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How to Do Well in Organic Chemistry: One Student’s Advice

Over at Med School Odyssey, the author recently wrote about finishing Org 1, and has a lot to share about his experiences with the course. Here are some choice excerpts from that post, and from a few of his earlier posts.

1. Don’t believe the hype

Don’t let yourself get psyched out by the people around you whining about how difficult organic chemistry is.  I let myself get taken in by the horror stories around the first exam and did substantially worse on the first exam than I should have simply because I bought into the idea that it was tough and I was going to fail.  I learned a lot more about myself and self-confidence during the first few weeks than I did about chemistry.  If you’re surrounded by negative and pessimistic people, tell them to piss off – don’t get sucked into their game.  Prepare and study well – play your game, not theirs.

2. Focus on understanding, not memorization

I have no idea where people get the idea that organic chemistry is memorization.  I didn’t make a single notecard for the entire course – I don’t even know what you would even memorize.  Anyone that tells you organic chemistry requires gobs of memorization is seriously misinformed.

I agree with the sentiment here. I’d say that memorization is, overall, a poor strategy that is resorted to when people haven’t planned ahead sufficiently and have to cram the night before an exam. There are, however, certain aspects of the course that require memorization – like nomenclature terms, reagent names and acronmys, functional groups, and so on.   While some people indeed might have these terms wired in after a few weeks of the course, others might have to resort to flash cards or other memory-centered devices in order to retain the course material. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s coupled with a dedication toward understanding the deeper concepts.

3. A Physics Background Really Helps.

I’m convinced that a year of physics, even if only at a conceptual level (ie., without all the math), would make organic chemistry a lot easier.  Understanding transition states, activation energies, conformational changes, and a host of other things in organic chemistry would be a lot easier with an understanding of some basic physics.  My advice to organic chemistry students that want to really stack the deck in their favor: wait until you’ve had the entire physics sequence before taking organic chemistry.

If you’ve glanced at the “From Gen Chem to Organic Chem” series I put together this summer, one thing you’ll notice is just how much physics lies behind a lot of organic chemistry phenomena. In particular, a good understanding of electrostatics will make a huge difference. In addition, familiarity with the basics of  thermodynamics, equilibria,  and kinetics will be invaluable when trying to grasp the topics you encounter in Org 1.

4. Good Study Habits Are Key

Two good quotes here. Quote #1:

This was the primary reason I saw people fail organic chemistry. It wasn’t intelligence. It wasn’t lack of memorization abilities. It wasn’t the teaching. It was their study habits.There was a group of about seven girls in the back of our class, the ‘Chatty Kathys’, that waited until the night before the homework was due to start on it and didn’t do any outside reading or problems on their own.  I doubt they failed, but they probably comprised the bulk of the C grades in the course.  Organic isn’t hard, but that doesn’t mean you can just sit in lecture and expect to have the understanding and ability to solve problems to just leap inside your head.  Maybe that’s part of why medical schools scrutinize organic chemistry grades so much – it definitely reveals the quality of your study habits.

Quote #2:

I don’t know anyone for whom learning organic chemistry is easy. The top five students in my class probably spent 20 hours every week studying for the class. I would say that organic chemistry came somewhat easier for me, but it still required me to put in a huge amount of time.

No surprises here. Note that the good students still have to bust their butts to do well. There are no Val Kilmer in “Real Genius”-like stories of students walking into an exam unprepared and acing it. It doesn’t happen. It takes a lot of fricking work to do well.

5. The Bottom Line

The keys to success: be prepared, focus on understanding, work enough problems outside of class to learn the concepts – you’ll never learn the concepts unless you make mistakes on problems and learn from them – and stay caught up with the material.

Does this sound familiar? It sounds a lot like a lot of the collected advice professors give to their students on the first day of class – not to mention the advice students who just finished Org 1 would give themselves if they could go back in time to the beginning of the course.

In short, there’s no magic to doing well in the course. It involves discipline, putting in time consistently, doing problems, focusing on learning concepts, and staying on top of the material. If it sounds disappointing that there’s no magic formula for success, it should at least be comforting that doing well in the course is very possible for averagely gifted students who put in the time and study effectively.

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