Road Trip: "Aha! Moments" at Cal Poly, SLO

California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo is the third most selective public school in the state of California (after UC Berkeley and UCLA); an “aha” compounded by the fact that Cal Poly’s admission process is the antithesis of most selective schools. US News consistently ranks its College of Engineering in the top ten among colleges not offering doctorate degrees (most recently #7). Cal Poly accepts approximately 22% of its engineering applicants with engineering students representing nearly 30% of the student body.  The College of Architecture also ranks high among architectural publications (#2 after Cornell University).

Admission is purely by the numbers – GPA, standardized test scores, hours in extra curricular activities.  No essays, no letters of recommendations, no activity or honors descriptions; only the numbers. 9th-11th grade GPA is recalculated under a generous formula for every applicant.  Test scores are “super super scored”, meaning they take the highest individual section score for Math and for English or Critical Reading from either the ACT or SAT – and they don’t look at other section scores.  Activities are represented simply by a total number of hours over the last year.

Cal Poly admits directly into one of six colleges and requires that a major be declared at the time of application. Students take classes in their major as freshmen, gaining four years of experience rather than two at schools where majors typically are declared at the end of sophomore year.   They refer to this as an “Upside Down Curriculum”. Employers love it, saying it reduces training required for new hires to contribute “useful work” by six months.

The school’s “Learning by Doing” philosophy can be seen everywhere: Engineering — over eighty labs; Journalism — encouragement to publish or conduct interviews early; Nutrition — work with Cal Poly sports teams.  The philosophy is ingrained across all majors and all students are required to complete a senior project to graduate.  Cal Poly attracts students who know where their interests lie, what they want to do, and are ready to get involved doing it. 

Switching majors can be difficult, but not impossible.  The process is done by one-to-one matching, meaning someone has to leave a major for you to enter that major.  Within a given college that one-to-one match happens with “relative ease” taking about a quarter to work itself out.  Between colleges the match is more difficult and far from guaranteed. 

The learning by doing philosophy extends beyond academics to activities. Student engagement is palpable with over 300 clubs and a $14 million budget spent largely on concerts (SLO, mid-way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is a convenient stop for performing artists).  My day on campus was the usual sunny, 75 degrees, with bicycles galore, and lawns strewn with students studying (or sleeping).

A couple last notes: (1) Cal Poly’s all-in costs are on the lower end of four-year colleges ($25,000 in-state; $36,000 out-of-state). (2) The application process follows the UC’s early timing with regular decision due 11/30, but Cal Poly also offers early decision due 10/31. 

Consider Cal Poly, SLO if you know what you want to study (particularly if it is engineering or architecture), are looking for a relaxed / fun atmosphere, and enjoy the out of doors.