Case Studies of Successful O-Chem Students

By James Ashenhurst

How to Do Well in Organic Chemistry: One Student’s Advice

Last updated: January 23rd, 2024 |

Over at Med School Odyssey, the author recently wrote about finishing Org 1, and has a lot to share about his experiences with the course. Here are some choice excerpts from that post, and from a few of his earlier posts.

1. Don’t believe the hype

Don’t let yourself get psyched out by the people around you whining about how difficult organic chemistry is.  I let myself get taken in by the horror stories around the first exam and did substantially worse on the first exam than I should have simply because I bought into the idea that it was tough and I was going to fail.  I learned a lot more about myself and self-confidence during the first few weeks than I did about chemistry.  If you’re surrounded by negative and pessimistic people, tell them to piss off – don’t get sucked into their game.  Prepare and study well – play your game, not theirs.

2. Focus on understanding, not memorization

I have no idea where people get the idea that organic chemistry is memorization.  I didn’t make a single notecard for the entire course – I don’t even know what you would even memorize.  Anyone that tells you organic chemistry requires gobs of memorization is seriously misinformed.

I agree with the sentiment here. I’d say that memorization is, overall, a poor strategy that is resorted to when people haven’t planned ahead sufficiently and have to cram the night before an exam. There are, however, certain aspects of the course that require memorization – like nomenclature terms, reagent names and acronmys, functional groups, and so on.   While some people indeed might have these terms wired in after a few weeks of the course, others might have to resort to flash cards or other memory-centered devices in order to retain the course material. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s coupled with a dedication toward understanding the deeper concepts.

3. A Physics Background Really Helps.

I’m convinced that a year of physics, even if only at a conceptual level (ie., without all the math), would make organic chemistry a lot easier.  Understanding transition states, activation energies, conformational changes, and a host of other things in organic chemistry would be a lot easier with an understanding of some basic physics.  My advice to organic chemistry students that want to really stack the deck in their favor: wait until you’ve had the entire physics sequence before taking organic chemistry.

If you’ve glanced at the “From Gen Chem to Organic Chem” series I put together this summer, one thing you’ll notice is just how much physics lies behind a lot of organic chemistry phenomena. In particular, a good understanding of electrostatics will make a huge difference. In addition, familiarity with the basics of  thermodynamics, equilibria,  and kinetics will be invaluable when trying to grasp the topics you encounter in Org 1.

4. Good Study Habits Are Key

Two good quotes here. Quote #1:

This was the primary reason I saw people fail organic chemistry. It wasn’t intelligence. It wasn’t lack of memorization abilities. It wasn’t the teaching. It was their study habits.There was a group of about seven girls in the back of our class, the ‘Chatty Kathys’, that waited until the night before the homework was due to start on it and didn’t do any outside reading or problems on their own.  I doubt they failed, but they probably comprised the bulk of the C grades in the course.  Organic isn’t hard, but that doesn’t mean you can just sit in lecture and expect to have the understanding and ability to solve problems to just leap inside your head.  Maybe that’s part of why medical schools scrutinize organic chemistry grades so much – it definitely reveals the quality of your study habits.

Quote #2:

I don’t know anyone for whom learning organic chemistry is easy. The top five students in my class probably spent 20 hours every week studying for the class. I would say that organic chemistry came somewhat easier for me, but it still required me to put in a huge amount of time.

No surprises here. Note that the good students still have to bust their butts to do well. There are no Val Kilmer in “Real Genius”-like stories of students walking into an exam unprepared and acing it. It doesn’t happen. It takes a lot of fricking work to do well.

5. The Bottom Line

The keys to success: be prepared, focus on understanding, work enough problems outside of class to learn the concepts – you’ll never learn the concepts unless you make mistakes on problems and learn from them – and stay caught up with the material.

Does this sound familiar? It sounds a lot like a lot of the collected advice professors give to their students on the first day of class – not to mention the advice students who just finished Org 1 would give themselves if they could go back in time to the beginning of the course.

In short, there’s no magic to doing well in the course. It involves discipline, putting in time consistently, doing problems, focusing on learning concepts, and staying on top of the material. If it sounds disappointing that there’s no magic formula for success, it should at least be comforting that doing well in the course is very possible for averagely gifted students who put in the time and study effectively.


