There’s no denying it: Organic Chemistry is tough, and with good reason. It touches on almost every aspect of modern life, from biology to food additives. There’s just a LOT to learn, and because of the way the problems are set up, it’s almost impossible to fake your way through—and it’s even more impossible to brute-force it, because there is just too much to memorize in one or two semesters (at least if you want to take any other classes… or eat, or sleep, or see your friends).
Fortunately, you don’t have to fake it (or drive yourself crazy) in order to make it. If you really want to do well in OChem, it’s more important to develop your “chemical intuition” than to memorize every single possible structure and reaction.
In addition to having good study habits (and a strong support system), here are 8 things you can do to get yourself thinking like a chemist—and maybe even get your life back.
1. Don’t panic: change your perspective instead.
OChem is hard, even for excellent students. You’re not a failure if it’s taking you a while to get the hang of it. But also remember: it’s hard, but it’s not impossible. Thousands upon thousands of students have taken and passed this course, and with the proper resources, hard work, and solid strategies, you can too.
Start by evaluating what you know and what you seem to be missing. Do you know the basic functional groups but not how they fit together? Do you know some of the basic principles but not how to apply them in problems? Or are you starting from square one?
Wherever you are, take a step back, realize you can do this, and then figure out what gaps you need to fill and what resources you need to move forward (your syllabus can be really helpful here, as can your professor if you’re really stuck).
2. Learn the building blocks.
Wherever you are in the OChem process, memorizing the correct names and shapes of basic compounds will make your life SO much easier. Get used to drawing out examples of ketones, esters, aldehydes, alcohols, etc. and memorize some common acids, bases, oxidizers, and reducing agents to give yourself a leg up on the material. It’s hard to learn how all the pieces fit together if you don’t know the basics!
Once you’ve done that, if you can, memorize a few basic principles, even if you’re not totally sure what they mean or how they work. Part of what makes organic chemistry tough is that some of the terms are pretty counterintuitive. “Nucleophiles” love positive charges (like the protons in a nucleus)—but they are actually electron-rich atoms with slight negative charges. “Electrophiles,” on the other hand, love negative charges—because they are electron-poor and slightly positive.
Find a way to get those terms (and things like Lewis Acids/Bases, the different kinds of bonds, and molecular orbitals) organized in your head, and life gets much easier! Try things like mnemonics, song lyrics, flashcards, or inventing your own personalized trivia game to make them stick, and then add to them when new concepts or compounds show up.
3. Turn the basic principles into a story.
Humans are wired to love stories. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with the principles of OChem. So why not turn them into a story you can enjoy?
For example, a lot of organic boils down to the fact that nucleophiles (electron-rich atoms with small negative charges) are attracted to electrophiles (electron-poor atoms with a small positive charge). Why? There are lots of technical reasons, and some basic physics can help you understand them, but there’s no reason to keep it technical when you’re first learning how to solve problems.
So let your imagination run wild! Are nucleophiles actually colonizers from outer space that fire electron guns at their electrophilic prey in order to assimilate them? Or are they a secret society of ninja philanthropists, stealing from the rich and donating their extra electrons to the poor?
This strategy may sound silly, but having a framework can help you keep track of way more information than if you tried to memorize it all in isolated pieces. If you can remember all the backstories on Game of Thrones—or Community, or The Vampire Diaries, or anything else for that matter—you can master organic chem.
Plus, putting things into a story will help keep you sane… and your professor never has to know about the epic battles taking place right under his or her nose.
4. Use LOTS of resources.
Lectures alone are usually not enough when it comes to OChem. People learn in very different ways, and organic chemistry is an incredibly broad subject, so don’t limit yourself to just one book or teacher (even though you should pay attention to them for the class). But if something isn’t working for you or a concept just won’t stick, google it until it makes sense.
5. Do problems.
I know, I know, you’ve been told this a thousand times. But seriously. If you want to develop your chemical intuition so the exam questions will feel like second nature, do all the problems your professor gives you, and then invent a few of your own, even if you can’t solve them! Just get used to doing problems so your brain doesn’t freeze up at a key moment.
What kind of problems? Even if you don’t memorize them, make sure to look through the mechanisms for named reactions you’re given in class—including ones mentioned in passing—and try drawing your way through them on your own. Try drawing structures, electron diagrams, and orbitals. Draw out functional groups and different isomers of molecules. Every arrow you draw, every reaction you scribble out, every reagent you write down will build your “muscle memory,” your chemical instincts, and your speed, which are all crucial when finals roll around!
6. Do problems in interesting places.
Most of your exams will be on paper, but that doesn’t mean you have to be sitting at your desk to practice! It’s extremely important to do a little bit of organic chemistry every day rather than try to learn it in marathon sessions on the weekends. So find ways to integrate it into your life!
Buy washable markers and draw reactions on the windows of your car every time you leave the house or dorm. Challenge yourself to draw out a reaction or two on your bathroom mirror when you’re getting ready (just erase them before they get in anybody’s way!). Doodle ketones in the margins of your notes for other classes. Write out important reactions, compounds, or facts on post-it notes and leave them in random places, like in the refrigerator, and take a minute to read them over when you’re waiting for the microwave. Give yourself fake chemistry tattoos and admire them often (just not right before exams!).
Tricks like these will break up the monotony of studying and help you get constant exposure to the images, perfect for storing them in your long-term memory. Once you’ve started to absorb the material, you can use focused study sessions to fill in the gaps. Plus, you’ll feel like a mad scientist (evil cackle optional)!
7. Learn to see into the Matrix
Organic chem is all about connections. Once you know some basic reactions and functional groups, try to piece them together into “mind maps” to see how they are interconnected. Look up diagrams that show the basic conversions, like how to turn an ester into an alcohol, and get familiar with the reagents and byproducts involved. Soon, the illusions of individual compounds will fall away, and like The One, you will begin to see the code and patterns behind the OChem Matrix—and how to bend it to your will.
8. Teach it to your friends, your neighbors, and even small furry animals.
OK, your neighbor’s dog may not be able to help you much, but this is one of the best uses your time if you have an OChem study group. Rather than just reviewing problems or helping each other guess the answers to reactions, take the basic concepts you’ve learned and pretend to teach each other how they work. Not only will it help you to hear it over and over again, when you explain something to someone else, it cements it in your own brain and exposes any missing pieces. Remember to ABE: Always. Be. Explaining.
Focus on the big picture
In the end, organic chemistry is a tough subject. But if you keep your cool, do a little every day, and focus on fitting all of the little ideas into the big picture (whether you think of it as an intergalactic battle or a group of lonely electrophiles desperate for a date), you are capable of creating your own path to thriving in Organic Chemistry.