A significant part of the US application package is the teacher’s recommendation letter. When I first started out asking for recommendation, I was having a hard time with it. My teachers that I seek out had never wrote any recommendation letters before. I was the first, at least the first student that they taught, who was planning to study in the US.
Luckily, I have good relationship with most of the teachers. I held some post of power that requires me to have more contacts with teachers that the average student might have. In this case, I have a legs up as they know me better and could provide examples to point out my strong traits instead of just writing “He is a smart student, a good leader etc.” Instead, I got: “He is responsible, I relied on him to do …”
Just tooting my horn a little, I held the post of Class Monitor during my final year of high school not through election, but because my teacher felt that I did such a bang up job that they want me to continue my good work for the subsequent years. So, I have a lot of goodwill and examples for support when I asked them for a recommendation.
Hence, before you start asking for recommendations, nurture a good relationship with your teachers first. That way, they will understand you better and will find it easier to give substance for your character portrayal.
If you want to, write down what you did before, your accomplishments, what you think could jog the teachers mind about you on a piece of paper. You should not direct them to do your bidding but rather lead them. The recommendation letter is
for the recommender to write something about you that you couldn’t show through your certs, cv, results etc. It is about their personal observation, their personal experience when dealing with you. So, make it easy for them to put it on paper. Prepare everything before meeting your teachers first and when asked, guide them on how to prepare the letter. Let your teacher judge your worth of salt and give them ample time to write it up.
But, for the average Malaysian, you tend to be in local college when you are starting your application. So, should you reach out for your college lecturers or your high school teachers. There is no concrete answer to this but for you to consider the tradeoff. Your high school teachers might understand you better but your lecturers could provide a more recent picture.
When I was still applying, there’s a rumor that a friend from my batch approached an American professor for a recommendation letter. What he wrote down in return was just this, “I highly recommend this student to your institution.” My friends and I have a great laugh from it. I never did confirm to see whether the letter is true. I don’t know how the admission committee would judge such a recommendation letter but that friend is studying in Berkeley now.