Organic chemistry, known as “orgo” among college students, is notoriously one of the most challenging courses in university.
It is taken by pre-med students, aspiring engineers, and scientists.
However, organic chemistry has a nasty reputation for causing even the smartest students to nearly fail.
There are a lot of challenging science classes in college, but none seems to outrank organic chemistry.
Why is this class so hard?
Well, it is a combination of abstract thinking, intense studying, and complicated reactions.
Keep reading for ten reasons organic chemistry is so hard, and then scroll down to find some tips on how to ace it.
Why Is Organic Chemistry So Hard? (Top 10 Reasons)
1. It Is Dependent On Symbols And Visualizations Instead Of Language
There are more than 15 million compounds to work with, and nearly an infinite number of possible organic reactions.
You cannot expect to understand the way these reactions operate by using language alone.
It is mostly a combination of elemental symbols, numbers, arrows, shapes, and lines that make up a chemical reaction.
Organic chemistry is essentially a language of its own.
It is therefore taught in a more mathematical format, than literature since it relies so heavily on applying rules rather than memorizing content.
A lot of the material in organic chemistry relies on what is called “arrow pushing,” or a way of drawing molecular diagrams to represent electron movement in chemical reactions.
There is no way to memorize the way these arrows move, and why chemicals behave a certain way.
Instead, organic chemistry should be attempted the same way you might learn a language.
Do not try to focus on single rules, since rules cannot be generally applied to every case.
Instead, focus on the big picture.
Learn skills and look for patterns, rather than rules that are set in stone.
2. Organic Chemistry Cannot Be Memorized
If you go into the class hoping to memorize everything, you probably will not perform that well (unless you have an exceptional memory).
You would have to remember hundreds of substrates, reagents, and reaction products to get a good grade.
This is not a realistic goal, and you must be prepared to devote yourself to conceptually grasping the material.
If you can understand the basis for about seven to ten different reactions, however, you will be able to apply those principles to other problems.
For example, if you look at the aldol reaction of nitromethane and benzaldehyde, you can apply the rules to the reaction of cyclohexane and ethyl cyanoacetate.
Both reactions share a common mechanism and can therefore be understood in the same framework.
Another example is the way dicyanomethane reacts with benzaldehyde with greater ease than it does with ethyl cyanoacetate, which is more reactive than diethyl malonate.
Even though the chemistry is similar, the way these elements react with one another varies.
You must truly understand how these elements react with one another, and then apply those principles to other reactions to get the correct answers.
If you try to memorize everything, you will set yourself up for failure.
3. It Is Less Intuitive
A lot of science students are adept at visualizing the tangible.
Physics students can estimate the rate at which a penny will fall from a building based on the weight of the coin, gravity, and the height from which it is falling.
Biology students can understand cell division based on the various steps and diagrams taught in class.
Similarly, chemistry students can predict the products of reactions, based on how certain elements bond.
Organic chemistry is much less easy to visualize.
One student pointed to her reliance on the tangibility of what she is studying.
Based on previous rules in chemistry, many students try to understand organic chemistry using mathematical modeling, elemental knowledge, and logic.
However, many reactions defy previously held notions of what is supposed to occur.
4. There Is A Lack Of Visualization Software
Since organic chemistry is less intuitive and less likely to follow the “rules,” there are fewer options for visualization software to help you understand the material.
These computer programs are essential in comprehending how the experiments work, especially for visual learners.
Since the rules cannot also be applied to a lot of organic chemistry, though, there is a severe lack of these types of programs.
This creates an added challenge for students trying to understand the already difficult material.
If chemistry were easy, there would be a lot more computer programs that could predict reaction outcomes, and fewer things would need to be done in the lab.
Like human behavior, it is possible to theorize the outcome, but impossible to truly predict it with absolute certainty.
5. It Requires A Different Type Of Studying
Another reason organic chemistry is challenging is that it requires a kind of studying that many students are not used to.
Since the chemical reactions are sometimes impossible to predict, students cannot rely on memorization to ace their exams.
Instead, students must truly understand the material at a deep level, so they can apply what they learned to reactions they have not seen before.
There is no way to excel in organic chemistry except to study frequently.
Many students recommend doing all of the practice problems in the textbook and then checking answers in the solution manual.
