barriers to meeting with faculty, post-doc instructors and graduate students. This allows undergraduate students to develop relationships, especially with those individuals interested in similar fields. Math students are not just a number here.
  • Our program is flexible. Students build a strong foundation in mathematics by completing 3 year-long courses in abstract algebra (Math 5 abc),  analysis (Math 108 abc) and topology and geometry (Math 109 abc) as well as 2 terms of discrete mathematics (Math 6a & c). In all three years in our option, students are given an opportunity to customize their degrees. Students can chose any math course to fulfill their 45-units of advanced mathematics requirement (Math 110 and above). Some advanced courses in applied math, physics and economics can also be used to fulfill some of these requirements.

I took an AP course/course at a local university or college; can I get credit for it at Caltech?

  • In short, no you cannot. We do not accept any credits from other institutions. However, we do offer students the opportunity to satisfy certain requirements or earn course credit through advanced placement exams. In the summer before you begin at Caltech, students are offered the opportunity to take the Math 1a, 1b, 1c, 2 and 3 advanced placement tests. They are all voluntary. Students can complete as many or as few as they would like. Based on the results of these exams, students may “place out” and be given credit for the course. The summer before freshman year is the ONLY chance you have to take these exams.

Can I do research?

Yes! There are a few ways you conduct research in the math department.

  • Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURFs) are the most popular option. Students conduct paid research over the summer, working closely with a member of the math department. Information about the SURF program and application process can be found here. The vast majority of undergraduate students complete at least one SURF during their time at Caltech. If you do not get a SURF after the end of your freshman year, don’t be discouraged. You often need to build up a strong math foundation before you are ready for research.
  • Do a thesis (Math 98). Some students decide to do research during the school year and receive course credit for their work (Math 97).
  • Occasionally, some faculty members have funding available to provide students with a paid position to conduct research during the school year, or in the summer. This is solely at the discretion of the faculty member.

What courses do you offer?

  • Refer to the courses section of the course catalog for a complete listing of all math courses available. Note that not every course is offered every year. For a listing of all the courses offered this year in the math department, please refer to our course listing page.

What are classes like?

  • All incoming freshman complete a general first year that includes their core classes, menu classes and some electives. Towards the end of the freshman year, students declare their option (major). After that point, math students have a lot of freedom to customize their degree. Beyond freshman year, classes are not set up as sophomore courses, junior courses and senior courses. Most of the math courses offered are available to undergraduate and graduate students. Courses numbered 1 – 99 are exclusively available to undergraduate students, 100 – 199 are available to undergraduate and graduate students and those numbered 200 + are generally available only for graduate students.
  • Math classes are generally quite small beyond Math 1, 2, 3 and 6a, which are generally taken by everyone at the institute. Introductory level courses typically have between 15 and 40 students whereas advanced and topics courses may have 2 to 10 students enrolled.

Who teaches math classes at Caltech?

  • Our math courses are taught by our faculty members and post-doctoral instructors. Weekly recitations (tutorials) are led by graduate student teaching assistants. Problem solving courses are taught by graduate teaching assistants and have faculty members in charge of overseeing the course.

How many classes do I typically take at one time?

  • Most of the math classes offered are 9-unit courses. The course catalog provides a unit breakdown for all courses, in the form of 3 numbers (4-0-5), for example. The first number, 4, indicates the number of class/recitation hours per week. The second, 0, the number of hours in a lab and the third, 5, the number of hours per week students are expected to spend working on their own time.
  • A full course load is considered 36-48 units/quarter. The typical math undergraduate schedule suggests that students generally register for 45 units/quarter.

Can I double major?

  • Yes, you can. You will need to sit down with your faculty advisor to plan your courses for the rest of your time at Caltech. This will help ensure that you fulfill the requirements for both of your majors and still graduate on time.

Is financial aid available?

  • Yes. All financial aid is handled centrally by the financial aid office. More information is available here.

Will doing (insert activity/course/hobby) help me get into Caltech?

  • All undergraduate admissions are handled centrally through the admissions office. The option does not admit students directly. Information about admissions is available here.

Can I study abroad?

Can I visit campus?

  • Sure! Information about visiting Caltech’s campus is here. Please follow all of the admission office’s guidelines and rules. Tours of labs, sitting in on classes and meetings with faculty are available only to admitted students.

Still have questions? Contact Meagan Heirwegh (heirwegm@caltech.edu).