Admissions to foreign universities are thoroughly based on the complete profile unlike India where a particular entrance test becomes a gateway to your flourishing career in an oddly ranked 269th university in the world. Every overseas university asks for a recommendation because they want to know about the applicant from a senior official. Somebody who has that maturity and can explain the admission committee about the applicants academic and non-academic skills.
While you may feel that you're already paying a bomb to enter the university then 'why should a recommendation decide my fate', it's actually the other way round. They are going to invest their seat, time, professors, laboratories, research projects, knowledge, etc. to tune your skills which will ensure that you come out as a shining star. And, they don't want to waste a seat just on the basis of some stellar academics and test scores. Hence, a recommendation is pretty important!
Okay okay, I got it! So, who will recommend me?
In most cases, your high school teachers, undergraduate college professors, lecturers, project guides, internship mentor, company manager (for work ex. applicants), NGO head (if any) are your recommenders. If you feel the designation is really important then you can approach your college principal or university dean. Hey, but wait! S/he doesn't know me. Should I still take one? "Of course, lena chahiye!" is what most of your fellow applicants will say. AVOID! It's always advised to stick to the person who knows you quite well as s/he will have to rate you on a myriad of parameters from academics to extra curricular to personal nature. Any poor or average rating can seriously weaken your admission chances in the university and it's quite possible that an unknown recommender might do it given that s/he doesn't know you. Having said that, it would be really stupid if you take a recommendation from a college professor who has barely 3 years of experience and is struggling to clear the GATE.
Great! So, what am I suppose to write?
Well, ideally, somebody is recommending you; which, in simple language means s/he will write for you. Unfortunately, recommenders are so busy (read lazy) in their own daily deadlines that they often miss the applicants' admission deadlines. Hence, a smart chap (name unknown) some 100 odd years ago decided to write a reco (adorable name for recommendation) for himself and got it verified from the recommender. Since then, the custom is followed religiously all across India (probably, globe). Most of you are sailing in the same boat and will write an LoR on behalf of your recommender though it's absolutely wrong!
Tip: Even though the universities know that every applicant drafts the reco himself/herself, to avoid any untoward consequences change your Microsoft Word settings (Right Click on the file - Properties - Details - Change Author name to the Recommenders name). Oh, I'm going to Stanford now. Relax. The admission committee even knows about this trick. Damn!
Wooof! Do I need to refer sample documents? I, anyway, loiter a lot of time on social media. Let me google 'Sample LoR'. Oh boy! There I'm into the ocean of plagiarism. Again, it's best not to refer any sample recommendation just like the Statement of Purpose (SoP) as it disrupts the creative chord of your brain. Just understand the format, know the content, segment into small paragraphs so that reading isn't boring and you're good to go.
Brilliant! So, when should I approach them? Earlier the better! Since deadlines are around the first few weeks of December (for Fall), it's best to start approaching them as soon as the semester starts. Start making drafts post September. Confirm the final draft by mid October. If you've decided your pool of universities, start entering the recommenders email id in the application form. The university will email the link to the recommender and thus s/he will rate you accordingly. Quite long, no? Very long
Always remember, the recommender is doing a favour by giving you a letter of appreciation. So, never force him/her. Draw a balance between irritation and enthusiasm; let's say, ummm.. Understanding. Good Luck!
PS: A 'Thank You' and malai peda box is a regular tradition after applicants receive admits. Keep it alive!