Organic Chemistry Study Tips

By James Ashenhurst

How to Succeed In Orgo: Collected Advice

Last updated: July 8th, 2023 |

The course syllabus is that sheet of paper you get on the first day of class that explains what the grading scheme is, the course content, contact information for the instructor, and so on. For most courses this is pretty standard. What makes organic chemistry course syllabi distinctive is that they are often accompanied by a short expository essay from the instructor, entitled something like “Advice on How to Do Well in Organic Chemistry”. It starts with “No doubt you have heard horror stories about this course…” and goes from there.

Depending on how many times the instructor in question has seen students make a particular type of mistake, a considerable proportion of the essay may be written in BLOCK CAPITALS. The reason, of course, is that many of these instructors have seen students make the same mistakes  year after year and are trying to emphasize their importance.

I actively search for and collect these types of essays. I thought it would be worthwhile to go through as many of these as I could find and summarize the collected advice. What are the patterns? What are the most common words of advice from instructors in the trenches, who’ve had experience with thousands upon thousands of students over the years?

For the 25 “How to do well in organic chemistry” essays that I’ve looked through, here’s the breakdown of the most common words of wisdom:


Most common advice on “What to do”:

1. Do problems (22). No other area of advice was stressed as much or had a higher BLOCK CAPITAL FACTOR (BCF) than the advice to “do problems.” This shouldn’t be surprising: this is what is tested for in your midterms and exams.

Some of the quotes:

  • “It is only through working problems that you can evaluate your progress and see if you understand the course principles through application of these principles in problem solving”.
  • “The only way to learn the material is do work problems“. (ref)
  • “Working problems is the best way to master the material… there are no shortcuts to learning organic chemistry” (ref).
  • “the vast majority of your time should be spent working on textbook problems” (ref).

2. Actively review the material. (17). This includes not only rewriting notes, but also other activities including writing and summarizing, such as making notecards/flashcards, concept maps, and visual summaries.

  • “practice drawing the chemical structures and writing the basic mechanisms over and over again.”
  • “You should constantly probe your understanding by asking (and answering) the question “why” in relation to all statements that you encounter. (ref)
  • “Having the material written out in front of you often provides clues to solutions that you might not see otherwise. So please! Trust me on this. Write, write, write. Honest!” (ref)
  • “The most important thing to to is put your pencil to paper”. (ref)

3. Study partners. (15). The advice on study partners was more split.

  • “you’ll be astonished at the insight that you gain when you have to explain something to others” (ref)
  • “Teaching each other is an ideal way to learn chemistry. However, do not allow these study sessions to turn into pizza parties and gossip sessions. Group study sessions should be all business”. (ref)
  • “study in a group only if it is truly helpful… If your study partner is slowing you down or is going too fast for you, then get a new one quickly, this isn’t the time to worry about being a good friend!” (ref)

4. Get Help (11). This includes advice to seek out the professor, TA’s, or tutoring.  Representative quote:

  • “I am the most underutilized resource available to you. Change that! Use office hours and any other time the instructor makes available.” (ref)
  • “Don’t be intimidated from coming to ask me for help. It is my job to help you learn the material, and I want to do that job as well as I can. You’re paying for my services; use them”. (ref).

5. Read notes before class (9). Representative quote:

  • “If you know what to expect when you come to class you will absorb it much more easily”. (ref)
  • “If you read before, you will be more attentive in class and you will take better notes”. (ref)

6. Attend class. (9). Would you expect to hear ” I’ve basically been giving the same lectures since 1986,  skip it if you’ve got better things to do”? As Warren Buffett says, beware of asking the barber if you need a haircut.  Many did mention, however, some of the benefits of attending class (in addition to the threat of missing in-class quizzes). Not as many specific quotes, but  several mentioned that 1) it provides an opportunity to ask questions, as well as network with people in your class, 2) some people absorb information much better by listening as opposed to reading, and 3) it also provides an oasis of time in the day where you can place the course material as the single object of your focus  (assuming you’re not using your laptop to check Facebook and track the stock market while the lecture is going on).

  • “There is a logic behind organic chemistry that we will explain in class. Understanding this logic is the first step to success. Ask questions. Participate in class.” (ref)

7. Do something every day (8)


What NOT to do:

1. Don’t fall behind. (14). Quote:

  • “Ideas introduced early on will be used to develop other concepts later. Thus, letting things slide is unwise, as the material begins to accumulate relentlessly…even a half hour of regular study each day is likely to be more useful to you than any all-night, caffeine powered cramathons” – (ref)
  • “There is simply too much material for anyone to absorb at the last minute. Countless numbers of students have tried; very few have succeeded.” (ref)

2. Don’t consult the study guide until you’ve completed the question (10)

  • “It is easy to convince yourself that you know the material if you simply look up the answers in the study guide wihtout first trying to solve the problems yourself”
  • “Do the problems honestly, without having the solution manual in front of you” – (ref)
  • “Use the answer book with extreme caution” – (ref)

How much study time should be devoted to organic chemistry per week? Suggestions ranged from 6 hours to 18 hours/week. The median suggestion is about 10 hours. There weren’t many specifics as to how to use that 10 hours, but one suggestion was to spend about 75-80% of that time on problems, with the remainder on making summaries and other types of active studying.

Final thoughts.

If you have to summarize this advice into three basic principles, they would be the following.

  1. Do problems.
  2. Rework and rewrite your notes – make summaries.
  3. Don’t fall behind.

Granted, the advice isn’t particularly specific, and might in fact be disappointingly obvious. It’s like being told that the secret to losing weight is to exercise more and watch what you eat. But according to the advice of people who have who-knows-how-many man-years invested in teaching this course and have seen thousands of students succeed and fail,  they’re the foundations of success. I wouldn’t discount it.

“You do not have to be brilliant to do well in organic chemistry but you do have to be well organized, highly disciplined, and self motivated and you have to work very hard; these are exactly the skills required in most professions”. (ref)

“Genius requires dedication (i.e. work ethic). Enlightenment is not instantaneous. ” (ref)

If you want a zip file with the collected advice sheets, send me an email.  [Finally, I collect these things, so if you have a good example of “How to Do Well in Orgo”, send it! Bonus goodwill for high BLOCK CAPITAL CONTENT].


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