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How John Pulled Up His Organic Chemistry Exam Grades

The other week, loyal reader “John” (not his real name) wrote in to tell me how he had pulled up his exam grade in organic chemistry from a 44% on the first midterm to a 90% on the second midterm. I asked him through email to explain the study techniques he used in a little more detail.

Tell me what happened. 

 I got your e-mail about figuring out how to make O.Chem easier.  I went from a 44% to a 90%.  I spent hours studying when I made that 44%, but I changed my process. I think its all about the process and then putting the time.

OK! What were some of the key aspects of your study strategy for organic chemistry. 

Firstly, consistency is key. I think it is possible to be as happy as a clam in O.Chem if you are consistent. This is the hardest part for me.

I really do well when I follow these 3 steps:

#1 – Read the book and try problems before class

#2 – Actively participate in class (which is easy to do since I should have LOADS of questions from step #1)

#3 – Consistently do practice problems. Go to professor for help. Watch youtube videos. Study in a group (this is really helpful! It forces you to explain yourself and gives you new perspectives on things). And also use “Organic Chemistry as a Second Language” <– this book makes O.Chem feel like a cake walk!! These are my keys to success.

But consistency is key. That, I feel, is the HARDEST part about O.Chem. How to stay consistent is a whole ‘nother topic. And I don’t even really get it. Also, confidence is necessary. Confidence that you know what you are doing, even if you feel like you don’t. Confidence that this will eventually make sense. Not being deterred or discouraged when you feel like “WHAT THE EFF IS GOING ON???!!!!” Just accepting confusion as a part of the learning process, period.

How much time per week did you devote to studying? 

Well, I went from 44% on an exam to 90% on an exam. I studied about 2 hours a day. If I skipped a day, then of course, I must study more. Now, I will admit, I think I am a bright person. So /maybe/ it is easier for me to understand things. But I also have reading disability and ADD. So whatever natural gift I have is balanced out by such limitations.

What source do you use for practice problems? Are they provided from your instructor or from the textbook? 

Yes, practice problems in the textbook. Our teacher assigns homework which is optional, but IMO if you want to do well, the homework is not optional. Our textbook is Org. Chem by David R. Klein. Also, he has a book called “Org. Chem as a Second Language” which is IMMENSELY helpful. I highly, highly recommend it to any org. chem student. I haven’t checked out any other supplemental O. Chem book (like o.chem for dummies), but doing the practice problems in this book was amazing for my understanding. So I am doing practice problems from both the textbook and my supplemental book.

Do you use online videos at all?

I use Khanacademy on youtube just because I am used to him (I was a math major and he has the best math videos on the web). My peers really like freelanceteacher‘s videos.

Where you do find you do your best studying? 

When I study alone, its usually at home. Its terrible. There are quite a number of distractions. Subtle things. You’re room’s messy so subconsciously, you’re wondering when you can clean it. Your house has a fridge and you’re a bit hungry so you start wondering about when you’ll go eat. Things like that. And of course, internet!

Sometimes I study in those cubicles at the library. The kind that literally force you to focus because you can’t look at anything else. I used to hate them. I felt trapped. But now, I value my grades and my time so much that they are becoming my best friend and I study there as often as I can. I WANT to be trapped.

 Pomodoro technique is what I use when I find I am procrastinating too much. You focus for 25 minutes then take a 5 minute break. And sometimes I can get away with my break being an online thing… but I usually can’t. It usually triggers uber-procrastination. So the 5 minutes has to be not computer related.

What’s your motivation for doing well in organic chemistry?

I’m applying to a Masters of Nutrition program that starts in Fall 2012.  If I am accepted, O.chem is one of 6 courses I must have completed. I cannot fail!…  So I can be competitive with other schools, I need to make an A! Nutrition is my passion & part of the ultimate career I want to build for myself and I am really tired of … not doing it. So I have quite a lot of drive to do well in O.chem.

Anything else to say to prospective students?

Viewing O.chem like a beautiful work of art. You need to be able to see the whole picture. I don’t know how to explain it. Being able to zoom in and zoom out as needed seems helpful.

I know how to ENSURE you fail O.chem. I had a friend who just dropped the class yesterday.  We both studied the same way for the first test. We weren’t consistent in study. We didn’t do as many practice problems as we could. We were just trying to memorize different concepts. We both failed. Then I realized that O.chem is about the big picture. I can’t just pick and choose what to focus on. Everything can be tested and everything is useful to understanding 1 problem. So I started doing what I listed above. My friend didn’t. I told him “Look, if we study the same way we studied last time, we are going to FAIL.” He failed. I made a 90. I sent him a text “Consider dropping this course. If you don’t change how you study, I guarantee you are going to fail this course. Period.” And he came to the realization I was right and dropped it!

Thanks, John, for taking the time to answer these questions. 

Want to share your experience with organic chemistry, good or bad, so that others can learn from it? Write me at james at, or use the “Feedback” link above. Confidentiality guaranteed. 

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