Comment section

30 thoughts on “How to Do Well in Organic Chemistry: One Student’s Advice

  1. U know…i think i study well in organic chemistry.. And when i try to do questions i almost solve every question …but when it comes to exam i think that i don’t know a single word… i just mark any random option on sheet…can u plz suggest me some tips so that i can improve this

  2. The only way you are ever going to build a proper house, is by making sure the foundations are solid and well constructed. If your foundation is weak you might be able to build the house up to a storey, but then when you want to build up another storey the house collapses. Immerse yourself in reaction mechanisms, MO theory, and interpreting acidity/basicity of a compund

  3. My son wants to eventually go to medical school and needs to do well in his organic chemistry class. I’ve never taken it, but I’ve been trying to help him through it as best as I can. I like your tip about focusing on understanding and not on memorization. He’s trying to absorb a lot of information at once and I think if he understood it all, he’d do much better on his tests. I’ll have to pass this along to him. Thanks!

  4. Those tips are certainly helpfull. I past organic chemestry I and II both with 14 ( thats lik B- to B). But I want to do really good (read: better) on organic chemistry III. Here’s another tip for solving reaction problems: take a good look at reaction maps (search on google) and make reaction maps yourself. They give a good overview of possible reactions you can use.

  5. thanks for sharing out your great piece of mind, am taking organic chemistry 1 this semester which i thought of it being tough but according to your word of advice i personally know that it would be a walk in the park by devoting myself to practicing and hard work.
    thanks a lot….

  6. thanks for sharing.While preparing the time table keep in mind that the subject you studied before must be frequently revised,revising subjects at a gap of 3 days so you will be able to decrease your efforts and will maintain a stable memory level. Remember to take regular breaks and get out and exercise. Always begin at precise time you had planned. If you would study for a continuous period, plan a few short breaks into the time.This is the way to have a valuable rest for your eyes and mind. Have a focus, do not think any distracting ideas as you are studying.

  7. I am a Georgia Tech student currently in Organic Chemistry I. I’ve been doing alright so far. We have five midterms and a final exam in the class and my grades on the exams have been as follows: 95, 80, & 65. Our fourth exam was today and it was over alkene and alkyne additions. I know for a fact I did horribly on the exam…I’m thinking my score is below a 50…Thankfully, there is a drop test so it won’t count. But I’m coming here to ask how should I approach this course? I want to understand the basics so that when I take orgo 2 I won’t have as much trouble. I have a lot of extracurriculers that I do, such as working in a research lab and doing clubs, so I don’t always have a lot of time to study. Also, I’ve realized that as the semester goes on, my motivation goes down and I don’t know how to keep it up since topics start to get harder. Can someone PLEASE help me?

  8. Hey thanks a ton!!! That was a very enlightening article on how to go about with organic!!! And yes, the mindset with which one approaches it really matters and hard work has no substitute!!

  9. Hi,

    I will be taking Orgo 1 next semester, & I’m trying to figure out what to pair it with. At 12 credits, I’ll be taking Orgo 1 w/ lab, human physiology, & pre-cal, & I will also be volunteering at a hospital for 4 hours a week & tutoring for 6 hrs a week. I might also be doing research & physician shadowing, this is still pending. Should I also take neurobiology with all of these, or would that be too much?

    My academic strengths lie in memorization & hard work. However, if given the right type of teacher/ tutor & practicing problems, & I can be very good in math type of courses too.

  10. You couldn’t be more wrong about Val Kilmer in Real Genius. You’ve obviously forgotten the second study montage in which Chris Knight gets serious about his work and not only has the epiphany about synthesizing excited bromide in an argon matrix, but is able to confidently assert to Professor Hathaway that he “aced this test.” He didn’t walk into the exam unprepared; he was utterly prepared!

  11. What Yannick said is very true. I got an A in org1 and org2, and I can tell you from personal experience that it requires tons and tons of practice. You will not do well in organic without doing hundreds and hundreds of problems (at least in my experience). All of the students who did well in these courses did every practice test problem they could get their hands on. It blew my mind how many of the students in the class said they were pre-med and yet they never did any practice problems; they just made flashcards and tried to memorize everything right before the test/quiz. Needless to say these are the folks who ended up with mid-50’s on the exams and probably C’s or lower for the course.

    The more problems you do, the more aware you are of the mechanisms and the more engrained they become in your head. That way, come test time, it is second nature to you and it becomes a matter of regurgitating the reactions/mechanisms that you have already seen and done many, many times. As mentioned in the article, there is no magic formula. It is simply a matter of how hard you are willing to work in order to do well. Good luck.

