One of my students is applying to Caltech for a PhD. He asked me for a recommendation letter. I haven't written a recommendation letter before. He is a bright student and I want to help him.

On Caltech's website, there are five questions a recommender needs to answer. The last one is "How does the applicant compare to any previous students who have come to Caltech for their graduate work?"

However, no one from our department ever applied to Caltech. My university is a well-reputed one, but the department is small. Most of the students either choose to pursue a PhD domestically or go for industry positions. Applying for PhD in the US is unheard of. That's why I'm very keen on recommending this student as he is breaking barriers and is the first in our department with such ambitious goals.

I do know that on a letter, it wouldn't look good if I mention that none of our students have joined Caltech. How should I answer this question in a positive light that would be helpful for my student?

  • 12
    "I can honestly say that I have never recommended a more brilliant, energetic, or talented student to pursue further studies at your institution." Nov 6, 2021 at 23:34
  • "Most of the students either choose to pursue a PhD domestically or go for industry positions" What country? OECD, or developing nation? Do you have any students that have gone to other famous, top-tier universities like Oxford or Cambridge, or to the top university in your country, to compare them with?
    – nick012000
    Nov 8, 2021 at 5:45
  • Perhaps give comparables?
    – copper.hat
    Nov 8, 2021 at 7:32
  • You can turn it on an sort of advantage perhaps. His/her motivation should be emphasised by this unprecedented decision. How to find the way is your task, but I hope you get what I mean.
    – Alchimista
    Nov 8, 2021 at 11:59

4 Answers 4


Answer it honestly. You won't be the first to just say that no one has applied before.

You can then say, if you haven't elsewhere, that you expect they will be highly successful and are proud to recommend them.

  • 3
    The question quoted by the OP is "How does the applicant compare to any previous students who have come to Caltech for their graduate work". Rather than interpret this as being about former Caltech graduate students from the OP's own institution, the OP could write about other students known personally to the OP who were graduate students at either Caltech or PhD programs with Caltech's reputation or higher: UCLA, Berkeley, and so on. I think that might be a better reply than answering essentially with ¯_(ツ)_/¯ .
    – KCd
    Nov 6, 2021 at 18:51
  • @KCd, that would be an impossible question to answer. I have no idea about Caltech grad students, my own or any others. Georgia Tech (etc.) I could say something about and the university I went to, but not otherwise.
    – Buffy
    Nov 6, 2021 at 18:56
  • 1
    Buffy is right. It is impossible for me to compare my student with other Caltech grad students as I don't know them personally.
    – Twinkle
    Nov 7, 2021 at 12:40

It's a silly question to begin with --- academics giving recommendations should be comparing the student in question to other students they know/have taught (at same level, etc.), not students at an entirely different institution they have never met. Just answer honestly and resist the temptation to tell them how stupid their question is.

  • CalTech has a reputation to maintain. So they presumably want to admit students who are comparable to (or better than) previous students. That makes it a reasonable question, even though it may be difficult for the recommender to assess.
    – Barmar
    Nov 7, 2021 at 14:21
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    @Barmar On the contrary, the question implies that CalTech only wants to admit students that come from institutions/departments that have already provided students to CalTech in the past. That reduces the pool of candidates (considerably, if we are talking in the departmental/chair level) and is probably detrimental to the goal of getting the best students/maintaining a reputation.
    – wimi
    Nov 7, 2021 at 18:43
  • @Barmar: It also implies that Caltech has so little regard for the time of outside academics that it seeks to impose on them the task of attempting to research the quality of students at Caltech (instead of just asking them to write a standard reference like every other university in the world). So to the extent that their question gives any information about their reputation, the inferred reputation is that they are assholes.
    – Ben
    Nov 7, 2021 at 20:17
  • 1
    @ben It's a somewhat common question in America from my limited understanding Nov 8, 2021 at 3:26
  • @Ben I think you're overblowing this. The point of recommendations is that the professor knows the student better than the school can discover through their own research. If the professor knows other CalTech students, they should be able to compare them. They're not asking the professor to do research, just provide their opinion.
    – Barmar
    Nov 8, 2021 at 15:38

The committee will likely know that no one from your school has gone to grad school at Caltech (at least in that department). That was the case for me (I don't think they had this question when I applied), and I was accepted. The issue was that they weren't familiar with my undergrad program, so they didn't know how to interpret me being a top student at my university. In the end, they took a chance on me, and I can tell you I wasn't the worst student there.

Consequently, of course you should be honest, as Buffy says, but if you can compare this student with students who went to grad school at other top places, or even how the student compares with undergrads at well-known schools, that will likely be helpful. (In general, even without this question, you should do this in your letter if possible.)

If not, hopefully the other letter writers will be able to.


See if you know anyone who has gone to Caltech for graduate study (e.g. someone who is an alumnus). It doesn't have to be a former student, it could e.g. be your professional contact. If not, see if you know anyone who has gone to a similar US university for graduate study, preferably a university of a similar stature.

If that's not possible too, the best you can do is probably comparing with PhD students at your university. Fortunately your university is a well-reputed one.

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