Organic Chemistry Study Tips

By James Ashenhurst

How to Get An A In Organic Chemistry

Last updated: July 7th, 2023 |

When I ask my students what their goal for the course is, the most common answer is this: “To get an A”. I don’t know how to guarantee getting a certain letter grade, but I certainly think there are habits which successful students have in common.

So a few weeks ago I asked several students of mine who were particularly successful in their organic chemistry class (read: got A’s) two questions.

1. What was your study strategy for organic chemistry?

2. What advice would you give to students taking the course for the first time?

Here’s what they had to say.

“My Study Strategy for Organic Chemistry”:

  • Grant: “The “Attack Attitude”: I knew that this class was going to be difficult from the get-go. But, at the same time, nervousness was going to be un-productive. So, I put all of my energy into trying to build a solid foundation from the start. A solid foundation, in my opinion, is the single most important feature to succeeding in organic chemistry. Practice problems are the key to performing well on the exams. My order of practice was:
  1. Learn concepts
  2. Practice and Identify weaknesses
  3. Practice Weaknesses
  4. As the test nears, practice strengths. If I continued to try to identify weaknesses right before the test, I would get psyched out. Practice STRENGTHS right before the test. This will build CONFIDENCE.
  5. Roll with the Punches: This class is tough and there were concepts that proved to be more challenging than others. But don’t give up. You never know where the chips will fall.”
  • Logan: “For me, the best way to study was to first learn the mechanisms for every reaction you wil be tested on. Second, I would write every reaction out until I could synthesize full reactions in my head. Nomenclature was the last bit of information I liked at because my professors were more interested in the chemistry of the class, its not an english class.”
  •  Jake: “My conclusions about both classes are this (at least the way they’re taught at [my college]): In org 1, memorization is not as crucial to success. The reactions and mechanisms are basic enough that you can work your way through them. In org 2, however (and this might just be to due to my professor who loved to take test questions almost directly from homework and notes), memorization is key. Each test was 100% free-response. A bit of theory, a bit of nomenclature, reactions, mechanisms, and maybe a synthesis. My method of preparation consisted almost entirely of memorizing my notes and doing the homework over and over again (even after turning it in and receiving a grade). If we were responsible for 12 mechanisms on a certain test, I would draw each one out at least 8 times until I could do it without even thinking about it, and at a fast rate (under 3 minutes). When it came to reactions, our professor would always give us the reactants as well as the reagents, so I used flash cards with the reactants+reagents on one side, and the products on the other. If I got one right, I would put the card aside. If I got it wrong, it would go back to the bottom of the pile until I got it right at least twice in a row. This helped tremendously on tests where I would do the mechanisms and reactions first, because at least 70% of the exam points were usually tied to these two areas. So while my focus was memorization, I do think that I picked up a bit of understanding simply from memorizing. I could think about what each step was doing in my head, and what the purpose of it was, and I believed it helped in broadening my understanding of the material “
  • Tiffany: “When it comes to studying ochem, I did many different problem sets (mostly Harvard ones I found and occasionally some from Berkeley and MIT). My strategy was to first understand the material, then do the book problems, then problem sets, and then if I had questions or needed clarification, I planned a session with you. I found it very helpful talking through questions with you. I believe that the best way to learn something is to be able to talk it out or teach it to someone.”
  • Matt: “From the beginning to the end i realized there are many ways to study for organic. A few that i did on a daily basis were..
    • Doing every chapter assigned problem from the book once if i understood..2-3 times with guidance is necessary for questions that bothered me. Always making sure i was capable of doing them on my own afterwards.
    • Working with another class mate. Coming up with games to help cement the information. For example my girlfriend and i made a synthesis game where we started with a molecule and each person selected different conditions and reactions until we had a massive molecule. Found that to be a lot of fun and it helped me remember all the reactions.
    • Lastly i would never miss a class and always be engaged on the teacher. Found out that half the battle is just showing up.  while also going over the class notes every day over and over.

“Advice I’d Give Students Taking Organic”

  • Grant: “In the first semester, I had to push myself to understand the concepts—memorizing powerpoint slides will not be helpful.In the second semester, index cards played a huge role for me. I would buy large index cards and write in dark sharpie the reactant and reacting agent.  The product would be on the opposite side (C for Carbon, etc). A teacher may like to test instead on the reacting agents, so in this case, write the reactant and product, and have the reacting agent on the opposite side of the index card. The ultimate way to succeed in the second semester is to understand the logic behind the reactions, but given the fast pace of my summer class, memorization of the reactions served me well.”
  • Matt: “If i was to give any advice to students it would be to put in an at least an hour of chemistry every day no matter what. You’re going to get discouraged but keep your mind on your end goal and keep on working. Hard work is the cure to the organic epidemic haha.”
  • Tiffany: For a student taking ochem for the first time, I would advise them to do lots and lots of practice problems. I realized that the more sets I did, the more comfortable I was during test time… .because after all, there’s only so many types of ochem questions that the prof can ask.
  • Some advice to first time organic 2 students would be: go home after every lecture abd learn the material presented. This will help  you from getting behind and cramming for exams. Look at the material everyday because eventually you will be able to understand it. The last bit of advice if to not get discouraged if you dont do well on your first exam, learn from it and know your  weaknesses for your next one!
I didn’t have any particular agenda in asking this other than that I was genuinely curious what the study strategies of successful students are. Notice how nobody said, “oh, I just breezed through it”: these students worked their butts off. If you’ve read, “How to do well on organic chemistry: collected advice” you’ll see a lot of common threads here.
  1. Do lots of practice problems
  2. Don’t fall behind
  3. Write things out (such as reactions and mechanisms)
  4. Talk it over with others to solidify concepts.
There’s also the taboo subject of memorization. Some students rely on it. I think its usefulness ultimately depends on how the tests are written. Students will develop strategies adapted to how they expect to be tested. For what it’s worth, getting organic chemistry instructors (myself included) and students to have a frank conversation about memorization is not easy. Instructors will tell you not to memorize, even though they know you’ll probably do it anyway. And if you do do it, they probably don’t want to hear about it, and if something bad happens, well – you were warned.







Comment section

8 thoughts on “How to Get An A In Organic Chemistry

  1. These tips are really great! Thank you :)
    The study tips that work for me is I read the basics before going to the class :P
    This kept me attached to the chapter in the class and make me more focused.
    Thank you :D

  2. There’s nothing worse than taking a course from someone whom you feel is trying to trick you. And I’d put instructors who preach “don’t memorize” but then write exams full of fill-in-the-blank, regurgitative questions in that category.

    I really like what I’ve seen of Maitland Jones at NYU. His students all think he’s tough, but they have a high regard for him. His exams test the ability to think through the concepts, not just memorize things. I think that’s why I loved his textbook. Some of his old Princeton exams are here:

  3. “There’s also the taboo subject of memorization. Some students rely on it. I think its usefulness ultimately depends on how the tests are written.”

    THIS. It’s up to instructors to develop compelling tests that challenge students, while communicating high expectations. On the subject of “if something bad happens…,” instructors have to be held accountable too. Assessments should not be conducive to memorization. It seems impossible to make memorization work AGAINST a student, but if that were possible…what would education look like? :-P

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