Updated: Mar 8, 2021
Organic Chemistry. Those two words can bring real fear to STEM and Pre-med students. The summer before I would take this course I was so nervous, I'd heard all the horror stories of people who failed, about how hard the class was, how low the averages were. I immediately thought I should prepare myself for the bad grades that were sure to come.....Spoiler alert I ended up getting an A in the class! Today I'm here to share everything I did so that you can do well too!
In this blog I will go over some preparation skills and time management, then I will go into study tips, and finally I'll go over specific material that I found most difficult.
I want to start by saying, as I do in all my blogs, that I am aware that what works for me might not work for others. I hope that you'll try the study tips that I'll share but if it doesn't work for you try other things! And message me and let me know your study tips too!
Part 1: Prepare and Practice
Why is Organic Chemistry so hard?
So what makes this class known on campuses all across the country as such a hard course? I think it is because it is like learning a new language, and if you have tried to learn a new language then you know that it takes constant practice and it takes surrounding yourself with the content to remember everything. Unlike other classes like math or general chemistry it isn't building off of things you learned before, most of the material is stuff you've never seen before. This is what made the class really exciting to me - but it makes it very difficult. Remember difficult does not mean impossible! If I did it I really believe you can do it too!
1. Start with a positive mindset
If you enter a course thinking "I'm gonna fail" it is really going to affect the way you will perform. When I started my class work I had a very open mindset, I knew it would be challenging but I reminded myself of my abilities and told myself I would do my very best and be happy with the outcome. I've heard a lot of people talk about how scared and anxious they were to take this course, as best as possible try to leave those emotions at the door and go into your class with confidence. Your mindset affects your learning more than you know!
2. Prepare before the class starts
I really suggest the following book: Organic Chemistry as a Second Edition. It breaks down the concepts and is a huge help! I bought this book the summer before my semester and started on the first few chapters. I am the type of student who works best when going to lecture first so I didn't dive too far ahead into the material but I just started getting used to the material. I suggest brushing up on Acids and Bases from general chemistry because this is where you will start off. Also brush up on: Formal Charges and Hybridization and then begin to practice bond-line structures. This will give you a good head start.
3. Set time out EVERY week to practice
Here is an example of my weekly schedule, I had a set hour of time after every class where I would review the material that we just learned and start practicing. I think that this really helped me to be way above average on exams because when most students started studying for the exam I was just reviewing or learning the most currently thought material. This is a MAJOR TIP. You need to keep up with this class all the time. You CAN NOT CRAM for this class, you won't do well. Your best bet is to keep practicing to the point that you not only have memorized but you understand the material. You will learn a lot of reactions and it can be very overwhelming when all those reactions and theories pile up, by taking the material week by week it becomes way more manageable.
Part 2: Study Smarter
So we have our positive mindset, our scheduled practice time, now how do we study for this course? Here is what worked for me....
1. Online Videos
My favorite online source is http://leah4sci.com. Her videos are amazing and she makes things so easy to understand. She also has great reference sheets and cheat sheets that you can use to review the material. I would watch her videos after learning something new in class, I really suggest doing this as seeing the material twice will help the information to stick. Another good website is Khan Academy.
2. Flashcards / Memorize Pka!!!
One of the first things you will need to learn is your Pka values, these are going to be numeral values associated with certain compounds that your teacher will test you on throughout the semester. Organic Chemistry contains a good bit of memorization, so here are my tips for committing material to memory:
1. Rewrite the material
2. Create flashcards
3. Go over flashcards multiple times a day, then every now and then to refresh your memory
4. Use Quizlet
5. Make mnemonics
6. Test myself
As we begun to learn reactions I made flashcards for these as well. You really want to do this as soon as you learn it, again making these flashcards two days before your exam won't help you. The earlier you start to go over the material the better.
3. Practice Problems
Practice is key! I was lucky enough that my professor sent out "problem sets" for every topic we learned which was a really great! I made it a priority to complete each practice set. If your professor doesn't provide these I suggest using your textbook or the second language book. Highlight the ones that you get wrong and practice those.
4. Office Hours
I made a plan to go to office hours each week. During office hours I would ask for clarification on my notes from class or for help with one of the practice problems. I found this really helpful, also by having a set time each week that I was going to her office it forced me to go through my notes and problem sets and look for questions to ask.
5. Practice Exams
Once I felt that I had a good understanding of all the topics from doing the above steps, I would move onto practice exams. My professor had a binder in her office with all her old exams, so I would take the time to go through the exams and practice some harder questions.
Here is a tip, take a practice exam within the time allotted for the real exam. I made the mistake of not doing this before the first exams and I found that lack of time was my real challenge during that exam.
This is the step by step way of how I studied. I went over material as we learned it, did lots of practice, asked questions when it didn't make sense and studied for several hours each week. I hope that if you try following these steps it would be helpful for you as you learn organic chemistry!
Part 3: Final Tips
Did I read the textbook sections before class?
I didn't actually use the textbook that much. As far as reading material before class, I've tried this but personally I found that I learned best when I went to lectures first and then read material afterwards. I used the textbook when I found a concept confusing or wanted some more practice problems.
How many times per day/week did you study?
It's hard to say. I had a scheduled time of spending at least one hour after each class to study but usually more. I also studied on the weekends so I would say maybe 10 hours a week. Before an exam my study hours went way up, I studied for like 30-40 hours the week leading up to the exam.
What was the hardest part?
I struggled the most with NMR, I really wanted to give up and just get partial points. I put an example picture above for those who haven't taken the course yet, basically you had to look at the spectrum and put the molecule together. It was really frustrating to me when I couldn't get it right. I'm glad I didn't give up though, and when I took the final exam I got the whole molecule right and full points! Ah best feeling ever! When you're feeling frustrated please don't give up on yourself because you never know what you can accomplish!
How do you memorize all the reactions?
In Orgo the number of reactions will pile up real quick! It can be a lot to memorize, but I suggest trying to understand rather than just memorize. Also if you follow the steps I shared above you should find learning the reactions not too difficult. Another thing I would do is I had a separate notebook just for my practice problems and I would rewrite the reactions, test myself, and rewrite them again and again which really helped me to learn them.
What was your favorite topic?
Synthesis! I just loved synthesis but most people don't, I'll admit its really difficult and you need to know all the reactions before you can attempt to try synthesis. In a synthesis problem you are given the beginning product and the final product and you have to come up with a series of steps to get to the product. It can be really intimidating at first but my tip is to just take it step by step, start with 1-3 step problems and work your way up to more difficult ones. I really liked going through the problem, seeing the patterns, and when I got it right it was the best feeling!
What was the curve like?
Organic Chemistry is a curved course at my university, which means that my percentage grade wasn't actually an A. So what did I get in order to get an A in course? Each class and each curve is going to be different, but I will share my grades to give you a ballpoint of how my class went.
I got a 77 on the first exam, 12 points above average
82 on second exam, 35 points above avg
70 on third exam, 23 points above avg
130/150 on final, 40 points above avg
In the end I had a 81 percent with a class average of about a 54 percent, this was curved up to a 95% as my final grade.
So how do you get an A in organic chemistry? There isn't one magic piece of advice that I can give, this course is going to take a lot of hard work but it is possible. Go in with a good attitude, a positive mindset, and practice practice practice!
For my readers at UMD, I am happy to be a resource and answer any other questions you might have. Feel free to message me on my blog or through my instagram.