  12. The best way to learn and be sucessful at Organic Chemistry is practice. It is practically impossible to learn all the mechanism especially the ones in Organic Chemistry 2. You are expected to know most of them and the only way to do that is to practice by doing problems and problems, and as you are practicing, you are retaining all the mechanism for a long term without actually memorizing the mechanism only for a test. There are also an organic chemistry book called “Organic chemistry as a second language” by David klein which is one of the best Organic Chemistry book ever. You should look into that and good luck acing the class.

  13. I thought this was a nice article. I was planning on taking an O-Chem class next year, but several threads on this topic did scare me from ever considering taking the class. I do need to work on my study habits though.

  14. The best way of studying organic chemistry is to practice alot then memorising. Practice really helps. please could you help me with some other tips to study organic chemistry.

  15. If you’re in AP Chemistry, please read this article with great care. It will help you improve your AP Chem grade if you necessarily need to. Our goal is to help you get an “A” and get you into the college of your choice. Whatever resource you can find, take advantage of it. It will be extremely beneficial in the long run. Again, be sure to aim high and work the problems both individually and collectively to reach your goals.

  16. I’m glad I came across this post, its nice to know I’m not the only one struggling with Organic Chem. I just withdrew from Summer Orgo I at UNC because I was looking at a C+. I’m an older student, 29, that just came out of the military about 10 months ago and hand’t been in the civilian classroom environment in about 11 years. I found organic difficult, and I truly believe it was due to a lack of proper study habits. I say this because I literrally spent all of my out of class time reading and trying to understand the material, yet still received 70’s on the exams. I’m sitting in on the classes for the rest of the summer (including orgo II), I need to get A’s so I can bring my GPA up for med school. I feel like the material is rushed and it would greatly help other students to look at the functional groups prior to starting orgo and most importantly to develop efficient study habits. I wish I had spent more time focusing on doing the problems in the chapters instead of making sure that I read every chapter. I don’t believe any of the material is truly difficult to understand, it’s just a lot to digest in a short amount of time (in the summer anyway) Anyway, good luck to anyone that comes across these posts. Stay positive and keep your nose to the grindstone!

  17. I’m wrapping my last quarter of ochem, I’ve got a little advice. If you want to do well in ochem make sure you learn the concepts of SN1/SN2/E1/E2 and orbital theory during in your first ochem class. These will be the theoretical concepts that apply to almost all of the chemistry your learn for the rest of the year.

  18. As a last comment, I’m a senior wrapping up his degree. I’ve got about 15 credits after this semester (I have 117 credits). I’ve seen all kinds of teaching styles, and I would have to say organic chemistry is definitely one of the worst courses I’ve ever dealt with, due to lack of guidance on how to study.

    Honestly, I think the next best thing to do is spend time with the professor and/or TA in order to get a physical understanding of what’s going on (if these things are not easily being discussed/understood). Maybe the professor is emphasizing memorization; but if that’s the case, then the trick is to spend time with that intelligent person who understands the physical aspects and actually get a grasp on the physics aspects behind all of those reactions.

  19. I spend about 50 hours a week and still make a C. Honestly, I think there are a variety of teachings styles when it comes to organic chemistry. Professors can emphasize either the physical aspects of a reaction; otherwise, they can emphasize some kind of memorization scheme.

    I think the pedagogy will depend on the mission of the university, though. For instance, I suspect a school that revolves around medical science will attempt to use a memorization pedagogy.

    I’m not saying that you won’t be able to make some sense of the mechanics involved. However, I’m saying that maybe for some schools, in some universities, there is actually a lot of memorization going on.


    I study cognitive neuroscience with plenty of background in the learning sciences. I’m really good at memorizing things. And when it comes to something like the organic chemistry, however, I find that it really appears to be a large amount of memorization IF the professor does not easily allow the physical aspects of the reaction be easily understood.

    1. You have a point. I would argue that Org 1 is different, but seeing some midterms (from pretty prestigious schools too) over the past month or so, Org 2 can definitely be tested in a way that is just a challenge of how many reactions students can regurgitate. It really does depend on the professor. The best thing you can possibly do is find a previous copy of a midterm/final to get a good handle on how they design the test.
      It still helps, however, if you can see patterns and group reactions into clusters. If you didn’t get that with your prof or TA, well, you’re exactly the type of student I’d like to help.

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