Organic Chemistry “101”

Please resist the urge to immediately close this webpage! Of all the courses required of pre-health students, none is more dreaded than organic chemistry (also commonly known as o-chem or orgo). Most programs require two semesters (thus one full year) of this area of study, and for many students (myself included) it represents the most difficult year of college. In this post, I’ll talk about why I think that is, why I think it’s organic chemistry that’s most challenging specifically, and how I got through it. I’m not expecting that this post will be the be-all and end-all of guides to organic chemistry (there are far too many experts on the topic who have much better ideas than myself on how to succeed), but I hope that those of you who are preparing to take it or who are several years away from it might at least take some small comfort in what I have to share. Let’s begin.
I’d like to start by setting the scene. You’re a student just returning from Summer vacation for your sophomore year of college. You did very well in both your semesters of general chemistry and all of your other “basic” courses. This semester, as a pre-health student you’re taking more advanced courses in biology, chemistry, and whatever major you’ve chosen. This includes organic chemistry. While you might be expecting another easy semester after the two that you’ve just done, realize that you’re taking more advanced courses across the board - this year won’t be paced the same way as your first. On top of that, the reason you did so well in your general chemistry courses is because you actually covered most of that material in your AP Chemistry class - you could’ve even skipped it with your high AP score! (But you didn’t because you read my earlier post about not using AP credits to skip pre-health required courses!) Are you starting to see my point? While the first year of college is filled with plenty of challenges in its own right, most classes that you take will be foundational, and so will cover both easier concepts to grasp and those concepts that you’ve covered before. Organic chemistry may be the first class you take that deviates fully from your high school curriculum. On top of that, your biology, physics, or other classes will similarly be more intense! So don’t blame everything on the content covered in organic chemistry; the intensity of sophomore or junior year is in general, I think, well beyond what most students experience in their freshman year. Context is key! Of course this doesn’t explain all of the “hype”…
Organic chemistry will probably be described by your professor on the first day of class as a completely different field of study than general chemistry. Huh? It’s true, I think. Whereas general chemistry deals in math, units, and concepts about how substances interact, organic chemistry deals much more in shapes, pictures, and practical interactions between substances. For example, the average general chemistry exam question might ask you to calculate the amount of a product you can expect to get if you combine two or more amounts of reactants. (This would be your theoretical yield if I remember correctly). The average organic chemistry question might ask you to look at two or more structures (molecules) and decide how their components will interact to form a product. It might even ask you to draw said product! In general, you will be asked to do a lot more thinking in three dimensions. (We were required to buy a 3-D molecule model set.) You’ll also be asked to do a lot more critical thinking. These two things combined can pose problems for pre-health students, who are used to thinking in figures that are flat on a page and who are used to memorizing concrete facts. If you enjoy complex puzzles, especially one that require you to be creative in your thinking, you will likely enjoy organic chemistry.
So that’s why I think organic chemistry is so difficult - it covers brand-new material that requires you to think, and therefore study, differently than you have before in a setting of increased difficulty across all of your courses. How do you find success, then, knowing that this is what’s in store? For me, the answer was to begin the process of figuring out how I study best. I’ve written about this before, I find it especially relevant here. Instead of relying on the course textbook or lectures alone to learn the material, I looked at how my friends were finding success and tried a few different things. I also turned to online expects who have made a life’s work of out teaching organic chemistry, among other courses, for free online. I’m sure you have heard of several of these programs. I really liked short, to-the-point videos that covered each specific topic. I also liked studying in a group so that I could ask questions when I had them. That became the way I studied for most all of my difficult courses from then on - I watched a lot of videos in preparation for the MCAT, too! Don’t be disheartened if you don’t find success doing what I did. Reach out to others and find what works for you.
If that advice above sounds like it could apply to every class, it’s because it could, and it does. So does the advice I have for you if you are struggling in organic chemistry - talk to your professor. I can guarantee that the people who teach these courses are well-versed in figuring out where students are having trouble and recommending strategies for doing better. They teach organic chemistry, after all! More than any other course that I can think of, it is important to understand how you are performing early and how you can improve; organic chemistry builds on itself and of course gets factored into both GPAs at which health professional programs look! To be frank, this is the first class in which many pre-health students really struggle, and so while reaching out for help might seem like obvious advice, it isn’t always easy for students who excel at nearly everything to do. Learn to do this early and you’ll both do better and worry less about nearly everything that has to do with medicine - you may not even find cause to read this blog anymore!
If you are preparing to take organic chemistry soon and have other questions, feel free to email me at Just please don’t correct me if I’m wrong about the concept of theoretical yield - it has been several years now since I was forced to do math at that level!