Conquering Organic Chemistry

Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner

Organic Chemistry is a hurdle every premed must undertake. For many, it can dissuade you from pursuing your dreams of becoming a physician. This guide is here to prevent that, and instead help you come to terms with the beast commonly referred to as “orgo” or “ochem.”
First and foremost, let’s debunk a couple myths surrounding the subject.
Everyone is smarter than you
When you do badly on an exam, or can’t seem to grasp those difficult, novel, organic concepts, it’s easy to assume you’re less astute than everyone else. THIS IS NOT THE CASE. More often than not, you will get a handful of people who have taken the entire course already, or done a comparable amount of content review beforehand that covers a lot of the material gone over in class. This is why they may seem to get the answer to questions before the professor may even ask it, or ask those annoying “next-level” questions, that no one knows (or cares) the answer to. This could (and possibly would) be you if you had the same pre-knowledge before beginning the class.
Organic chemistry is pure memorization
When people say ochem is analogous to learning a new language, they’re not kidding. The amount of vocabulary, concepts, reactions, and reaction mechanisms one has to memorize is both daunting and incredulous, but it’s nowhere near impossible, and it cannot be done via rote memorization—contrary to popular belief. Sure, you do need to memorize a seemingly innumerable amount of things. But if you base your foundation of understanding on memory, and your memory fails you on the exam, or you see a mechanism you’ve never seen before and have to apply concepts you encountered prior, your grades will begin to suffer. It’s much more efficient to understand why things react the way they react and memorize general trends, and then specific reactions and mechanisms when it is called for.
Now that we’ve debunked some of the more common myths surrounding orgo, let’s explore the things we recommend you do to conquer the beast.
Memorize and learn the easy stuff before classes start
This is crucial to doing well in orgo. If you can memorize all the little things, such as general pKa trends, how Nucleophiles and Electrophiles act, functional groups, good and bad leaving groups, weak and strong acids/bases, and common IR spectrum peaks, your time in class can be devoted to understanding the harder concepts. Do as much of this as you can—maybe even audit an organic chemistry course at your local college—and absorb as much information as possible, even taking some exams to stimulate that inevitable test-taking anxiety. We highly recommend you buy Organic Chemistry and a Second Language, especially the first semester topics, which form the foundation of the course. Moreover, more likely than not, your professor will recommend you buy this for the class. This book does an excellent job introducing you to the basic concepts covered in organic chemistry and includes a plethora of practice questions to hammer in those concepts so that you don’t quickly forget them. Do all the problems in this book, from cover to cover, and do them again if you feel shaky on anything. This can’t be stressed enough. Many other of your classmates are coming in with an edge, having some pre-knowledge from beforehand. Instead of starting a few paces behind, jumpstart your learning (and hopefully, that curve) with a firm grasp of the foundational topics. If you have more time, consider getting one of the MCAT test prep books: ExamKrackersThe Princeton ReviewKaplanNextStep. These obviously do not go into the depth covered in a term-long ochem course, but expose you to the general schema outlined in said course.
Organize your reactions and mechanisms
This is crucial to keeping all the information you’ve learned, and the information you’ve yet to learn, in check. Add reactions and mechanisms daily, and review on a consistent basis to ensure you don’t forget anything. There’s nothing more troublesome than having a retrosynthesis problem that builds upon earlier reactions that you just can’t seem to remember, because you’ve been too busy focusing on current information. One of the best ways to prevent this is using an Excel Spreadsheet to compartmentalize similar reactions and mechanisms so you can keep track on current and past information.
Repetition, on a daily basis
The only way to really excel in orgo is to do practice problems over and over and over again. This means you should being going over mechanisms and reactions you have yet to master several times over. Do every mechanism covered in the text and in class at least 10x over, so that when you see something like it, or if you’re lucky, verbatim, on the exam, you can snag some easy points. In addition, just like anything, the only way to master a hard subject is to do it everyday. There should almost never be a day you are not doing organic chemistry. Obviously, there will be days you take a break, but try to include at least a little orgo on a daily basis to keep those synthesis and mechanistic skills fresh. When you look at it, that’s all ochem boils down to: synthesis, and mechanisms. In order to solve those two types of problems, you need a good grasp of all the concepts that surround them.
Get to know your professor, TAs, and classmates
All three of these are important. Sure, there are some people (the prototypical premed) who go it alone and wings an A. This could be you, but why practice being a loner when—as a future physician—you will be leading a team of healthcare professionals in order to treat your patients. Starting building interpersonal skills now, and the payoff in the future will be prominent. Not to mention, it makes studying so much easier knowing you have friends to keep you accountable, or help on the trickier concepts, or vice versa. Also, if you get to know your professor and make a good impression, you will be more motivated to do well in the class in order to maintain that professor’s perception of you. All these seemingly gratuitous factors add up to scoring better on the exams and slaying the beast known as organic chemistry, placing you that much closer to your aspirations of becoming a doctor.