How Serge Aced Organic Chemistry

by James

in Organic Chem Study Tips

Over the past few weeks I’ve been corresponding with loyal reader Serge, who was happy to report to me recently that his exam grades are back and he got a 92% in his course, despite a first exam that was below the class average. He made up for it by handily beating the average on the second and third tests and then scoring a 90% on the final.

I asked Serge to describe his strategy for doing well in organic chemistry, and this is what he had to say:


How I Got An A In Organic Chemistry, by “Serge”

In terms of tips/advice for students about to embark on the awesomeness that is organic chemistry, I have a few.

1. I would recommend for everyone to really build a solid foundation in those first few weeks of class. Topics like resonance, bond line drawing, nomenclature, acids/bases, nucleophilicity vs basicity and why the nucleophile attacks the electrophile are vital for success in this course. It might not be obvious as to why you need to know why something is stabilized by resonance but that topic and the underlying principles behind it permeate into every future topic in the course.

2. Another thing to keep in mind is that every instructor will have a different method/structure to their exams. If you can get your hands on an old exam or if your instructor puts up practice exams (usually just old exams) it will help familiarize yourself with the format and difficulty so you’ll know what to expect.

3. Do the homework if you have any. Most people bleed points during the exams, there is no reason that you should not have a 100% on your homework grade no matter how long it takes. It’s simply easy points and decent practice material.

4. Skim the textbook – this depends on the instructor but personally I rarely ever used my textbook except for practice problems. The lecture will generally introduce you to the principles and a quick reading of the corresponding textbook chapters will help solidify that understanding. This is not biology, you don’t need to memorize every single word in your incredibly dense book (unless you want to for fun?).

5. I don’t like to think of Orgo as strictly conceptual or strictly memorization. It’s a solid blend of both. You might know why an aromatic nucleophilic substitution reaction occurs, but when it comes to translating your understanding into a practical mechanism then you’ll be out of luck. Also if you just memorize the reactions/mechanisms then what will you say when your professor asks WHY one reaction is favored over another? “Oh, because this arrow should point here because that’s how it is in the lecture notes.” is not a good answer. – Plus that won’t really work when the professor introduces new substituents/reagents and you have to not only understand what each one does, but how the reaction/mechanism proceeds and under which conditions.

6. Flash cards! Awesome for helping you memorize specific reactions or for providing more broad examples of say E1 vs E2 vs SN1 vs SN2. You don’t want to be drawing a free-radical halogenation mechanism for say epoxidation (which requires a pericyclic mechanism).

7.  PRACTICE PROBLEMS – Absolutely 100% necessary in order to do well in this course. You can learn all the theory behind football and have the understanding of an NFL player. The moment you’re out in that field you will have no idea what to do. Organic Chemistry is the same. Learn the concepts but really emphasize practicing. I’d say about a 25/75 concept:practice ratio should be good. If you can find a good study partner try to challenge each other with writing mechanisms/filling in reagents to random synthesis problems. IE how can I start with an alkane and eventually get this crazy looking aromatic ring as the final product? Challenge yourself now and the exam will become easy.

8. DONT FALL BEHIND. You’ve heard this many times, but everything in organic chemistry is dependent upon what you previously learned. I found this out the hard way by ignoring a minor topic in the first few weeks of class and boom, what do I know? It’s there on my final staring point blank at me. If you fall behind then it will be very difficult to catch up without dedicating 8+ hours daily to orgo. It’s also a vicious cycle because as you just caught up on say substitution, the class is already learning about addition reactions. Save yourself the headache, stay on top of your work, there is no room for mistakes – if you don’t understand a concept seek help but do not just skip it. Make sure you understand everything that is presented to you as it will show up in later parts of the course.

9.  Aside from the course I found the material on to be very useful, the reaction guide was truly a godsend and the summary sheets make topics that we spend over a week on in class, understandable within the span of a few hours (with practice). Plus I really liked the books organic chemistry I & II as a second language, they provide enough practice problems to give you a healthy understanding of the major topics in orgo.

10. I think that there’s too much stigma associated with orgo. There’s definitely a psychological factor associated with it. If you have a group of friends in the class then I suggest distancing yourself from them, I’ve noticed that this group tends to complain about how unfair the material is and how difficult the course is in general – to the point that you start believing it. Do yourself a favor, go into orgo with the mentality that you get out of it what you put in. That group of students will continue to cry and moan throughout the semester, some of them will fail or drop the course, but your performance is not dependent on them. Just put in the hours, learn the material, practice the problems and there’s no reason for you to be getting the poor grades that they are getting.


Thanks Serge – if you compare what Serge says to the advice that professors give their students, they agree on the main points. There isn’t magic to it – it’s a lot of work, but it’s doable. Also note that a lot of the advice here is not dissimilar to those of other students who have aced organic chemistry.

Three years into this blog I have yet to find someone who truly fits the Zen Valedictorian model of Cal Newport. Maybe they’re out there, but I’m still looking.

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