Letters of recommendation are probably the most underlooked (and consequently underutilized) tools in the college admissions process.
There's a fundamental reason why - high school students are afraid of their teachers/bosses/coaches. They're afraid of asking for what they really want - an outstanding, glowing letter of recommendation that highlights strengths and re-affirms the student's story.
Part of the solution is to simply get over yourself. Be courageous. That's something that this blog won't be able to help you achieve.
But I can help you with the process. And following these steps will significantly increase your chance of getting the exact letter of recommendation you'd hoped for - one that Harvard, Stanford, and the best schools in the world will enjoy reading.
1. Identify the teachers who a) know you best and b) you performed the strongest in their classes. These teachers will generally write the best letters of recommendation. Hopefully they're the same ones that sponsor extracurricular activities in which you partake. If not, I'd recommend approaching some of them to sponsor new clubs that you'd be starting. Win-win
2. Have your parents meet with that teacher. I didn't do this, but in retrospect I should have. Parent-teacher conferences are a great way to strengthen the student-teacher bond, and a great way for parents to indirectly express their wishes (and their kid's wishes) to the teacher. Just make sure this type of meeting is non-threatening and friendly. I actually remember reading teacher recommendations which obliquely referenced controlling parents...these don't go over too well with admissions committees
3. Prepare a letter addressed individually to that teacher. In this letter, talk about the following things:
-What schools and why - in more than just a few sentences
-Why you'd like that teacher to write you a recommendation
-A few accomplishments that you're most proud of, and any accomplishments that were either in that teacher's classes or sponsored clubs
-What your overall story is for the Ivy Leagues, and how what you've done helps you build on that story
4. Prepare a brag-sheet/resume. This should be the exact same one for Common Apps. Attach this for additional context
5. Chat with your teacher in-person when asking them to write the rec. In this talk, make sure you cover things similar to Step 3 - why you're applying to Ivy League schools, why you think you should be admitted, what your story is that you're telling adcoms, and why you thought they'd be a great recommender. Don't simply ask them to write a rec, smile politely, and walk out of the classroom. This in-person conversation is crucial to providing your teacher more info about your particular process
6. GIVE YOUR TEACHER PLENTY OF TIME TO WRITE THE RECOMMENDATION. A week is not enough. A month is perfect. This is yet another example of how early planning is critical for Ivy League admissions
7. Followup gently. If you haven't heard a response from Mrs. Smith or Mr. Davis and there's 2 weeks before application deadlines, politely inquire about the status of your recommendation
8. Thank them for their time. Give them a little thank-you gift and/or card to express your gratitude. After all, this may not be the last time you'll ask for their help and they've just done something for which they expect nothing in return
Step 5 is particularly important. Do everything else wrong, but as long as you execute Step 5 well, your recommender will have the info and context they need to write you something thats personalized and shows they care. After reading hundreds of these letters, you can quickly spot the genuine, heartfelt ones versus the form ones.