How Helena Aced Organic Chemistry

by James

in Organic Chem Study Tips

How Helena Got 93 In Organic Chemistry

An Australian reader, Helena, recently wrote to say she’d earned a 93 in her organic chemistry class as part of her course requirements as a biology major.  Here’s how she described her background:

I’m a “mature age” student. The last time I studied chemistry was in high school twenty years ago. Going back to university was quite daunting and I can’t afford to fail subjects (mainly due to pride rather than financially).
My previous uni studies when I was straight out of school were all over the place since I had discovered the pub, attendance wasn’t mandatory, and oh I can just do the subject again next semester). (There was a saying back then…. 51% is a waste of effort, 49% is a waste of time).
I have since done other study including postgrad so it wasn’t like I wasn’t not capable… just lazy!

I asked Helena to share some of her tips for how she succeeded in her organic chemistry course.


MOC: What factors do you think were key to your success?

Helena: Number one: when a lecturer says “this is something important you should really know” highlight, circle, draw great big arrows next to it…. and then learn it, understand it!

Number two: I found that the exam questions were often the exact same question or a slight change (i.e. change a molecule here and there) from the previous years’ questions.

So I did every previous exam for the past 4 years – completed twice!

Number three: always go to all of the lectures in the last few weeks of semester, that’s usually when the content of the exam has been finalised and lecturers might give out some hints.

MOC: Any other advice for students in  organic chemistry? 

Helena: Read the subject syllabus.  Why? To know when assessments are due, and also to find out the learning objectives for each topic (why try and learn 100 functional groups if the lecturer lists the 20 they want you to know?)

  • Complete every single piece of assessment, no matter how small the weight of that assessment overall.
  • complete every tutorial question, and check against the answers.
  • Work equations and problems. Don’t just look over the notes and think, “yeah, I know that!” Do the problems again and again until they are easy.
  • I used flashcards for learning functional groups. I found doing them over and over again was the only way I could remember them.
  • Keep up! Or be slightly ahead. If you start to trail in your reading you might get overwhelmed with trying to catch up later.

MOC: Was there ever a time when you doubted your chances of getting a good grade?

Helena: Some days I sat in org class and thought the lecturer was speaking another language…… but I worked out the org chem language and started to love it!

In my final exam I struggled with one problem question in particular. It was early in the exam and I spent so much time on trying to get the answer. It was something I had practised and practised and I knew that I knew how to do it – that was the most frustrating part – but it was just not coming together for me.
I was getting extremely stressed and started to think I knew nothing, I was going to fail the exam. Eventually I thought to myself, ok, I’ve spent too long on this question, I need to keep going, and I’ll come back to it if I have time, it isn’t worth the time I was spending on it mark wise to miss other questions I could answer easily , and…CALM DOWN.
[Also the exam was worth 60% of the total assessment, and I knew I only needed to pass the exam (50%) to get a pass overall, but still I stressed].

So… I finished the rest of the exam and came back to the problem question feeling more confident and knocked it over straight away.
I completed the exam about halfway through the allocated time and scored 91% for it (and 93% overall). Happy days.

After my first semester results I was asked to enter an honours program as a dean’s scholar which includes a small financial scholarship for next year.

MOC: Congratulations! What resources have you found helpful?

Helena: My subject was fairly basic compared to what others have described as it really was only an intro, and org was only 1/3 of the subject.
The resources I used from your blog were mainly

  • functional group (what they are and priorities)
  • study and exam tips
  • summary sheets
  • drawing molecules (though apparently my sister thinks drawing molecule structures is not as fascinating and exciting as I thought it was).
  • nomenclature (gosh – it starts out so simple and turns horrid quickly!)
  • chair/boat

and really it was just reading through all the blog, getting familiar with the language, referring back to class notes and the text. Even if the post wasn’t relevant to my course I still read and learned different things (ok there was some procrastinating going on occasionally), but often something I’d read would be mentioned in class as an aside and it just put things in perspective.

Thanks so much for this blog. I found it so useful, easy to read, and you have photos of cats. The humour and the informal style and tone is really good. It’s not a chore to read (like the text book often), and you make org far less intimidating. And there are cats.

This semester I am doing chem for life sciences so once again I’ll need to be referring to your blog (more steroism – therefore cats!).


Thanks to Helena for sharing her insights! 

Got an organic chemistry success story to share? We’d love to hear from you! It only takes a few minutes, and you can help inspire the next group of organic chemistry students.   

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