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By James Ashenhurst

The Best Way To Spend Your First Two Weeks In Organic Chem

Last updated: December 1st, 2015

Machu Picchu (Peru)
Machu Picchu (credit: Wikipedia)


Advice on some topics on the internet can be so laughably bad. One example that immediately comes to mind is finding a job. How many times have you heard people say the same old tired advice –  “Network!” “Update your resume!” “Use social media!” 


Another, I’m sorry to say, is organic chemistry. Here’s a recent example of a question from r/chemistry


“I’m an undergrad and need to take Organic Chemistry as one of the pre-requisites. I have a few weeks to prepare. I’m wondering what concepts I should brush up on/be strong in so I can be ready to hit the ground running and not get overwhelmed.”


Here’s some of the sage advice that was offered:

  • Just start reading your textbook
  • Get yourself a physical molecule set, and use it. 
  • Read every day and PRACTICE your mechanisms. 

What’s wrong with that, you might ask? Aren’t these all good things to do?

Yes, of course they are. But it’s lazy advice.  One of the most common problems a beginner in any field has is overwhelm. “Where do I start?” is one of the most common questions I get around this time of year.

“Just read the textbook” is not specific enough advice for someone in this situation.

It’s possible to craft a 100x more useful answer with only a few minutes work. 

See, taking an organic chemistry course is like climbing up Machu Picchu. There’s a well-worn path to the top, and with few exceptions, everybody takes it. Across the country, organic chemistry courses follow a very similar progression of chapters/concepts, and you just need to stay on the path and keep climbing.  In the first 2 or 3 weeks, no matter what college or university you are studying at,  expect to see the following topics: chemical bonding, dipoles, intermolecular forces, resonance and acid-base chemistry

With that in mind, here is a list of specific skills to acquire and concepts to learn for the first few weeks. 

  • be able to convert line diagrams to full structural formulas in your sleep (and vice versa) with no mistakes. Account for all “hidden” H atoms and lone pairs.  Interpreting line diagrams is a lynchpin skill.
  • Learn the basics of chemical bonding (sigma and pi). Be able to recognize which atoms are sp3, sp2, and sp hybridized. 
  • Learn how to calculate formal charge, and to use electronegativity to spot electron rich and electron poor areas of a molecule (“dipoles”). This will be essential for learning reactions later. 
  • Learn about the 4 intermolecular forces (ionic, H-bonding, dipole-dipole, dispersion] – which are largely a consequence of “dipoles”, see above – and be able to identify which forces operate in the various functional groups. Then apply these principles to understand trends in boiling points. 
  • Learn the principles of acid-base chemistry and what makes some molecules strong acids and others, not – Like in these videos
  •  Learn to be able to convert resonance forms between each other and what factors make some resonance forms more stable than others. These videos might help

I can say that there is a very strong likelihood that these exact skills will be tested on your first midterm. And after that, it will be assumed that you understand these skills, because the entire rest of Org 1 and Org 2 is built on them. 


So now, instead of one, vague task “preparing for orgo” – there are now 6 specific study goals: line drawings, bonding, charge/dipoles, intermolecular forces, acid-base, and resonance. 


Divide and conquer. 


You can’t prepare for organic chemistry in a day. But if you spend a day or two on each of these topics, for an hour or two per day, by the end of the two weeks you’ll be in good shape. 


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