Caltech Writing Placement Test Information

Caltech requires that all incoming undergraduate students take a writing placement test. This placement test allows our faculty to assess your work as an academic writer, and the results of the test determine what humanities coursework you will do during your freshman year.

Our test is unlike most standardized tests of writing in that it provides a longer working period (9 days) in which you can work on the test in multiple sittings that fit your schedule. In 2018, the test schedule will be as follows:

  • On Friday, June 1, at 12:00 p.m. PDT, we will post the reading material and test instructions for you to download and read.

  • Between June 1 and June 10, you may work on the test at times that fit your schedule. There is no minimum or maximum time requirement.

  • On or before Sunday, June 10, at 5:00 p.m. PDT, you will submit your complete essay online and take a short online questionnaire.

We advise all incoming students to take the test as scheduled in spring so that your fall schedule can be determined in a timely manner. However, if you cannot participate in the placement test during the spring window due to summer travel plans or lack of reliable internet access, a make-up test will be held in the fall when freshmen arrive on campus. Students who do not complete the spring placement test with be automatically registered for the fall make-up test. They will receive information upon their arrival on campus. Students who do not plan to complete the test in spring should not register online at this time.

All incoming students able to take the spring placement test should review the following test details closely.


Spring 2018 Writing Placement Test details

Incoming students should register to take the spring Writing Placement Test online

These annotated instructions show you how to register for the test at placement.caltech.edu. You must be registered to access the test materials. Registration can be completed at any time before or during the test window.

The Writing Placement Test is required

All incoming Caltech students, including transfer students, should take the Writing Placement Test. The only students who do not need to take the test are 3/2 transfer students, who have been exempted from taking all Core classes. Students who miss the spring test and do not complete the fall make-up test by its deadline will be placed in Writing 2. Anyone who does not take the spring test and anticipates difficulty completing the fall make-up test should contact test administrators before the fall test deadline.

The test determines your humanities coursework

Because writing is a critical ability, all Caltech students are required to take two freshman humanities courses (on film, history, literature, or philosophy) that include a substantial writing component. The Writing Placement test determines whether a student will also be required to take an additional academic writing course, either Introduction to Academic Writing (Wr 2) or Introduction to Academic Writing for Multilingual Writers (Wr 1), before enrolling in a freshman humanities course. The results of the placement test do not affect your admission or financial aid status.

The test is different in duration, format, and goals from standardized tests of writing

This placement test is unlike the SAT Writing test, the TOEFL, AP tests, and other similar standardized tests in meaningful ways. First, it is designed and read by our faculty, with a specific goal of placing Caltech students into the appropriate courses in our unique curriculum. Next, it is not a strictly timed test of writing ability that requires the composition of an essay in a single, short sitting. Instead, students have nine days in which to read, take notes, pre-write, draft, revise, and proofread their work in multiple sittings. This approach allows students to write in a way that is similar to how they will actually write during college—in several stages, scheduling the work of writing around other school and personal commitments. We expect that most students will spend between 3-6 non-consecutive hours actually working on the placement test over the course of this nine-day period, but there is no minimum or maximum limit on how long students may work on the test.

The criteria for the essay will be described in the test materials

The test instructions will offer you details about what qualities a strong essay will have. In general, we are looking at your facility with core elements of academic writing as it is practiced at the college level.

Everything you need to take the test will be included in the test materials

The test does not require—nor does it allow—research or access to special resources. The prompt and readings you will be given will provide all the information you need to complete the test.

You must complete the test independently

Caltech's honor code allows students to take many tests independently, with the understanding that students will follow the rules for the test. One requirement of this test will be that you do not discuss the test or your writing with anyone until after the test is complete. No one may offer feedback on or edit your essay.

Retaking the test is not permitted

Each test is scored by multiple members of our faculty, and the decisions they make about the tests are final. There is no appeal process, and you may not retake the test if you disagree with your placement.

If you asked current students for advice about this test, many would advise you to take it seriously. The abilities to set aside the time to write and to take a writing task seriously are among the writing skills that the Placement Test assesses. Therefore, retaking the test because you did not spend enough time on it or try as hard as you could have is not permitted. If you encounter illness or other hardship while taking the test, you should contact the test administrators immediately, before the test is scored.

We welcome your questions

You can email test administrators at writing.placement@hss.caltech.edu