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How to Get an A in Organic Chemistry

August 4th, 2011  |  Published in Pre-Med Tips  |  2 Comments

Sophomore year had just begun; I had received B’s in general (inorganic) chemistry, and I dreaded the thought of organic chemistry. At the beginning of the semester, I planned to try my hardest. I sat in the front of the class, and listened to the professor drone on about 3-D structures.

Quickly, I realized that I hated organic chemistry. I thought the subject material was boring, and every day before/after/during class my friends and I would talk about how difficult the class was, how impossible it was, and how challenging it was. We had occasional in-class quizzes, and while a group of my classmates would cheat during the testing period, I would try to tune them out and stare at the paper, wondering what I was supposed to even write down as an answer. I had no idea if I should have been drawing arrows or creating a new product.

I barely understood anything that I had “learned” during the course, and needless to say, I did poorly. I left Organic Chemistry 1 with a C, disappointed and feeling that even if I had studied harder, it would have been futile. Everyone told me that if I had a C in organic chemistry, I should just give up now. “That looks really bad on your transcript, medical schools won’t like that,” they claimed. So, I dropped everything, switched majors, and tried to work towards something that would allow me to get a job after graduation.

After wistfully watching my friends study for their science classes, and missing the intellectual challenge, I decided to return to my passion for the sciences. I properly planned my renewed pre-medical path, and enrolled in Organic Chemistry 2.

The first few days of class I fought to stay awake, having spent the weeks between semesters staying up until 4 or 6 am and sleeping long past noon. I forced myself to sleep earlier, and began functioning like a normal person, waking up on time. When I returned home, I would relax and surf the web; I stumbled upon many blogs written by medical students, but the one that struck a chord with me was entitled “Failing Out of Medical School.” The author, Jonathan, was exuberant in his first blog that chronicled his acceptance into medical school. His last blog was morose, but frank, and described what he had done wrong and how he intended to change.

When I first started my college career, I aimed for A’s because I knew that in order to get into medical school I needed to have them. Jonathan’s blogs taught me that in order to stay in medical school, I need to know how to get them. Three years ago, medical school was the great unknown, but after reading Jonathan’s blog I realized that although organic chemistry is not explicitly taught in medical school, I can apply what I know to biochemistry courses, and use my learned study skills to succeed in other classes. My undergraduate career will be the foundation for my graduate medical education, and I want mine to be solid.

I hate pep talks, but I did begin to think differently about organic chemistry. I thought that (a) if the class was too hard, they wouldn’t teach it (b) if other people can pass I can too and (c) I have no option except to get an A in organic chemistry. I had always thought (c) since I am an academic perfectionist, but thoughts (a) and (b) were my new mantra.

Before class began I practiced organic chemistry in the amazing workbook Pushing Electrons. This forced me to remember what valence electrons were, and how to determine the charge on atoms. Walking into organic chemistry class, the only familiar term was “Sn2” which I only remembered as an attack from behind, remembering the double entendre to which my classmates had alluded. I struggled to recall how many carbons were in -methyl, -ethyl, and -propyl groups…basically I felt like a disaster. Unlike the typical student, the last time I had taken organic chemistry 1 was two years ago, and between then I had crammed my brain full of marketing terms and accounting ledgers.

I failed the first test, and immediately began to panic. I needed an A in organic chemistry. If I didn’t make an A in all of my remaining scheduled science courses before graduation, I would not be able to enlist in a program that provided special attention to medical school applicants, offered by the pre-health advisory committee at my university.

Getting an A in organic chemistryTo remedy this, I began to do the homework long before the exams, and studied for hours before our online quizzes, which were only worth a miniature portion of our grade. After each quiz, I went to my professors office hours to discuss what I had done wrong, and ask him other random questions such as “Can tertiary structures undergo Sn2 reactions?” (The answer is no, if you are wondering.) Slowly my grades went up, and I actually found organic chemistry enjoyable. I certainly made mistakes, and couldn’t tell the difference between an aldehyde an a carboxylic acid group until the last month of the course, but I did it! I needed to attend office hours less and less often, I started studying with a friend I met in the course, and I earned my A.

If you, too, want an A in organic chemistry, this is how you do it.

  1. Realize that organic chemistry isn’t impossible–if I can make a C in Organic Chemistry 1 and an A in Organic Chemistry 2, you can too.
  2. Prior to the beginning of the semester, buy the book Pushing Electrons and go as far in the book as you can without being totally confused (I got through sections 1-3 out of 4 before class began.)
  3. Go to class every single day, even on days that are just for review. **if you skip class you need to actually study at home**
  4. Ask your teacher for help, and always review the quizzes and exams with him/her. If he/she refuses to go over quizzes or exams with you, then make a list of topics that you missed on the exam, find sample problems depicting these topics in the book, and ask your professor to explain them to you.
  5. Actually read the book at some point before the exam. I usually read it after all of the lectures were over because I would get confused and bored just reading it before I had been taught the material.
  6. Watch these amazing organic chemistry tutoring sessions on youtube while you are studying; often times these sorts of questions would appear on my exams! They are organized by topic.
  7. Find someone to study with, or set aside a dedicated time each week to do insanely long study sessions.
  8. Sleep for a decent amount of time every day so that you can think clearly.
  9. Keep neat notes and take your book to class. I wish I had written in my book because referencing your book can be easier than finding something in your notes…so write in your book!

This sanskrit quotes explains how to succeed perfectly.

Vitarka vicara ananda asmitarupa anugamat samprajnatah. –Yoga Sutra I.17

In order to reach a state of complete understanding, we must go through a process that progresses from superficial understanding to increasingly greater refinement and subtlety of comprehension, until our understanding becomes fully integrated and total.–Yoga Sutra I.17 (translated)

In other words, in order to find the joy of completely understanding organic chemistry, you must learn to appreciate its nuances and difficulties. Don’t cram; study all semester long, and you too, can have an A in Organic Chemistry!



  1. Mikey says:

    June 19th, 2013at 8:38 pm(#)

    This is awesome.

  2. orgo student says:

    January 16th, 2014at 10:56 pm(#)

    Thank you for this post. I am currently taking Organic Chemistry 1 at a University and your post gave me hope and encouragement. 🙂

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