5 Great Ways to Fail Organic Chemistry

There are several definite ways in which you can waste your time, waste your money, and be certain your dreams of going into a science based field, can be utterly ruined.

Only a small minority of students who take organic chemistry actually intend to become chemists. Many of them are going into fields like biology, medicine, pharmocolgy, or forensic science.

Why be a second rate failure, when following one or more of the following suggestions can make you and your parents shake their heads. You can have them wonder aloud:

“What ever happened to our wonderful child?”

1) Believing Organic Chemistry is the Most Difficult Course Ever Invented:

“Oh, no! You have to be a genius to get this. I’m expected to know things that weren’t even covered in class. How is anyone ever expected to know all of this? I can’t believe it’s really this hard. I may never get into medical school”.

These are the sentiments heard time and time again as they echo through the halls of chemistry departments: disappointed students who take their frustration out on the course. In some cases, even on the professor. If you hear someone saying this, do yourself a favor. Carefully consider the source.

Contrary to what many people report about this, often having gotten less than stellar grades, organic chemistry is certainly not the hardest course offered at an undergraduate level. It is considered to be on a level of difficulty appropriate for a sophomore or junior level at almost every college or university that offers the course.

The fact is, many students do well in organic chemistry. That means you can do well, too. What most students have difficulty with, is that it requires you to think and use principles in a way you may not be used to doing. The vast majority of textbooks have many example problems which can be worked through, and then applied to the homework problem set.

Every college and university has resources like tutoring services, books in the library, practical how-to books in the book store, and the professor herself. Use the resources easily available to you before you conclude it is just too hard.

2) Waiting Until Four or Five Days Before the Test So You Can Memorize the Important Points:

“I can’t possibly memorize hundreds of different reactions. There are just too many arrows going every which way. I also seem to get them wrong! There just isn’t enough time. The professor must be doing this on purpose.”

This reflects two terrible misconceptions about studying an introductory course in organic chemistry.

The first misconception is that the student in question has not put enough time aside to study. Any course, regardless of what it is, should be studied two to three hours per week for every credit hour you sit in lecture. For a three hour course in organic chemistry, which meets for three lectures, one hour a piece, that means a total of six to nine hours a week should be spent studying organic chemistry.

If you are taking four courses with four lectures, that meet for one hour lectures three days a week, that means you spend twelve hours in lecture. If you spend twelve hours in lecture and multiply that by two hours for every hour spent in lecture, you will spend twenty-four hours studying minimum outside of the lecture for each week. That’s a total of thirty-six hours to accommodate all of your academic obligations. If for some reason you feel even more studious, and spend three hours of study per one lecture hour, the total hours in studying and lecture will be forty-eight hours per week.

So if you spend exactly forty hours a week studying, which is exactly same as any work week if you were not in college, your grades should be fairly reasonable–with plenty of time for fun.

The second misconception is that when you study organic chemistry, that this is an exercise in memorizing as much as possible. It is not. So you can ditch those flash cards. What you are being asked to do is recognize a set of rules like geometry in highschool, or how a computer responds to certain types of commands from a programming language.

What you are being asked to learn are these rules of interaction. Especially with organic chemistry, things like the type of solvent, the concentration of the reactants, or the identity of one reactant compared to the other, affect the outcome of the reaction. That if anything is what you must learn to work with. Believe it or not, the method of pushing arrows was invented to make life easier, not harder.

3) Insisting Organic Chemistry is Nothing Like Any Other Course You Have Ever Studied:

“This is so different. I have never seen anything like this before. Nothing really prepared me to try to understand all these things–many of which don’t make sense. I have no idea how I am supposed to figure any of this out. Why don’t they have a course just to prepare you to take organic chemistry?”

These have been the words of many students while they exit a lecture, and even sometimes an exam. There have been students in organic chemistry who swear they have never heard of s- and p-orbitals, have no idea what a Lewis dot structure is, how many bonds common atoms take in a molecule, no previous exposure to chemical thermodynamics, no exposure to reaction rates, or order of a reaction, and no idea about the difference between a weak acid dissociation constant and a strong acid.

The author has heard every one of these claims made.

This is despite the fact that every one of these topics mentioned above, every one of them without exception, factually appeared on first and second semester general chemistry finals.

Even when shown the copies of the finals they have taken from the previous academic year which they took, and received good grades on, many students became angry because they felt it was unfair they were expected to know what they had studied last year.

“They expect me to know everything I have already studied.”

Don’t be one of these students.

Your best defense to avoid this trap is to be able to look at your old notes, and use your general chemistry textbook as a resource you can rely on in the future. If you are really up on these topics above, you will be well ahead of your class mates, and on your way to a good grade.

A separate article for this alone would certainly clear up some of the foggy areas many students have.

4) Fearful of What Sort Devious Tactics the Professor Will Use to Execute His Duty in A Weed Out Course:

“He’s just trying to trick me! He’s supposed to fail a certain number of students with hard questions. She gets a thrill out of how many students she fails. They make it this hard deliberately, just to see if you have what it takes”.

To belabor the obvious, there is no such thing as a “weed out” course. Especially if you are not weeded out.

Most, as in the overwhelming majority of organic chemistry professors sincerely want their students to well. They do not want to fail anyone, and often return to their offices down trodden because they feel disappointed when students have trouble grasping ideas as much as they would like.

I have yet to seen any trick questions written by any chemistry professor, organic or otherwise. The type of questions that get labeled that way are questions which require a different set of assumptions, or a bit more work figuring out.

To put you at ease, most organic chemistry courses have very similar requirements from place to place, and regardless of where you take the course, or from whom you take it, the content is regular enough that you would encounter a very similar course just about anywhere else. This is regulated by the American Chemical Society, not the whims of any particular professor.

Rest assured, there are no professors who teach organic chemistry who are on a mission to fail students. It is actually very much the opposite.

5) Engage in Magical Thinking:

“That’s okay. I know I will pull through this test. After all, I have my lucky eraser”.

This is the type of sentiment an actual student said before he went into the test room just before he took the chemistry part of the MCAT. Can you guess how he did. I bet you can!

There was another case of a mechanical engineering student who slept with his textbook under his pillow, hoping the knowledge would seep into his head.

These are real people, and no actors were hired to play their parts.

All too often, students look at harder problems, convinced it is too hard, and hope it does not appear on the test. Invariably, that is not what happens. In a similar way, many students put off their studying until the last few days before the exam nurturing the delusion that if they study hard enough, stay up all night, memorize complicated pneumonic rhymes, somehow they will pull through.

After all, it worked before.

Understand this.

If you are having a hard time with problems, get help. Don’t bang your head against the wall. Professors have office hours, and so do TA’s. Most colleges also have peer tutoring programs.

Slow and steady wins the race. You will master organic chemistry by making small gains every day on a consistent basis. It has also been scientifically proven that five hours of studying for one hour per day is far better than studying for five hours for one day.

Don’t leave wishful thinking leave you no place to hide.

If you carefully consider these pitfalls that consume far too many organic chemistry students from the start, you will be well ahead of the class. With these barriers removed, you may even decide organic chemistry is great fun.

Have an open mind, free of the above hobgoblins and see what happens!