As with your essays, the recommendation letter is another way to set yourself apart from your ‘competition’ and give the reader more details about who you are. Therefore, it is important to ask someone who knows you well, with whom you have had a good relationship and who will write more than the basic details already given through your transcript and application.
If you feel that the teacher or counselor may need some more information about you to write their letter, you can give them a ‘brag sheet’ with the details of your accomplishments and academic history. This is particularly helpful if you attend a larger school and feel that the teacher may not know you as well as they should to be able to write you a more detailed recommendation. There are many forms of brag sheets out there, but you can take a look at this information and sample sheet from Fastweb to get an idea of what you should include.
Give your recommenders enough time to write their letters and send them in well advance of your application deadlines. Keep in mind that they are most likely writing letters for other students as well and may need more than just a few days. I suggest requesting the letters around 6 weeks before your deadlines.
If you are using the Common App, be sure to formally ask your teachers and counselors to write the letters in person before you send them the request online. This is just to be polite and give you the chance to ask if they are willing and able to write the letter before sending them the form and wasting time. You can check the status of the recommendation letters by logging in to your Common App account, but you will not be able to read them.
Note that you should waive your FERPA rights on the application so you will not be able to read the letters before they are sent. Colleges like to see this to ensure that your recommendation letters are honest and unbiased. You do not have to do this, but it is highly recommended.
So for those of you applying Regular Decision, you should request those letters soon or even now if you know who you would like to ask.