Most colleges ask for letters of recommendation in their application package. Who you select for your letters of recommendation and how you ask them will have a significant impact on the quality of the recommendations. Since all recommendations submitted by applicants will be positive, this is especially critical in making your letters of recommendation standout.
Who to Select
Most colleges want two letters of recommendation, and usually one letter must be from a teacher. The reason behind this is that you spend a lot of time at school, and your teachers know you personally and academically.
You obviously want to pick a teacher who will have positive things to say about you, but also one who knows your strengths really well. For example, if you want the letter of recommendation to emphasize your leadership skills, then you need to ask a teacher who can talk about this aspect of you. Remember, the teacher that gives you the best marks, isn't always the teacher who knows you the best.
You may also want to select a teacher who specializes in the same area as your are interested in studying such as music or art, or a teacher who attended the same college as you're applying to.
Some colleges also request a letter of recommendation from your high school counselor. Again, this person knows you personally and academically, but can also talk about your career interests.
How to Ask
Once you've decided which teachers you would like to ask for letters of recommendation, you need to approach them. When you approach them with this request, you should first ask if they would be comfortable in providing you with a glowing recommendation. If they hesitate, then you can politely let them know that you can ask another teacher. It's always better to get a positive recommendation from an advocate then a lukewarm letter from your first choice!
Once a teacher has agreed to provide you with a positive letter of recommendation, you need to give them ample time to prepare the letter. Two to three weeks notice to write a letter of recommendation is reasonable. That means you need to be asking for letters of recommendation well ahead of the application deadline for the colleges you are applying to. It's also helpful to have ready a list of the colleges and application deadlines to give to the teachers who will be preparing the letters of recommendation.
Let your recommenders know if the college needs them to use a specific form for the letter of recommendation, and that you will get that for them with your name already filled in. Also let them know that you will provide them with pre-addressed, stamped envelopes for them to use to send the letters of recommendation to the colleges.
What They Should Say
It's helpful to let your teacher know what you would like the letter to emphasize. To help them, provide your recommenders with a copy of your personal essay and resume for their reference.
Let them know who else you have preparing a letter of recommendation and what those recommenders are writing about. Each of your letters of recommendation should be complimentary, not repetitive.
You need to make sure that your letters of recommendation will cover a range of strengths, both personally and academically. The letters need to highlight your contributions in the classroom, at the school and in the community. It should describe the type of person you are and what others think of you including your classmates and other teachers.
Letters of recommendation need to talk about your strengths in detail, not merely list them. For example, the letter shouldn't simply state that you are a good leader, but give examples and anecdotes of your leadership. Where possible, your strengths should be ranked or rated with descriptors such as "he is our school's star athlete" or "she consistently ranks in the top 10% of her class".
Finally, the letter should enthusiastically recommend that you be accepted to the college. That's the point of having the letter done, but it's not always clearly stated in letters of recommendation.