Case Studies of Successful O-Chem Students

By James Ashenhurst

Success Stories: How Zach Aced Organic Chemistry 1

Last updated: January 23rd, 2024 |

With the first semester over, I recently asked my readers if they could share their stories of how they succeeded [or even failed in] organic chemistry. In the first of a series of posts, I’ll share the response from Zach, who reports earning an A in organic chemistry 1 at a prestigious Ivy League university we have all heard of.

MOC:What factors do you think were key to your success?

Zach: Understanding. There is a TON of information to keep track of in first semester Organic Chemistry. Memorizing mechanisms and conditions, and making flawed generalizations based on limited memorized information is probably the least efficient way to tackle OChem. Rather than spending hours memorizing, use that time to build understanding. (And perhaps memorizing key things such as spectroscopic data).

Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t know it well enough.” Unsurprisingly, old Al is right. For me, the best way to check and extend my understanding was to take a course outline and teach the information to myself out-loud. What I couldn’t explain, I reviewed and what I could explain I didn’t worry about.

MOC: How much time per week would you estimate you spent studying for organic chemistry?

Z: Excluding lecture and discussion section, I probably spent close to ten hours a week on organic chemistry, putting in more hours as the final exam neared.

MOC: Besides your instructor and textbook, did you do any additional practice problems?

Z: I found those resources to be sufficient. Of those, I think most helpful were instructor supplied practice problems and exams.

MOC: You mentioned that you memorized spectroscopic data. Are there any other “key things” besides spectroscopic data you might recommend memorizing?

Z: Other than spectroscopy data, I think IUPAC nomenclature rules can cause a lot of head aches if the time isn’t put in at the beginning of the course to memorize them. It’s difficult to write a mechanism when commas, dashes, and greek prefixes prevent you from knowing even the reactants.

MOC: What other resources have you found helpful?

Z: The First Semester Study Guide was immensely helpful. It’s an excellent resource for looking over just before the final to refresh older concepts.

MOC: Maybe this is a weird question, but when you sat to write your final, do you remember what was going through your mind when you turned over the exam sheet and looked at the questions?

Z: I felt an interesting mixture of nervousness and confidence. I knew that I had put the time and effort into the class that was necessary to do well and trusted that it was enough, but exams (especially those that comprise 40% of one’s grade) get most people a little frazzled.

MOC: What was in it for you to spend all that time in order to do well in organic? Why do all the work, instead of slacking off until the last minute like many people would? Why did it matter to you?

I was motivated to do well by several factors:  I’m a somewhat competitive person, I’m thinking about medicine as a career, and most of all, I developed an intense interest in the material after just the first few weeks. Organic Chemistry is this mythic beast that stands between you and your academic aspirations. You go into the course expecting to hate it, even if you enjoyed general chemistry. But if you let your guard down for just a second, I think you’ll find that even if you don’t enjoy the subject you can grow to appreciate it. It was ultimately that developed interest and appreciation that drove me to work hard in organic.

Zach’s strategy of teaching himself out loud and quizzing himself based on course outlines reminds me Cal Newport’s  Quiz and Recall Method for technical exam preparation. It’s a useful exercise to look at your notes, and turn the “answers” into questions – and later, review the questions.

Many thanks to Zach for sharing his insights and experiences.

Inspire the next group of students with your organic chemistry wisdom. Share your organic chemistry story here. 

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