10 Tips for Surviving Organic Chemistry

Organic chemistry has a reputation for being a challenging course. But here’s the thing that’s often not mentioned: Organic chemistry is a subject that anyone can ace. Doing well, though, requires working not only hard but also efficiently. Here are ten practical tips on how to study as efficiently as possible so you can do well in the class.

Have a good attitude

Even if you aren’t thrilled at the idea of taking organic chemistry and don’t think you’ll ever use it in whatever career you’re pursuing, you need to come into the class with a positive attitude. If you decide to make the best of the class and to learn as much as possible, studying will be a lot easier. With a good attitude, organic chemistry may turn out to be quite a bit of fun, and if it’s fun for you, it’ll be easier to get yourself to sit down and study the material. With a bad attitude, studying for the class would be harder than trying to get a 10-year-old to hold still for a booster shot.

Work the problems

Of course, if you have a great attitude but don’t take the time to work the problems, the results will still be ugly. No one can master organic chemistry without working the problems. And not only do you have to work the problems, but you have to work the problems honestly — that is, you have to try them by yourself without sneaking a peek at the solutions guide until after you’ve finished the problem. It’s not enough to look at the solutions guide and say to yourself, “Yup, I can do that, by golly. That sure looks right.” Because on an exam you’re not going to have a little check box that says “Does this answer look right to you? Check yes or no.” It’s going to be a question with a bit of blank space staring groggily back up at you, waiting to be filled in. Most textbooks have problems worked into the text of the chapters, and these are often helpful in seeing if you’ve mastered the critical concepts of that section. Do these problems as you read the book.

Some people find working in groups helpful, and some studies suggest that working in groups is one of the best ways to learn. Additionally, making a commitment with a group is like getting an exercise partner. It’s harder to cop out of a studying session if you’ve made plans with someone else to study two nights a week. Just be sure that your group doesn’t develop bad patterns (like one person doing all the work and the rest copying, for example). A group is probably not going to help you memorize the functional groups, but it may help you to discover how to tackle problems, if everyone in the group pitches in. If you’ve worked in groups before and you know groups work well for you — particularly if you know the people who are going to be in the group — then that’s great. Use group work to your advantage.

But regardless of how you choose to study, you can’t get through organic chemistry without working the problems.

Don’t fall behind

Organic chemistry is probably the fastest-paced course that you’ll take while an undergraduate. Organic textbooks usually span a thousand pages or more, and a majority of that will probably be covered in a two-semester class (and it’s not exactly like thumbing through a Stephen King novel). If you fall behind, it’s nearly impossible to catch up. So, make a schedule and do a little organic chemistry every day.

Part of not falling behind is taking advantage of your most precious resource: time. In an ideal world — which is the world that many professors seem to believe students live in — you would have enough time to be able to understand and master every single concept and idea in organic chemistry. In the real world (which is the one where students have part-time jobs, other classes, family and medical emergencies, and — get this — lives), things don’t always work out that way.

Doctors in emergency rooms use a concept called the triage principle for allocating resources when there’s not enough to go around. A person with a gunshot wound gets medical resources at the expense of the person with a headache. Time is your most precious resource. Spend it wisely using this principal of triage. For example, if you have little time left before an exam, instead of spending three hours memorizing a data table that may be represented by one problem on an exam, use the same amount of time to master an important idea in organic synthesis that will be represented on half the exam. In other words, be practical when you study.

Reviewing old exams that are on file are extremely high-yield studies, because you get an idea of what a professor thinks is important and — perhaps even more crucially — what he or she thinks is unimportant. If you look at the exams for the past three years and see that there is not a single question on common nomenclature, but there are tons of reagent questions, take the hint: Study reagents.

One trap that many students fall into is getting comfortable after they do well on the first exam. Don’t fall for this trap. The first exam is quite often the easiest exam you’ll take all semester. Organic chemistry is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to pace yourself, so set aside a little bit of time each day when you do organic chemistry come rain, shine, or big frat party — and don’t let up.

Study the right way

Learning organic chemistry is not a passive task. You can’t just read the book and expect to soak up the material, like water into a sponge (although some students have tried using the textbook as a pillow, just in case). You have to actively engage yourself, working the problems in the text of the chapters as you go along, underlining key passages (don’t worry about marring your book), and working the problems at the ends of the chapters. Some students outline the chapter as they putter through it, emphasizing all the critical ideas that can be used while simultaneously making a crib sheet for when they prep for an exam.

Don’t try to memorize your way through the course. It won’t work, you’ll quickly become frustrated, and you’ll waste a lot of time. In organic chemistry, you have to learn and genuinely understand the concepts and then be able to apply them. Many students don’t take this idea to heart right away because the word learn is so often used as a euphemism for “memorize” by college professors. But this time, your professor really means that you need to completely understand the material. Sure, organic chemistry involves memorization. Anyone who says there isn’t memorization in organic chemistry is lying to you. But there are millions upon millions of organic molecules, and millions of specific reactions, so you need to comprehend the generalities and be able to apply these general concepts to any problem.

