Organic Chemistry Study Tips

By James Ashenhurst

Organic Chemistry Study Tips: Quick Wins

Last updated: February 21st, 2020 |

Sometimes I spend time on the SDN forums to see what premeds have to say about their organic chemistry woes. Last night while poking around, I found the following:

Organic Chemistry Has Violated Me Countless Times

I’m in week 2 of Organic Chemistry and I’m feeling SO discouraged. I was really good at Chemistry (and I know that Orgo and Chem don’t really relate) so I was hoping Orgo would be interesting since I like theory, but it’s not working out so well. It SERIOUSLY freaks me out. I can’t make Friday night plans without thinking how far I am in my Orgo reading…

My life has really been taken over by this class and Biology. I’m just feeling really discouraged.

HELP PLEASE. Anyone who survived this…..THING….share your wisdom! (I’m….serious……>=( ). Thanks!

After scrolling through about 20 different answers (more on that subject in a later post), I hastily scrawled the following (lightly edited).

“If you’re feeling really discouraged, maybe focus on some quick wins first.

Quick wins = fast things you can memorize NOW that will pay huge dividends later on in the course.

This is a tactic to just get your feet moving, then you can start worrying about the big stuff, like [solidifying your understanding of the concepts]. There’s a lot of big stuff, but you need to use the time at the beginning to get the small stuff down. Baby steps first.

Here’s some ideas for getting started, things that are within your control to do.

  1. Names of functional groups, for instance. There’s about 16. Get their names down. Be able to write them from memory, lone pairs included. When I say “hydroxyl” you should immediately be able to picture an OH group. This is straight memorization. You’ll use this for nomenclature at first, but it will become increasingly important as you get into reactions. [Edit: to start, I’d suggest  alkene, alkane, alcohol, carboxylic acid, ester, ether, amine, amide, benzene ring, alkyne, thiol. alkyl halide, ketone, aldehyde.]  For extra points, nitrile, imine, nitro, acid chloride, epoxide, anhydride, sulfide, disulfide.
  2. Electronegativities. This is key. Get the order straight, because electronegativity plays a huge role in all the chemistry you’re going to learn. A workable mnemonic is the following: F,O,N (Phone) Cl (call), Br (bro!), C, S, I (CSI is on), P, H (please hold).
  3. Look at your functional group table. Using a table of electronegativity values, which bonds are polarized? Which atoms are going to be partially positive and which will be partially negative? This is a BIG DEAL, this [largely] determines the behavior of these groups – their acidity, basicity, nucleophilicity and electrophilicity (worry about those two terms later).Chemical reactions are all about negative charge going to positive charge. Nucleophile attacks electrophile. You’ll learn about this later as well.
  4. Look at your pKa table. Get the order straight. Strong acids have weak conjugate bases. Those weak conjugate bases iodide, bromide, chloride, sulfate, etc. – pay attention, they’re going to come up soon as “leaving groups” in a number of reactions. Again with your functional group table, you should be able to put the following acidities in order: amine, carboxylic acid, alcohol (or water), alkyne C-H, alkene, alkane. Maybe thiol if you’re feeling frisky. These are the basics, you can elaborate later. But pKa plays a huge role in reactivity.
  5. Terms and definitions. Go through chapter 1 and 2 of your textbook, look at the vocabulary at the end. You should know those terms from memory. Not verbatim, but be able to explain to someone what they are. Enlist your roommate or something. Involve someone else in your studying if at all possible. Your parents probably would love to hear from you, try explaining these concepts to them.
  6. Orbitals. Sigma bonding, pi bonding, s and p orbitals – learn them, know them, tattoo them on you somewhere. I plug Steven’s videos all the time  – here’s one specific to hybridization. His full website is 30-40 minutes on the hybridization/bonding videos should get you cleared up, they are crystal.
  7. Solidify your knowledge and find the gaps in understanding by doing problems. Act on closing the gaps.
  8. These points are the foundation that the later parts of the course will build on. Memorization of the things at the *beginning* part of the course is OK, people screw up when they try to memorize things near the end – all the reactions, for instance. That’s when books like Klein’s come in especially handy, in mastering the key concepts.

It is like a language. What you’re learning right now is vocab, the grammar comes later. Whatever way you can find to memorize – flashcards, writing things out, whatever – use it. You can make quizzes for free on and quizlet. Give these a shot, they’re useful. You’ll even find people who made these quizzes themselves.

Hope this helped. Best of luck – James”

Final thoughts:

  1. These are tactics for getting unstuck. Memorization of the course is a terrible strategy in the long term but in the beginning, you need to know the terms, and this requires some memory work.  Investing time in learning things like names and structures of functional groups has a great payoff, because they get used a countless number of times throughout the course. Later on, memorization starts to fail as a strategy because each successive fact will be less central to the course and therefore the time investment in memorization has a considerably lower payoff.
  2. These exercises can conveniently be broken down into small chunks, useful for periods where you may have a few spare minutes between classes or waiting in line somewhere. More on that later.


Comment section

4 thoughts on “Organic Chemistry Study Tips: Quick Wins

  1. Bro! CSI is on! LOL. This helped a lot thank you. “Quick wins” is a great concept I was just thinking this minutes before I came across this post!

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