Behind the Numbers: A Close Look at Caltech Undergrads’ Workload

Caltech’s rigorous academic environment is well-known, but to shed some new light on the actual daily grind of undergraduates.

At the California Institute of Technology, a campus known for its intense academic focus, the life of an undergraduate is often seen as a mystery of time management and intellectual endurance. To understand this better, I decided to conduct an unofficial survey (N=12) to shed some new light on the actual daily grind of undergraduates. It focused on their academic workload outside of class hours, unit enrollment, and sleep patterns.

My survey, comprising responses primarily from junior year students across various departments, reveals a fascinating yet challenging picture of student life at Caltech. On average, students reported dedicating 5-8 hours each day to their studies outside of their scheduled classes. This time commitment fluctuates based on the proximity of deadlines and the intensity of their coursework.

A crucial aspect of their academic life is the number of units undertaken. Most juniors are currently enrolled in 39-48 units per term, a testament to their academic ambition and the institute’s demanding nature. Balancing such a heavy course load with research, extracurricular activities, sports, job hunting, and personal time is an impressive challenge.

Another critical factor in the life of a student is sleep, often sacrificed at the altar of academic rigor. However, the survey results are somewhat reassuring in this regard, with students averaging 6-8 hours of sleep per night. This range, though variable, is close to the general sleep recommendations for adults and indicates a level of balance in the lives of these students.

“The workload can be overwhelming, but it’s just part of the school’s experience,” said Rachael Kim (CS ‘25, Fleming) reflecting on this balance.

A significant number of students also voiced concerns about the impact of this workload on their mental health. While striving to do well in their classes, many reported feelings of stress, anxiety, and even depression.

So what does this mean for the Caltech community? For undergrads, it’s validation of their hard work and time management skills. For graduate students, administrators, and professors, it provides insight into the challenges and needs of their younger peers. It also raises questions about the long-term implications of such an intense academic schedule on students’ mental and physical health. As the institute continues to foster a culture of excellence, this data may serve as a guide for developing strategies to support student well-being, ensuring that the workload does not come at the cost of personal health.

In conclusion, this survey offers a glimpse behind the curtain, showcasing both the remarkable dedication of these students and the ongoing need for supportive measures to maintain a healthy balance. While hard work is crucial, ensuring it doesn’t compromise student well-being is just as important. As the community reflects on these findings, the hope is to foster an environment where intellectual rigor and personal health can coexist.