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Gen Chem and Organic Chem: How are they different?

After finishing my freshman year of college, I spent my summer in the university town where I went to school. I had a menial telemarketing job along with some volunteer lab work on the side. Life was pretty easy: many of my friends had also decided to hang around, and there was lots of time for parties, TV,  and evenings spent on patios. However, sometime around early July, I started getting this nagging, anxious feeling about the coming semester. I had heard so many second and third-hand stories about the Dreaded Orgo Beast and how it was going to start devouring my life come September. Out of fear, I decided to buy a used textbook off a friend and start going through it at a leisurely pace throughout the following two months.

Many years have passed since then, but fear of the Beast still lives.  During the summer, I see these types of questions come up a lot:

1) Is Orgo Hard?

2) How is Organic Chemistry different from Gen Chem?

3) If I want to get ahead in organic chemistry over the summer, what should I do?

Let’s focus on the second question for now.

Gen Chem and Organic Chem: How are they different?

As you are probably aware, organic chemistry is the study of carbon-containing compounds, but if you haven’t taken the course yet, it won’t be a very helpful distinction. Looking at it from a big-picture perspective, I’d say the one tremendous difference you’ll find in organic chemistry is that it is very qualitative. Whereas gen chem has a large number of formulae and calculations to do, organic chemistry is notable in the absence of a lot of calculation work. You could easily write out all the formulae you would ever use in Org1/Org2 on the back of one hand.

Here are some of the types of questions you will typically not encounter in organic chemistry:

  1. calculating thermodynamic enthalpies/entropies
  2. electrochemical calculations
  3. calculating pH using the Henderson-Hasselhoff Hasselbach equation
  4. Ideal gas law questions
  5. rate constant calculations
  6. calculating equilibrium constants.

Before you say, “Hooray!” too loudly, a word of warning: in organic chemistry your professors will assume that you understand this stuff, and you can calculate it if you really have to. They will expect that you understand these topics on a conceptual level. What does that mean? It means you should be able to intuitively understand things like:

That’s what I mean by a qualitative understanding. Feel comfortable answering those types of questions? If yes, you’re probably set. If not, here’s the plan at “Master Organic Chemistry” for the next few weeks.

“How Gen Chem ties into O-Chem”

There are really six main areas in general chemistry that come back again in organic chemistry. Over the next while I’ll be focusing each of these six topics in turn, and demonstrating how the concepts you learned in Gen Chem will become relevant to what you’re going to learn in Organic Chem come this fall.[Edit: I’ll be doing a post in this series every Monday for the next 6-8 weeks]

  1. Atomic properties
  2. Bonding
  3. Thermodynamics.
  4. Kinetics.
  5. Acids and bases.
  6. Equilibria.

Topics such as electrochemistry, ideal gases, molality, phase diagrams and so forth don’t really make much of an appearance in Org1/Org2. Which isn’t to say they aren’t important to organic chemistry – they can be – they just don’t come up much in the course.

As always, I’d be thrilled to hear any comments/suggestions.

Stay tuned!

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