Unlike many science courses where the material can be memorized, organic chemistry knowledge can only progress through practice.
6. Not All Reactions Can Be Learned The Same Way
The way you process information for organic chemistry largely depends on the type of reaction.
For example, for synthesis reactions, you must remember to work them backward.
For mechanisms, there is not much to do but memorize them.
For the most part, though, organic chemistry is taught much differently than it used to be taught many years ago.
In the past, there was an emphasis on nomenclature and reaction rules that required rote memorization.
Nowadays, though, it requires more conceptualization and application.
Though the course content has not changed much, the way it is taught and tested has changed drastically.
7. Organic Chemistry Involves Very Long Chains
Unlike general chemistry where the compounds are comparatively short, organic chemistry uses compounds that have a lot of elements involved, thereby greatly complicating the problem.
Though you are working mainly with carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, nitrogen, and sulfur, these elements can be rearranged in countless ways to create entirely different products.
These long chains add complexity to an already challenging course consisting of aromaticity, catalyzers, mechanisms, isomers, and nomenclature, just to name a few.
All these things require a great deal of focus and understanding to truly comprehend, so the long chains add even more complexity.
8. There Are Few Opportunities For Guesswork
Since a lot of organic chemistry requires you to work through problems and show your work, there are very few multiple-choice questions.
As a result, you need to have a deep understanding of the material to get a good grade on the exam.
You can’t guess your way through an organic chemistry test since you will need to demonstrate your knowledge of resonance, synthesis reactions, and so much more.
A lot of it requires symbols and mathematical problem solving, which would be nearly impossible to just guess.
For this reason, it is an added challenge to do well in organic chemistry.
Unlike biology, which requires a lot of memorization and is often assessed through multiple choice and matching questions, organic chemistry tests are frequently open-ended where you get more points for showing your work.
If you do not understand the material, you probably will not perform very well.
9. You Need A Strong Foundation Of Previous Chemistry Courses
If you thought General Chemistry I and General Chemistry II were difficult, you are going to have a harder time in organic chemistry, especially if you still do not have mastery of the material from your previous courses.
Like a lot of science and math classes, chemistry builds on itself.
If you do not understand the way different elements react with one another, how and why electrons bond, or how to draw Lewis Structures, organic chemistry will feel nearly impossible.
For many college students, it is easy to fall behind in General Chemistry I and II, but a lot of students hope that organic chemistry will somehow be easier, or maybe even review some of the tough material from those previous classes.
The truth is that there is so much material to teach in organic chemistry, there is hardly any time to review old material.
Professors will dive right into the new content, expecting students to have a strong grasp of whatever they learned previously.
Many students take organic chemistry in the fall, after taking Chemistry I in the previous fall semester and Chemistry II in the spring.
After a long summer of little studying or reviewing, students may be lacking some of the knowledge they acquired in previous semesters.
For students who excelled in Chemistry I and II, organic chemistry will be a natural progression of learning.
For those who squandered, however, it will be an even bigger challenge.
10. There Are Always Exceptions
Of course, there are some things in organic chemistry that you will need to memorize, like the way certain molecules react with one another or the formula for various reactions.
However, another reason organic chemistry is so hard is that there are always exceptions to the rules.
It might be hard to understand why these exceptions occur and add another layer of complication because you will have to memorize the rules in addition to the exceptions.
Like learning a language, there is no way to memorize everything.
It must be intuitive, and of course, there will always be exceptions to the rules.
Keep this in mind as you learn chemistry and you will fare much better in the course.
Once you understand why these exceptions occur, you will be even better off.
Hang In There
Now that you know why organic chemistry is so hard, you might be feeling discouraged about succeeding in the class.
Please don’t fear.
If you stay ahead of the curve, there is no doubt that you will do well.
There are also quite a few reasons organic chemistry is easy such as the pattern recognition and minimal math required.
If you are not a math person, you are in luck because most of organic chemistry just requires you to understand the material and recognize chemical patterns.
There are also a lot of ways to succeed in this challenging course.
Keep reading for some tips on how to excel in organic chemistry.
1. Remember That Not All Reactions Can Be Explained With Logic
One of the hardest parts of organic chemistry is that some reactions seem to defy reason.
