To high school seniors:
If you haven't asked your teachers for letters of recommendation, then ask right after you finish reading this article. Seriously, just shoot them a short email, asking if they'd be able to. The truth is, you should have asked this past spring about any potential letter writers. Teachers, even the most well-intentioned ones, can be swamped with work and miss important deadlines if you don't give them enough notice.
So you've probably have heard all the advice: Choose teachers that will write you strong recommendations, preferably those who have taught you during junior year; look out for teachers who have a reputation for being strong letter writers; give them everything they need to write a detailed letter (even if it's milk and cookies). But you probably haven't stopped to consider why universities ask for these letters.
Why are recommendation letters important?
At the most selective universities, especially liberal arts colleges, class sizes are small enough such that most professors teach using the Socratic Seminar model. This model relies on the participation of the students to produce a thoughtful and lively discussion. Colleges cannot afford to have students who are inactive in the classroom take up space in these seminars — imagine a discussion where no one has anything to add. Now multiply that by 32 semester-long classes. Wouldn't that be an awfully boring education?
This is what admissions officers keep in mind when gauging what kind of student you are in the classroom. They want active, intellectually curious students in each incoming class. And this is exactly why recommendation letters should be specific. If all the letter does is say that you are a good student, who's to say you didn't sit in the corner and push out straight A's? Were you a part of the class or did you ditch every time you could? Did you contribute to the discussion or avoid eye contact with the teacher when the time to talk came?
Everything else about you can be gleaned from your resume, essays, and interview. The teacher offers the exclusive perspective of you as a student. When you ask or remind your recommenders about the letter, it is critical to make sure that they can speak to who you are in the classroom. In what other way could they offer anything?