While your grades, test scores and transcript will always be the most crucial parts of your application, letters of recommendation are very important as well. These letters represent professional adults — usually teachers and school counselors — who are endorsing your academic performance and your future plans. You will probably need at least two letters of recommendation from teachers you've had for academic subjects (as opposed to electives), though some schools ask for three recommendations or offer you the option of submitting additional letters of support from coaches, employers or counselors. These recommendations are submitted directly to the school — you won't get to see them before the admission officers do.
Who Should I Ask?
You will want to choose your recommenders wisely; you don't have to ask the teachers who gave you the best grades. In fact, a teacher who has seen you face challenges and has supported your growth would be in a terrific position to write your recommendation. You should choose teachers with whom you have a connection and who are familiar with your academic track record.
If you're unsure who to ask for recommendation letters, you should talk through your options with a parent or your school counselor. If you're in ninth or tenth grade, think about how you might build relationships with teachers you like. Look for opportunities to ask for extra help or work with the teacher outside of class, thinking about your class participation. Do you have a lot to say in class? How does the teacher respond? You'll want to build similar relationships with your college professors and eventually with work superiors, so this is a skillset that you will use throughout your life.
What Goes Into Getting A Letter?
Plan ahead and approach these tasks professionally. Chances are you are not the only student asking for a recommendation letter during application season, so be sure to give your recommenders enough time to draft and submit your letters before the deadline. They will either need to mail signed hard copies or use online tools to securely submit their letters (both the Common App and Coalition App have options for submitting recommendation letters online).
When you ask your teachers to write your recommendations, you should have any materials (forms, addressed stamped envelopes), deadlines, URLs and submission instructions so they can submit the letters on time. You can also offer a list of extracurricular activities, a draft of your college essay and any other info that you think might be relevant. This will help give your teachers fodder for their letters and will allow them to put their recommendations into the full context of your applications. It's especially helpful if you're approaching teachers you had before senior year — you can update them on your latest accomplishments.
Finally, don't forget to be polite when you ask for letters, and send a thank you note for the letter once you've submitted your application. It's poor form to wait until you're accepted by the college to say thank you, but you should absolutely let your recommenders know when and where you get in — they're invested in your admission process, too.