How To Get an A (or just pass) Organic Chemistry

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“I feel like I have a brain roadblock where things just don’t click.”

“My mind is turning to mush”

“Organic chemistry is too depressing”

These are just a few quotes that I pulled off of Reddit today before I started writing this article.  Let’s face it, organic chemistry is tough.  But more troubling is the number of students that become discouraged.  However tough organic chemistry may be, it is not impossible.  And more than that, it can be rewarding insomuch as it could be a giant course in your career path or could make or break your medical school application. 

So if organic chemistry is important, then how can we make it easier to learn and study for?  The easiest answer is to ask the men and women who teach it on a daily basis.  Surprisingly enough, I searched and searched and could not find any comprehensive guide or survey of what professors thought the best way to study is.  So we did it ourselves.

We asked a bunch of organic chemistry professors a bunch of questions about their students, the course and the most effective ways to study.  We compiled all of the results and were a bit surprised at some of the responses.

First, the bad news: The professors we surveyed advised us that on average greater than 40% of their students want to go to medical school.  This can be challenging for a number of reasons.  Aside from the fact that pre-meds have the reputation (deservedly or not) of being neurotic cut-throat curve-wreckers, some professors make organic chem a “weed em’ out” class to get rid of anyone from the pre-med program that isn’t going to make it.  Unfortunately, this could mean that you get caught in the weeding out. 

More bad news: 77% of the professors told us that students need to study for their class more than eight hours per week, and almost 50% said it needs to be more than 10 hours per week. That is a lot of time to spend on one course.  Moreover, 10 hours per week is if it clicks with you.  If the material does not come naturally to you, it will take even more than just 10 hours per week. 

These two factors come together and result in almost 25% of students not completing first semester and moving to organic II.
Now for some good news: Over 70% of the professors in our survey said that studying outside of class is the most important thing a student can do to succeed.  Surprisingly, this is far greater than the 23% that said making it to lecture every time was more important than outside study.  So if studying outside of class is important, what or how should a student study?

PRACTICE EXAMS ARE THE KEY!  The #1 answer to that question is practice exams.  Almost 90% of the professors we surveyed said this was the best and most efficient way to study for o-chem.  This was an overwhelming majority.  Professors lumped practice exams into larger category of practice problems, which they told us are something students should spend a lot of their study time on.  We like a couple of resources for finding applicable practice exams.  First, is your professor’s own course website, where they tend to post old exams for studying.  This is nice because not only are they easy to find, but students can also get a good idea of the topics their professor likes and how she might ask questions.  Moreover, professors can sometimes be lazy and reuse questions, which means you will have a jump on that problems because you will have already seen in on a practice exam.  We also like the free test bank found at as it has over 50 exams (many with answers) classified by difficulty and semester.

LEARN LOTSA MECHANISMS. The second most popular way among our professors for studying is by learning as many reaction mechanisms as you can.  This will not allow help you to learn the reaction itself by seeing it again, but it will reinforce why the reaction works, which will assist you if you have to figure out a reaction or mechanism you might have never seen before.  There are a couple of ways we suggest learning mechanism, including Amazon books on the topic (our favs are Pushing Arrows, Ace Organic Chemistry Mechanisms with EASE, and The Art of Writing Reasonable Organic Chemistry Mechanisms (Advanced), all available on Amazon and internet resources found by Googling “Organic Chemistry Mechanisms”.

We created a website with everything profs said you should study.
  The site is called AceOrganicChem Elite, learn more here.

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. The third most popular way to study, according to our professors, is by watching video.  We observe that there are three types of org chem videos on the web.  The first are full lectures, in which a full semester of videos can be 30-50 hours long.  These are usually webcasts of a professor’s entire semesters lectures, put into podcast form and available to anyone.  iTunes or a university website are the best places to find these.  The second type of summary videos, which can be anywhere from 6-14 hours in total length to cover a semester.  These are nice because they condense the material and are a bit easier to digest, but still cover all of the major topics. YouTube, iTunes, or organic chemistry help websites are a great place to find these.  Finally, specific topic videos are the third type of video you will find.  These are 10-25 minutes long and focus on specific topics or reactions in organic chemistry.  These are nice for students who are doing pretty well in the class but might be struggling with a specific area or reaction.  You Tube is a great place to start looking for these. 

Professors were very certain about what not to study. Almost every professor we surveyed said that students should not just sit down and read the textbook again. They felt this was just not productive and that there were better ways to study than reading a textbook that you should have already seen once during your lecture.

One of the great questions in organic chemistry (and in any science course) is what to memorize and what to learn.  Which is the better method for getting a good grade?  We asked our professors to rate topics on whether they should be memorized and learned on a scale of 1 to 5.  A score of 1 meant the topic should only be memorized.  A score of 5 meant the topic should be strictly learned and the underlying concepts understood with no memorization and a score of 3 meant that the best way to learn it was through a mixture of concept understanding and memorization.  We then took all of the professor's scores, averaged them and charted the results.

memoreize organic chemistry

We grouped the results of this question into three groups.  The first group was nomenclature, biologicla chem, and spectroscopy, which had scores between 2.5 and 3.6.  We took this to mean that professors felt you could learn the material through a mixture of understanding the concepts and memorization.   The next group included conformations of molecules and organic chemistry reactions, and had scores of 4.1 and 3.9, repsectively.  We felt this meant professors wanted students to mostly understand the underlying concepts, but some small amounts of memorization to help.  The last category had acid/base chemistry, mechanisms, and resonance, and scored between 4.4 and 4.6. We felt this meant professors felt you definitely needed to learn and understand these topics with little memorization.  In totally, I think it is pretty clear from this that professors think you need to learn and understand most concepts in organic chemistry, with very little memorization.

We also asked professors what the best resource on the web was for their students.  Surprisingly, the two most popular answers were "my website" and "nothing", which said to us that professors are really partial to their own website and not much else more.  

Finally, we asked professors which accessories they liked best.  By far, a majority said modeling kits were a great study aide because they allow students to better visualize molecular structure and reactions.  We have created a high-quality model kit with a 2-hour DVD to show you all of the tricks to learning with it.  Just click here to learn more about it.

There you have it. An exhaustive survey on the best ways to really crush this course.  Remember, it is NOT impossible.  You can do this.   

We created a website with everything profs said you should study.
  The site is called AceOrganicChem Elite, learn more here.

Learn More about Elite



organic chemistry professor survey