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6 Tips for Passing Organic Chemistry

Melanie has a BS in physical science and is in grad school for analytics and modeling. She also runs a YouTube channel: The Curious Coder.


How to Pass Organic Chemistry

Making it through organic chemistry is no easy task! I didn't make it through the first time: I was extremely sick and I had the wrong mentality—so I regrouped, retook it and did so well that now I'm one of the rare weirdos that actually likes ochem.

I realized that I had to really dedicate a hugely significant portion of my time to the course, put side projects on the back burner and approach the course differently than I did other courses. Here are the techniques and resources I used the second time around that got me through.

1. Form a Study Group

A lot of students get tutoring and I can see this being really helpful, but what really helped me was a study group. Organic chemistry was the first time I utilized a study group for more than, "For question #6, was your answer 42 as well?"

We would literally take turns "teaching" the rest of the group. While the student was teaching a reaction mechanism, we would ask questions to:

  1. Clarify something we had trouble understanding
  2. To (nicely) point out a flaw in their explanation
  3. Quiz the student who was teaching

I'd say that the study group was, hands down, what got me through the second semester. Having that accountability and the chance to understand something from a different perspective was an amazing way to learn.

Being able to manipulate 3D structures of molecules helped me better understand stereochemistry.

Being able to manipulate 3D structures of molecules helped me better understand stereochemistry.

2. Buy a Molecular Modeling Kit

I had a hard time understanding what stereochemistry even was before I took out a molymod kit. I ended up getting the kit within the first few weeks of the semester and it proved incredibly helpful in visualizing 3-dimensional structures like chairs conformations and Newman projections.

The molymod kit obviously wasn't allowed to be out during exam, but it really helped me understand how atoms were connected in a Newman projection. Soon enough, I was able to convert Newman projections to skeletal structures fairly easily.

My molecular modeling kit also helped me memorize whether a certain hydrogen was axial (or equatorial) up or down on cyclohexane chairs. This helped me at exam time in determining what was a high or low energy structure on something with substituents attached.

Pick out a molymod kit with as many Carbons as you can find (without spending too much). Six carbons should be your absolute minimum.

You CANNOT go wrong with a molymod kit! They're especially great for understand stereoisomers and SN2 reactions!

You CANNOT go wrong with a molymod kit! They're especially great for understand stereoisomers and SN2 reactions!

3. Watch Tutorial Videos

There are so many organic chemistry tutorial videos freely available on the Internet. I personally like the organic chemistry tutorials over at Khan Academy, because he explains why things work the way they do. His videos happened to go in the same order as my course which I found helpful as well.

Some people don't like Sal Kahn's approach and find others on YouTube to be more helpful. My point is that you need to do you. Find someone on YouTube or wherever that uses a teaching style that jives with the way you learn.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice: Problems Sets & Review Guides

I'm not joking. We went over problem sets for hours in our study group and when I went home I did more practice problems!

Go over pertinent problems in your book. The end of each chapter should have problems. Once you do enough problems, you may even be able to invent your own (this is a seriously good sign.) Learning nomenclature and have a structure name down pat? Add a bromine somewhere. Name it. Add a methyl. Name it.

When it comes to review guides, my professor recommended Organic Chemistry as a Second Language. At first, I thought, "Okay lady, you want me to buy the textbook, come to lecture, and then read some other side books? You're out of your mind."

The books are amazing. When I was a TA for organic, I even gave students pages to go over. They are that good. These books helped me totally "get" organic chemistry. The books cut to the chase and very nicely explain concepts.

There is one for orgo 1 and for orgo 2 and they're both awesome.

Our study group got a REALLY in-depth understanding of mechanisms in second semester!

Our study group got a REALLY in-depth understanding of mechanisms in second semester!

5. Ask Your Professor Questions

Asking questions in class is important to clarify information. That's obvious. However, if you don't ask questions when you need to, the next thing you know, you're so lost that you don't even know what to ask! Don't worry about sounding dumb! If it's a dumb question, life goes on, but chances are there's another student in the class who has the same question. Furthermore, your question can give students a perspective on the topic they otherwise may not get. You're benefiting everyone by asking questions.

Attend your professor's office hours and ask questions or for clarification on your work. This way, you build a rapport with your professor and your professor can better gauge where the class stands.


6. Maintain Your Sense of Humor

Last but not least, you'll need a sense of humor. You have to be able to laugh at your mistakes. I panicked during an exam and drew an awful Lewis structure out of panic and I lost a lot of points. It was unfortunate, but I can't hate myself for it.

When things get tough, learn to step away from Organic and realize, "This is just a class."

I hope the above tips help you succeed in your Ochem courses and that you come out enjoying the subject. In the meantime, here are some chemistry jokes to lighten the mood!

© 2017 Melanie Palen


Alisha on January 16, 2017:

I cannot thank you enough for this! I am about to start my post-bacc in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, so I can start my journey to Medical School (*fingers crossed*). So this will help so much!