Success Stories: How Nathan Aced Organic Chemistry (Without It Taking Over His Life)

by James

in Organic Chem Study Tips

Loyal reader “Nathan” (not his real name) sent in this note recently on how he managed to do well in organic chemistry without it having a detrimental impact on the rest of his schedule:

 I feel that I have been able to do very well in OChem without having it affect my other classes too much. It took a while to get into the swing of the things especially since it is so different from any class that I’ve taken – especially GenChem.

So I invited Nathan to share his advice on taking organic chemistry with the audience here. Take it away, Nathan!


How I Got an A- in Organic Chemistry Without It Taking Over My Life

Some younger kids in my fraternity have lately been asking me what to expect when they take it, and I can list a few of the things I tell them here.

Tip #1: OChem is NOT straight memorization.

It may seem like it, especially in first semester, but it really isn’t. Obviously there IS a great deal of memorization, but to do well, you need to be able to apply what you’ve learned to novel situations. You’d be surprised how lost you could really feel given a synthesis problem if all you had been doing was learning basic reactions. I like to make note cards (aside from my review notebook that ill explain later) of every reaction I’ve learned in its most basic way. In other words, I just show the important stuff and use “R” groups for the less important stuff. I make three notecards per reaction: one omitting the starting material, one omitting the reactants (and solvents), and one omitting the product. This is the only brute force memorization I do in OChem. They help me learn what the actual reactions do and what I focus on especially for practicing and making up my own synthesis problems.

Tip #2.  Keep up with the readings in the book, but don’t necessarily read ahead too far.

Before I say why, let me first say that a major part of the studying and learning in this class for me is the composition of my review notebook. This is a 3-ring binder that I fill with notes from the chapters in the book. The pages consist of careful and neat notes on what was said in the book, complete with full arrow pushing mechanism, important notes and explanations, and everything else I found important to the readings. What I also do is mark REALLY important words or phrases or parts of pictures (such as pi-electrons to help in determining aromaticity for example). I also use a highlighter to mark the arrows in the mechanisms. When I fill the front and back of a loose-leaf paper, it goes in my binder after the last one, creating a chronological in-depth outline of the class material. Anyway, I say that you don’t want to read ahead to much because you might be going to specific or to broad at times. There are some topics in the book that are explained to a different degree than how my professors have explained them. Sometimes a mechanism will be shown in the book that the instructor later said in lecture that we didn’t need to know. Other times he showed us a mechanism that wasn’t explained at all in the book (this was the case for hydroboration of alkynes for me). To account for this and achieve the best review notes possible. I read the text book with my notes from lecture adjacent and constantly cross reference while i’m writing my review notebook. It may seem tedious but you’ll thank yourself in the end because, for one thing, you have everything you need to know for the exams in one place (which is important for me), and because the processes of cross referencing allows you to actually absorb the material without you really even knowing it!

Tip # 3.  Get in the habit of “what-if” thinking during readings and while studying.

If the text tells you that t-butoxide facilitates an E2 reaction over Sn2, KNOW WHY! This, for me is the MOST IMPORTANT part of getting through OChem. Knowing why something does what does is infinitely useful because it allows you to apply it to other situations. Take the extra time to understand why tertiary acids are more acidic in the gas phase as opposed to in solution, or WHY carbonyl carbons are so electrophillic for example. If you truly understand the theory and reasoning of what your being taught, you will be better able to apply it to other sections of OChem. And trust me, a big semantically connected way of thinking is better processed in the brain than processing small, seemingly disconnected topics. My professors have tended to ask questions that require critical thinking like this (a good example is one asking for me to draw an energy diagram of the reactant and two products formed using conjugated alkenes. This tested my ability to understand kinetic vs. thermodynamic products).

Tip #4Work in study groups, but take them with a grain of salt. Yes, study groups are good. but NO, you don’t always want to be in one at all times. [I have an excellent study partner.] We find that if we read and take notes in silence together, and only talk if we have specific questions, we get a lot done. Once we have finished all the reading, we then each make synthesis problems and have each other solve them. This is where the study group comes in. Aside from synth problems, we go through parts of the material that one of us don’t know well and then we go through the note cards with all the reactions together. We find this works very well. Another important aspect of doing well in OChem is doing the additional assignments. My professors has us do weekly online homework and recitation quizzes. Having a study buddy is good for those times where your other classes are bogging you down. There have been some occasions where I have done my homework and helped my buddy get through his fast so that he could study for a different class. He is able to use my answers as a guide to do his (our questions are sometimes different but conceptually similar) but I explain to him the reasoning for the answer. This allows him to get his homework done fast but still get a learning experience out of it. The point is is that a study buddy can help you get through an assignment faster but while still being an educational experience…this works for all types of classes and not just OChem!

These are some of the things I have been doing to help me do as well as possible in OChem. They have been working well for me, and I have developed a sincere passion for OChem without having it affect my other classes too much. More importantly though, I feel that studying in this way for OChem has helped my studying abilities in nearly all of my other classes. I hope this helps give you an idea of what some students are doing to study for OChem successfully!


Many thanks to Nathan for writing in with his best advice on succeeding in organic chemistry. Want to participate ? Send me an email at or use the “Feedback” button above. You can be as anonymous as you like.


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