I can’t count on one hand the number of times someone has told me organic chemistry is hard. Friends who have never taken the course, friends who have, professors, parents, random people on the internet.

Regardless, organic chemistry has a reputation for being a “difficult course,” but the best piece of advice I’ve ever received in regard to it (and many other “difficult course”) is that you cannot go into it expecting to hate it or expecting to do badly.

So here are some tips on how to succeed in organic chemistry. Although these tips were designed with this particular course in mind, they’re also widely applicable to … pretty much any challenging course you may find yourself taking.

1) Keep positive

Attitude about a subject has been shown in many many places to have a very real effect on actions, and this includes performance in school.

This is true from the first day of class onwards. If you go in expecting to hate it, you’re already halfway to actually hating it, and if you hate it, you’re not going to want to study, you’re not going to absorb information as well, you’re going to feel more stressed and overwhelmed, and in the end your marks are going to reflect your attitude on the course. That’s not to say if you hate it, you’ll fail and if you love it you’ll pass with flying colours, but attitude is the first step to success in any course.

It’s really important to forget about organic chemistry’s “difficult course” reputation, and come in with an open mind. But attitude is more than just having an open mind towards organic chemistry. It’s also about having confidence in yourself. You have to forget about any negative past experience you may have had with the course, or previous chemistry courses, and believe that you can still improve and do better. If something hasn’t clicked with you yet, you need to believe that eventually it will. If you think you have no chance of learning something, why would you ever want to try? If you believe you will learn it, you’re going to keep studying.

Attitude is also really important going into tests and exams. I know you never get to study as much as you may have wanted to, but you have studied, and you have learned something, so focus on the things you do know, as opposed to the things you may not. If you did poorly on a previous assessment, you can’t think that that means you’re going to do poorly on the next one. Focus on all the things you’ve learned since then, all the things you understand better, and the things you’ve learned from the mistakes you’ve made.

2) Stay organized

One of the things I found the most challenging about organic chemistry was how many similar things there are to learn, and having to differentiate between them. Stereochemistry, stereospecificity, stereoselectivity, there are so many similar concepts and many things you need to know about many different reaction types. It can get very overwhelming.

So summarize your notes. Go through them and pull out the key details and write them down in a chart for easy access and comparison. For reactions, write down the reactants and the products and any key stereochemistry features you need to know. For example, SN2 reactions have inversion of stereochemistry, whereas SN1 reactions have racemization at the reacting carbon. When you write down these key features, they’re useful for reminding you of what a reaction entails and it gives you a quick way to check your work.

Don’t worry if in a lecture your professor seems to be 5 topics ahead of what you know. This has happened to me before, especially right after midterms when you might slack off for a bit, but keep trying to follow along, and eventually you will get there. Go through your previous notes, organizing them, and you’ll figure out where this new piece fits in.

As well, don’t be afraid to ask questions! If there’s something you don’t understand or can’t find an answer to in your notes, consider taking a moment to talk to your professor or TA and look into office hours, tutorials, or study sessions. There’s typically many ways and many places to find help if you need it. As well, there are many online resources, including Minute School’s organic chemistry course and digital textbooks that can help you out.

3) Practice!

Practicing is truly one of the best ways to study organic chemistry. A lot what you learn is “rules”  and procedures about how chemicals behave, and usually you’re tested on if you can apply these rules and procedures to real reactions. Practice is how you learn how to apply these rules, and to make sure you understand them.

The more you practice the more you will learn. There will always be some sort of “weird” case you don’t know how to solve, and it’s better to find it before an exam then on it.

As well, practicing gives you an idea of how well you’re truly understanding what your learning. If you find you’re struggling with practice problems then 1) you’re learning something from this 2) it gives you an opportunity to identify what you don’t understand, and seek help and other resources.

Minute School’s organic chemistry course combines practice questions with lessons you can use to gain additional clarity, but there are many other ways and places you can find help.

Do all the problems you’re assigned (or all you feel you need to do), redo questions you’ve got wrong, and try to avoid using your notes.

Many organic chemistry courses allow you to use a molecular model kit for tests and exams. If you’re allowed to and you have one, bring it to the exam. You may never use it, but it may help you to understand the stereochemistry of a question you’re really struggling with. If you are allowed a model kit, practice with it as well. Learning how to get the most out of it will really help you if you need it on the exam.

Even if you’re not allowed to use it on your exam, it’s still a really good resource to help work out hard problems, and improve your understanding. Visualizing molecules really really helps make sense of them, and why reactions may work the way they do. Studying should be about improving your understanding, not just about testing your abilities, and using a model kit is a great way to make sense of complicated concepts.

Overall, advice that applies for any other class you’ve taken also applies to organic chemistry, but I think the most important things you need to remember are to stay organized and stay positive that things will work out the way you want them to.

Good luck with your organic chemistry endeavours! You can do this!


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