Tips for success in organic chemistry courses

academics chemistry organic chemistry
By Tola

Organic chemistry is historically considered a “weed-out” class for pre-medical students and often the cause of much frustration for students. After spending 3 years during college serving as a teaching assistant and tutor for organic chemistry courses at my undergraduate university, here are some tips for studying for your organic chemistry courses! 

1. Talk with students who have previously taken the course or your teaching assistants

While the content is mostly similar, schools often teach organic chemistry in different ways. Talk with students who have taken the course to estimate how much time you may need to dedicate to organic chemistry and what to expect from the course. Speaking with past students who have done well in the course can also help you craft your study methods, as you gain insight on what they wish they had done or hadn’t done when taking the course. Your teaching assistants are also there to help you, so be sure to use them as a resource! 

2. Take notes during class and rewrite class notes 

I took notes on the textbook readings prior to class. After class, I would REWRITE my class notes, adding in my textbook notes as appropriate for a complete set of notes with some practice problems and answers included. I recommend rewriting class notes for two reasons: 

  • Consolidating class material: Class can go by quickly and before you know it you may have been mindlessly taking notes. By rewriting your notes, you can assess what content you understand and find knowledge gaps. The knowledge gaps allow you to enter office hours with questions prepared for your TA or professor. 

  • Organization: Rewriting class notes allows for greater organization of all your notes in one place and makes it easier to find information to reference before quizzes or exams. 

3. Do practice problems!! 

Many students – myself included – find that studying for organic chemistry is different than studying for other classes you’ve taken. Unlike some classes, memorization does not take you very far in organic chemistry. Rather, you must understand why the molecules are reacting and why one reagent might be better than another. 

For the students I taught in college, I always recommended doing practice problems on an organic concept, until the student understood the general principles underlying the concept. 

At my undergrad, we had weekly discussion worksheets. If your school doesn’t have discussion worksheets, you can find practice problems in various organic chemistry textbooks or online. 

If you have a good understanding on a topic and want more challenging problems, ask your professor or TA during office hours! 

4. Don’t erase incorrect answers 

This tip is probably one of the most important tips I’ve given students and where students begin to see the most improvement once they adopt this strategy! 

When you find you’ve answered a question incorrectly, whether that be in class, discussion, or outside of class, do NOT erase your incorrect answer. Instead, using a colored pen or pencil write the correct answer next to your answer. Also, write why you were wrong and why the correct answer was right. 

Using a colored pen/pencil is a great review tool, as anytime you review the assignment your eyes will be drawn to what you got incorrect, and the explanation will be nearby. Thus, allowing you to see what mistakes you commonly make and fix faulty logic sooner rather than later.  

5. Attend office hours 

Office hours are a great way for your professors and TAs to get to know you. For those of you that are pre-med, letters of recommendation will be important for your medical school applications and office hours can be a gateway to establishing longitudinal relationships with professors. Personally, both of my science letters of recommendation for medical school came from organic chemistry professors in courses I took my freshman and sophomore years. 

Most importantly, office hours are key to understanding difficult material. 

I highly recommend attending office hours even if you don’t have questions that week. Oftentimes another student may ask a question, you didn’t even know you had or explain material in a more understandable way!

6. Join (or create) a study group 

The pre-health journey is a marathon not a sprint. Speaking from experience study groups are a great way to meet classmates, make lifelong friends, and gain a better understanding of the material. 

Something that was told to me in organic chemistry was, “If you can’t explain the material to someone else, you don’t truly know it.” Therefore, student groups are wonderful way to see if you truly understand the concept or material. 

I do recommend having consistent meetups (e.g. once weekly) vs. only meeting the week of an exam or quiz. As consistent meetings can help with consolidating class material from week to week. 

7. Tips on studying for exams/quizzes 


  • Print past exams or past quizzes of the quiz/exam material from prior class years, if provided by your professor

  • Give yourself the same amount of time you would have on the quiz or exam to complete one of the practice exams or quizzes.
    • Do this exam or quiz WITHOUT notes – the purpose is to assess your strengths and weaknesses and focus your studying before the actual quiz or exam.

  • Review the material that corresponded to material you missed on the quiz or exam.

  • Review all the material that pertains to the quiz or exam you have coming up. 

  • Print “blanks” of past discussion worksheets that pertain to the exam or quiz material
    • Do these discussion worksheets WITHOUT notes nearby – the idea is to assess what you know and don’t know at baseline. 
    • Grade these discussion worksheets with a red or colored pen – do NOT erase incorrect answers. 
    • When you get something wrong (or get something right only because you guessed), Write in colored pen why you were wrong and why the correct answer was right.
  • Review the material you didn’t understand on the discussion worksheet. 

  • Repeat steps a-c until you’ve worked your way through the past quizzes and exams. 

  • On the day of your quiz or exam, review the problems you previously missed. Make sure you understand why you got the problems incorrect to avoid making the same mistakes on the actual quiz or exam.