How to Succeed in Organic Chemistry – Student Response Edition

I just finished teaching my first full semester of organic chemistry as a real Ph.D. yesterday.  The semester overall went well, and I plan on reminiscing and writing out my thoughts over the past semester here sometime soon.

We had the final yesterday.  My bonus question on the final was “If you could go back to August 25th (the first day of class) and give yourself three pieces of advice on How to Succeed in Organic Chemistry, what three pieces of advice would you give yourself?”

Now, I put a whole paragraph on my syllabus (which they got on the first day of class on 25 Aug) titled How to Succeed in Organic Chemistry.  Many of the pieces of advice students mentioned were pieces of advice I put on that very syllabus… but no one listens to the professor I guess…  We also discussed this topic here on the blog several months ago, but with advice from the professor’s side of the lectern.  Again, no one listens to professors, so perhaps advice from the student’s side of the lectern will be heeded?

My favorite response: “Change your major … just kidding”

Anyway, here they all are.  Compiled and organized (with school specific entries removed).  If you’re a student taking organic chemistry, here is advice from fellow students for fellow students on How to Succeed in Organic Chemistry.  If you won’t believe your professor when (s)he tells you these same things, perhaps you’ll believe your peers.

On the book:

  • Read the book before class (so you know if there’s a problem, if you don’t understand something, or if it’s just hard)
  • Take your own notes before class

In class:

  • Don’t go into the first day dreading class
  • Don’t sleep in class
  • A cup of coffee before class is necessary once in a while on those tired days.  Stay awake for ochem – you cannot afford to miss this stuff
  • Ask questions
  • Use multiple resources; go to other prof’s lectures, look online, etc.

On notes:

  • Rewrite & organize notes after class (2 people wrote this)
  • Make a reaction notebook
  • Look over notes every day after class
  • Don’t take notes in pen.  There’s too many corrections that get made.  White out wastes time.

On studying:

  • Find the best way to study early in the semester
  • Start studying earlier
  • Study (at least 1 hour) every day (4 people wrote this)
  • Study lecture notes immediately after class
  • Study consistently throughout the semester, not just week before exam
  • Don’t get behind, small reviews daily
  • Never get behind, study every night
  • Form a study group
  • Go to study tables & get a tutor if necessary
  • Just because you know how to name them does not mean that you are a pro.  Study, study, study
  • Study past material at least once a week
  • Study.  This is not a wing-it kind of course.  It takes work
  • You can never, ever study enough.  Ever.

On practice problems:

  • Actually do homework
  • Do all chapter assignments written by instructor/Do all problem sets more than once
  • Do practice problems throughout the week instead of all at once
  • Review notes and do practice problems five days, sometimes six a week.  School is your job right now
  • Do as many practice problems as you can
  • Do problems/practice reactions every night (no matter what other homework you have)
  • Ask for more practice problems once I know the material
  • Practice problems make perfect
  • Practice, practice, practice (4 people wrote this)
  • Practice a hell of a lot more

On mechanisms/reactions:

  • Nucleophiles attack electrophiles
  • Remember that flow of electrons is important
  • Practice mechanisms as much as possible
  • Understanding how and why mechanisms work is better than memorizing
  • Just because you think you know the mechanisms, doesn’t mean you know how to apply them
  • If you can do the mechanism, that doesn’t mean you can do them quick enough on the test.  Practice more till you’re able to do them quickly.  50 minutes is not much.
  • Learn reaction reagents and how they form (i.e. syn/anti)/master them well before the exam
  • Watch out for single bond rotations and how they change stereochemistry (i.e. identical or meso compounds)
  • When figuring out stereochemistry, take your time and do it right
  • Memorize the ‘6 Truths of Organic Chemistry’ to the point where they show up in your dreams*
  • Use ‘Truths’ to help with exams

On office hours:

  • Go to office hours (often) (5 people wrote this)
  • Utilize office hours better
  • Plan ahead so you have time to go to office hours
  • Go see the teacher every week or every time you do not completely understand something
  • Talk to the prof.  they really are there to help you when you are struggling
  • If you are afraid to ask questions or get help from your professor privately, then you won’t learn anything.