Go to class

This tip is probably a no-brainer, but it’s still an important one. Different professors emphasize different things, and you won’t know what your professor thinks is particularly important (or unimportant) unless you go to class. Some professors are sticklers for nomenclature, and others don’t give two bits about it as long as you understand the basics. Some want you to memorize the pKa tables; others don’t. You’ll never know if you don’t show up. In class, professors often let slip valuable information about what’s going to be on exams. Whenever a professor says something like, “Expect a question like this to show up on the exam,” put a big star near it in your notes, double-underline it, and emphasize it with a highlighter. The professor probably means it.

Going to class is also an efficient use of your time, because a good professor does a better job of explaining organic chemistry than a textbook can. In other words, an hour in class is worth two on your own. Of course, the time you spend in class will be much more fruitful if you’ve read the textbook before going to class. Sitting in class and brainlessly copying notes off the chalkboard without having a clue of what your professor is talking about is a waste of your time. So, reading your textbook beforehand will allow you to get the most out of your time in class. Class time is also a good time to ask questions about concepts you had difficulty understanding when you read the book.

Get help when you need it

Professors have office hours, and so do teaching assistants. Your tuition pays their salary, so make use of them. If you get stuck on a problem (and everyone will at some point) or you just don’t understand a concept, go see one of them. They’ll probably be happy to help you (unless it’s after 5 p.m. on Friday, when they just want to leave and get a beer during happy hour). If you think you’re going to need consistent one-on-one help, ask your professor about finding a tutor.

Ask questions

Don’t fall for that claptrap that says you’ll look stupid by asking a question. Organic chemistry is not an obvious subject (and that’s an understatement). After a couple weeks, over half the students in your class will be utterly lost and will have absolutely no idea what the professor is jabbering on about (you, of course, will understand because you read the chapter before you went to class). So, for you not to understand an idea here or there is a minor issue, and it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed about.

Believe it or not, professors like students who ask questions. Questions from students let professors know what topics they need to explain better and how they can improve their teaching. Asking questions also lets your professor know that you’re actively engaged in the class, and when the end of term rolls around with your grade hovering near a grade cutoff, your professor may decide to give you the old heave-ho to the higher rung because you demonstrated in class that you put in some effort.

Do organic chemistry every day

Cramming organic chemistry is an exercise in futility. It just won’t work. You have to practice it a little every day to master it. Plus, you need a fresh brain to take an organic exam, not one fatigued from caffeine-fueled all-nighters when you pored despairingly over your piles of textbooks, notes, and homework, cursing Friedrich Wöhler’s name for laying the foundation that is modern organic chemistry.

You have to do organic faithfully every day. If you have a good advisor, then you won’t have signed up for multivariable calculus, differential equations, quantum physics, and advanced programming in C++ in the same semester that you’re taking organic, and you’ll have some time to devote to organic every day. Take an easier course schedule — avoid overloading with classes that end with the suffix ology or ics while simultaneously taking o-chem. Later in the semester, you’ll be thankful for this breathing room.

Take exams the right way

Working exams sequentially — starting with the first question and proceeding with each subsequent question in order — is easy enough in most classes. But organic isn’t like most classes because time is so often a factor. It’s a common sight to see organic students coming out of an exam frustrated because they didn’t finish. To make the best use of your time, scan through the test quickly when you first get it, and then answer all the easy questions first. After you’ve answered the easy ones, go back and work the harder ones. Don’t allow the time to run out with easy questions on the last page still unanswered because you spent 20 minutes battling that humdinger of a question on page two.

Most important, read each question on the exam. Don’t just assume that you know what a professor is asking. This tip is pretty basic, but many students don’t read the questions carefully and lose points for neglecting to answer the question the way the professor wanted, or for not answering a part of the question. You want all the points you can get, so don’t fritter any away by making a silly mistake like forgetting to read the question.

Another mistake to avoid is being unclear in your answers. Organic chemistry exams often include questions that require some explanation , and graders — alas! — are not mind readers. Make sure that you have explained every portion of the question clearly. Put yourself in the shoes of the grader and think, “Would I understand what I’m saying here?” Don’t leave anything to subtext. You’ll have a hard time trying to win back points on a regrade when your explanation to your professor starts with the words, “But what I meant was. . . .” Make your answer clear.

Have confidence in yourself and your abilities. Try to avoid second-guessing yourself on every question. Also, never leave a question blank. Many professors give out partial credit (and sometimes even “pity points” if you just make a stab at a question), so it can’t hurt to at least make an educated guess.

Work the problems

This point can’t be overemphasized. You can’t do well in organic chemistry unless you work the problems. So, work the problems! Work the problems! Work the problems!

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