Some things about the college application process are under your control and some things or not. It's for the things that are out of your control that you have to take action right now to avoid unpleasant surprises in the future.
First, get your recommendations process going in the right direction right now.
Teachers are inundated with requests as school starts up, and this is the moment to ensure that your requests are on track and that the process is very clear. I am asking all my students to check in with their college counselor and find out how teachers will be submitting their recommendations.
Then, I ask them to talk to each one of their recommenders and do four things:
1) Thank them again for agreeing to write your recommendation (if you asked last spring, this is a nice reminder).
2) Ask if they need anything else from you. Sometimes they like to see your college list or your personal essay, if that's ready. Sometimes there will be a questionnaire of some sort that you need to fill out before they can start their recommendation.
3) Tell them when your first deadline for a recommendation is—probably November 1 if you are applying early anywhere.
4) Confirm with the teacher how the application will be submitted; if you have to send the invitations from Naviance or the Common App, send them now.
Second, check your transcript.
Hopefully this is a 10 minute careful review where you confirm everything on the transcript is as it should be. The reason it's urgent to do it now is that if there is something wrong, often it can take weeks to get it fixed. If you do need to change something in your transcript, you need to start that process right now.
Lastly, and this is under your control, find the surprise essays.
Many colleges do not group all the essays together into the writing section of the Common App (despite how sensible that sounds). You will find that many times, when you answer one of the college-specific questions, a new box pops up with a new essay to write. I have directed all my students to answer accurately every single question that is college-specific in the Common App and look for those hidden essays. You will get a complete view of the work ahead of you and, most importantly, you will not be surprised on the day of the deadline when, as you finish completing the college specific questions, you suddenly have only two hours to write another 300-word essay. You won’t find many, but you’ll appreciate the ones that you do.
Getting these three things done now will make the process down the road less stressful and more manageable.