  • Change your major … just kidding
  • Expect to put in a lot of time.  It’s not hard, just a lot of time.
  • Stay ahead!  Don’t do things ‘on time’
  • Predict how what I learn will be applicable to future problems
  • Don’t stress over exams
  • Use the modeling kit
  • Don’t get caught up trying to think of one way to do certain things – think broader picture
  • Everything is cumulative – if you miss things on test, go back and fix things or you’ll be screwed later\

*The 6 Truths of Organic Chemistry is a list of Truths I put together some time ago to help students avoid common mistakes and help them find a starting point when the get to an exam and say “what is this!  I’ve never seen these reagents before!  I have no idea what the product will be!”  The 6 Truths are:

#1) Approach unknown reactions just like you should approach all reactions
– Identify nucleophile(s)
– Identify electrophile(s)
– Nucleophiles attack electrophiles
– Repeat

#2) Weaker Acid Wins
– In and acid/base equilibrium, the equilibrium favors the side of the arrow with the weaker acid (the compound with the higher pKa)

#3) Mind your charges
– Make sure the net charge of all compounds is consistent throughout a mechanism

#4) The 2nd Best Rule
– The 2nd best resonance structure usually defines a functional group’s reactivity

#5) When in doubt: Number Your Carbons!
– When coupling 2 molecules, if it not readily obvious where the various atoms go in the product, number the carbon atoms in the starting material and map those numbers on to the product.

#6) Carbonyls: THE CODE
– There are only 3 elementary steps in a carbonyl addition mechanism.
1) Proton Transfer (always reversible)
2) Nucleophilic Addition to a Carbonyl (electrons go up onto oxygen)
3) Electrons Collapse Down from Oxygen (and kick out a good leaving group)
The steps can be in any order and repeated, but those are the only 3 steps needed for addition to acid chlorides, acid anhydrides, aldehydes, ketones, amides, esters, and carboxylic acids (including aldol and Claisen reactions)



  1. Thanks for sharing. This should be must read for all (chemistry) students

  2. This is great. I wish more organic chemistry profs would do this.

  3. Thanks for sharing, really it should be beneficially for all students.

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  6. Excellent!
    Nothing to add!
    Very useful,
    Thanks for great job!

  7. Very helpful… I wish I would have found this a long time ago.

  8. I am going to give this to my students next semester. It is nothing I haven’t said to my students every year anyway but maybe (just maybe) by other students saying it they will actually listen. Thanks for posting it and everything else. It has helped immensely.

  9. Great Idea…I’m going to try this w/ my class next year!

  10. thank you for the 6 rules. im going to try them!

  11. Very nice. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  12. According to me, writing is the key to understand organic chemistry. It is almost imposible if we only read and recitate the mechanism reaction and organic structure.

    Thank you.

  13. BryanSanctuary says:

    Nice you shared a very informative blog. If you suceed in organic chemistry you clear all reactions use in organic chemistry. If you concentrate then organic chemistry is so easy to learn. Thanks for sharing this informative blog.

  14. Evan Dietrich says:

    That’s why it’s the same advice given by everyone. It works. Nothing new here.

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  16. Thanks a lot

  17. To get help from chemistry experts, visit.

  18. Solid advice, just about all of it. I would only change one thing. Don’t rewrite your notes. Making them look pretty is nice but it is not studying. It is a major time waster. Learn to take notes right the first time. Write on only one side of the page and leave room to the left for keywords to add right after class. Review the keywords after class, and what they describe, as well as that night, and then every day for 15 minutes. Learn to study fast, efficiently, with little bits every day. Memorize things that can make you faster on tests, like some pkas, reagents, NMR and IR values. Even if your professor hands out these values, memorize them anyway, because the other students won’t.

    If you need help with your memory, see my free study skills ebook at my website Pass Ochem, then follow my blog over time.

  19. So the past few nights I stayed up late editing this video. Please watch it and if you like it please share it xD. It’s a bonus video for my ochem class that I am in, the more views we get, the higher rating we will possibly get for the class bonus project. Also this might be a helpful video for those of you needing to take ochem

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  21. thanks for posting content here keep posting more.

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