Even by the demanding standards of elite schools, California Institute of Technology is tough. Freshmen take their first-year courses pass/fail to ease into the school, but after that, professors are notoriously hard graders. There are no easy A's here — and certainly not in the popular engineering and physical sciences programs.

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But with the challenging workload comes the chance to brush shoulders with some of the science world’s top thinkers: The school boasts 46 Nobel laureates and 42 MacArthur fellows among its alumni, faculty members and postdocs. Research opportunities, too, are a hallmark of the campus experience. Internships at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, located near Caltech's Pasadena campus, are a prime example. Techies tend to go on to great, high-paying jobs, with median salaries topping $104,000 (which is impressive even by tech school standards).

There are about 2,400 students on campus, but fewer than half are undergraduates. One of the campus’s most popular events is Ditch Day, a more than century-old tradition where seniors challenge undergraduates to “stacks,” or puzzle-themed adventures. Most of the campus social life and traditions are centered around the residential houses, whose members are known by nicknames including Moles, Pageboys and Averites.