When I was a student, I always loved the beginning of the term, perhaps because nothing much is due in the first week or two, which makes it easy to imagine unbridled, effortless success. Somewhere around the 4th or 5th week, it would suddenly dawn on me that I was supposed to be working on some big project that I hadn't yet started, and my straight A dreams would quiver and vanish on the horizon.
The good news is that the key to success--by which I mean increasing the likelihood of creating a worthwhile and maybe even fun learning experience for yourself, in addition of getting the best possible grade--is incredibly simple: start early.
Since not much happens in the first week of the term anyway, it's the perfect time to start brainstorming possible subjects for the big paper or project. It's important to find a topic, focus, slant, treatment, or subject that interests you, even if the course itself is a core, a pre-req, or not in your major. Once you have an idea of what you'd like to do, make an appointment with the professor or drop in during office hours to get feedback on your idea. It's usually a good idea to have a backup idea or two, just in case the prof has serious concerns about your first choice.
Once you know what your topic is, you put in motion The Law of Attraction so that you are more likely to be in tune with your topic, and become increasingly aware of books, articles, ideas, quotes, images, internet sites, connections, reviews, and other information that will support your project. Bookmark the pages as you come across them, and start compiling the materials you find useful, along with the URL, the web site name, and the date you accessed the information for later use in your bibliography. I've always found pulling together a bibliography to be vaguely pleasurable--sort of like playing solitaire--but only when I have plenty of time to spare. In contrast, last-minute bibliography writing is aggravating. Avoid this needless annoyance by formatting your bibliography as you come across your source material. While it's always good to have an old-fashioned style guide, I quite like this online style guide at Purdue's Online Writing Lab.
Lastly, planning ahead allows you to put all kinds of fun, value-added extra touches to your paper or project. For one paper that required analyzing how well a public space accommodated people with disabilities, I took pictures which I uploaded into Photoshop and drew attention to problematic spaces with arrows and brief descriptions of the infraction. For another paper, I found applicable quotes to introduce each section. For a presentation, I once designed a mock "test" to "quiz" the class on the concepts presented. When you innovate, you make things fun for yourself and you set yourself apart from your peers. But such above-and-beyond approaches require time. Do yourself a favor and start early.
Above: Extra credit paper on Mies van der Rohe; the prof had said, "please don't make it a 'he was born in this year in this town' sort of thing," so I asked if a "Top 10" list would work. Throughout the quarter, I'd spend a few minutes researching van der Rohe's accomplishments and would note where I found what information, (see the bottom page, above) which made writing the footnotes and bibliography a breeze. Even if you take a risk with a light-hearted approach, it's still necessary to document your sources.