Case Studies of Successful O-Chem Students

By James Ashenhurst

How John Pulled Up His Organic Chemistry Exam Grades

Last updated: January 23rd, 2024 |

The other week, loyal reader “John” (not his real name) wrote in to tell me how he had pulled up his exam grade in organic chemistry from a 44% on the first midterm to a 90% on the second midterm. I asked him through email to explain the study techniques he used in a little more detail.

Tell me what happened. 

I got your e-mail about figuring out how to make O.Chem easier.  I went from a 44% to a 90%.  I spent hours studying when I made that 44%, but I changed my process. I think its all about the process and then putting the time.

OK! What were some of the key aspects of your study strategy for organic chemistry. 

Firstly, consistency is key. I think it is possible to be as happy as a clam in O.Chem if you are consistent. This is the hardest part for me.

I really do well when I follow these 3 steps:

#1 – Read the book and try problems before class

#2 – Actively participate in class (which is easy to do since I should have LOADS of questions from step #1)

#3 – Consistently do practice problems. Go to professor for help. Watch youtube videos. Study in a group (this is really helpful! It forces you to explain yourself and gives you new perspectives on things). And also use “Organic Chemistry as a Second Language” <– this book makes O.Chem feel like a cake walk!! These are my keys to success.

But consistency is key. That, I feel, is the HARDEST part about O.Chem. How to stay consistent is a whole ‘nother topic. And I don’t even really get it. Also, confidence is necessary. Confidence that you know what you are doing, even if you feel like you don’t. Confidence that this will eventually make sense. Not being deterred or discouraged when you feel like “WHAT THE EFF IS GOING ON???!!!!” Just accepting confusion as a part of the learning process, period.

How much time per week did you devote to studying? 

Well, I went from 44% on an exam to 90% on an exam. I studied about 2 hours a day. If I skipped a day, then of course, I must study more. Now, I will admit, I think I am a bright person. So /maybe/ it is easier for me to understand things. But I also have reading disability and ADD. So whatever natural gift I have is balanced out by such limitations.

What source do you use for practice problems? Are they provided from your instructor or from the textbook? 

Yes, practice problems in the textbook. Our teacher assigns homework which is optional, but IMO if you want to do well, the homework is not optional. Our textbook is Org. Chem by David R. Klein. Also, he has a book called “Org. Chem as a Second Language” which is IMMENSELY helpful. I highly, highly recommend it to any org. chem student. I haven’t checked out any other supplemental O. Chem book (like o.chem for dummies), but doing the practice problems in this book was amazing for my understanding. So I am doing practice problems from both the textbook and my supplemental book.

Do you use online videos at all?

I use Khanacademy on youtube just because I am used to him (I was a math major and he has the best math videos on the web). My peers really like freelanceteacher‘s videos.

Where you do find you do your best studying? 

When I study alone, its usually at home. Its terrible. There are quite a number of distractions. Subtle things. You’re room’s messy so subconsciously, you’re wondering when you can clean it. Your house has a fridge and you’re a bit hungry so you start wondering about when you’ll go eat. Things like that. And of course, internet!

Sometimes I study in those cubicles at the library. The kind that literally force you to focus because you can’t look at anything else. I used to hate them. I felt trapped. But now, I value my grades and my time so much that they are becoming my best friend and I study there as often as I can. I WANT to be trapped.

 Pomodoro technique is what I use when I find I am procrastinating too much. You focus for 25 minutes then take a 5 minute break. And sometimes I can get away with my break being an online thing… but I usually can’t. It usually triggers uber-procrastination. So the 5 minutes has to be not computer related.

What’s your motivation for doing well in organic chemistry?

I’m applying to a Masters of Nutrition program that starts in Fall 2012.  If I am accepted, O.chem is one of 6 courses I must have completed. I cannot fail!…  So I can be competitive with other schools, I need to make an A! Nutrition is my passion & part of the ultimate career I want to build for myself and I am really tired of … not doing it. So I have quite a lot of drive to do well in O.chem.

Anything else to say to prospective students?

Viewing O.chem like a beautiful work of art. You need to be able to see the whole picture. I don’t know how to explain it. Being able to zoom in and zoom out as needed seems helpful.

I know how to ENSURE you fail O.chem. I had a friend who just dropped the class yesterday.  We both studied the same way for the first test. We weren’t consistent in study. We didn’t do as many practice problems as we could. We were just trying to memorize different concepts. We both failed. Then I realized that O.chem is about the big picture. I can’t just pick and choose what to focus on. Everything can be tested and everything is useful to understanding 1 problem. So I started doing what I listed above. My friend didn’t. I told him “Look, if we study the same way we studied last time, we are going to FAIL.” He failed. I made a 90. I sent him a text “Consider dropping this course. If you don’t change how you study, I guarantee you are going to fail this course. Period.” And he came to the realization I was right and dropped it!

Thanks, John, for taking the time to answer these questions. 

Want to share your experience with organic chemistry, good or bad, so that others can learn from it? Write me at james at, or use the “Feedback” link above. Confidentiality guaranteed. 


Comment section

9 thoughts on “How John Pulled Up His Organic Chemistry Exam Grades

  1. Great advice! I really felt confident about my last exam for Ochem; unfortunately, I got a 45 on the exam. I do believe that if I read the textbook, and do the problems in the book, I will be fine. There’s more to OChem than just reading the notes and memorizing. You have to understand and work it out! If I get a 90 on my next exam, I will be extremely proud of myself! :) Thank you!

  2. It is up to people to discover the potential within them .You have to see what is inside you.The problem with people they don’t want to see the future that that is ahead them in what they are learning.Was telling my classmates that its high time to remove the mentality in yourself saying somethings is hard and probably it will be hard and you will not achieve what will help you in life.therefore remove some of this negative mentality and you will succeed more than you could ever imagine you have the potential show us what is within you, unleash your potential. REMEMBER GENIUS IS NOT BORN BUT MADE…

  3. I came to this website looking for useful advice on how to pass organic chemistry. This article actually discouraged me. Please don’t tell me how I am “ensured” to fail organic chemistry. I also don’t appreciate “John” preaching the idea that studying alone is terrible. Its really not. I’d really appreciate some legitimate studying techniques.

    1. For me studying alone vs in a group has different benefits. With O-chem 2, there are a lot of concepts, and sometimes you might not know what you’re missing, while someone else has gone through the learning curve of that concept. If you don’t have anyone else to talk to or get help from, you might spend hours trying to correct something that would have taken 5 minutes for someone else to explain to you.
      I don’t think anyone said that you were guaranteed to fail, this is just one person’s experience, so take from it what you find useful, if anything.

  4. hello, my 1st examination will be on Saturday, July 28, 2012. i have read much from this websites about organic chemistry and much thankful that there are many useful techniques about studying organic chemistry from here. I should be able to pass this subject because if not, I will be delayed one year again from my course. It’s my first time to take organic chemistry this semester and I will be grateful enough to tell you the result after exam if i would be able to pass. So just wait and I would tell you my experiences with org.chem.

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