Once you understand that many reactions do not follow the rules you learned in Chemistry I and II, your mind will be more open to understanding and rationalizing the chemical equations in front of you.
Many organic reactions do not occur as you would expect them to.
2. Study Every Day
A lot of professors say this about every course, believing that if you take it little by little, and truly set aside a bit of time every day to review what you learned, you will be better off.
Well, this is the case with organic chemistry.
If you let the material pile up until right before the exam, it will be very challenging to effectively study all the information and be prepared for your test.
One former organic chemistry student advises setting aside one hour every day to review the information you learned in class that day, and then apply that information to work out problems in the textbook.
Working on textbook practice problems is one of the most important things you can do because they will probably be much like what will appear on the exam.
This does not mean looking at the problems and then the solution manual and thinking to yourself that the solution makes sense, and you would have done it the same way if you were to work through the problem yourself.
It means sitting down, without looking at the solution manual, and trying to work through the problem until you truly cannot go any further.
By doing some problems every day, and mastering what you are learning in class, you will be able to build on that information and those skills as the material becomes progressively harder before the exam.
Remember that you will need to spend an estimated five to ten hours every week studying organic chemistry.
You might need to devote even more time if it is the week of an exam, but the more time you spend on the class in the days and weeks leading up to the test, the less stressed you will feel when it comes time to study.
3. Get A Tutor Before It Gets Too Hard
As soon as you notice yourself struggling with the material, it is imperative that you get a tutor, or at the very least, go to office hours with your professor.
A lot of students who do poorly in organic chemistry perform badly because they wait to get help until it is way too late, sometimes not even until after the student failed two or three exams and the final grade was hanging in the balance.
If you do not develop a solid foundation at the beginning of the course, it is going to be hard to do well later.
It is also important to do well in organic chemistry because there is a good chance that you will have to take harder classes in the future.
If you are studying chemical engineering, you will have to take physical chemistry eventually, which, by many accounts, is even harder than organic chemistry because there is less rote memorization and purely conceptual learning.
If you get a tutor now, you will thank yourself later.
There are also a lot of free online materials you can look at when reviewing organic chemistry.
One of the most trusted sources is Khan Academy, which features videos and practice problems on a lot of the class’s most challenging elements (no pun intended).
It even offers its own organic chemistry course.
Check out YouTube for other helpful videos, such as Crash Course, The Organic Chemistry Tutor, Eilot Rintoul, and Leah4sci.
They can help you learn how to approach difficult concepts and practice problems.
It can be a great source of learning to watch someone work through a problem with you, rather than trying to read through a solution manual by yourself.
4. Grasp Electron Behavior
Chemistry, in general, largely revolves around the behavior of electrons.
It all boils down to electrons’ desire to move from places where they are plentiful to areas where they are lacking.
Electrons can move through different pathways with varying likelihood and stability.
The availability of these pathways can be measured through electron density, overlapping orbitals, the steric and electronic influence of nearby groups, and more.
A thorough understanding of electron behavior requires an ability to visualize molecular and atomic shifts.
Some helpful concepts to know are polar effect (used for acid/base couples), substitution reactions and similar elimination reactions, palladium-catalyzed coupling reactions, and sigmatropic reactions.
Once you have a good basic understanding of these kinds of reactions, you will find a lot more success in your organic chemistry course.
5. Review What You Learned In Previous Chemistry Courses
Chemistry builds on itself.
You will need the knowledge of what you learned in general chemistry to succeed in organic chemistry.
Before starting the course, refresh your memory on some of the most important chemistry rules such as Lewis structures, bonding, Ka and pKa values, pH, atomic orbitals, and more.
If you have a solid foundation of these things, you will find it a lot easier to succeed.
Especially, if you haven’t reviewed the material in a few months or didn’t perform as well in the class as you wanted to, a quick refresher will take you a long way.
For those planning to apply to medical school, admissions officers often pay special attention to your grades in organic chemistry and biochemistry
It is therefore important that you perform well in these classes, even though they are some of the most challenging ones you will ever take.
Remember that organic chemistry is one of the hardest courses a college student can take, so do not be too hard on yourself! Reach out for help from tutors, professors, or classmates as soon as you come across challenging information.
You will thank yourself later! Sometimes all it takes is the right mindset.