Organic Chemistry: Nontraditional Premed into Organic Tutor Part 2

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Remember the mantra: I have to see the forest and the trees, and an occasional  leaf or two.

You might of reckoned from this series that it probably takes an ornate amount of time to prepare for Organic Chemistry, and you’d be right. I’m reminded of an anecdote from a colleague, the professor of an Organic Chemistry course draws a “C” on the board and says “This ‘C’ stands for Carbon, it also stands for the grade most of you will receive in this course. Look to your left and your right, by the end of the series one or both of the students next to you would of disappeared”. Having tutored Organic Chemistry as a non Chemistry Major (nor minor for the point) I can attest to just how “hard” it is, but it’s certainly ace-able if you’re determined enough. More great news, the lessons learned from taking this rigorous course will prepare you for mentality you need to have for studying the MCAT, especially if you decide to self-study.

Syllabus: General Map of the Forest

Have a couple copies of your syllabus, heck have one on your phone. I was never organized enough to sit down and mark out my whole calender, but I did at least know how I’d have to allocate my time for the next couple of weeks. My school was a quarter system, so usually a month into the course we’d already have midterms, and the final a month or so later, therefore it was important to learn how to manage my time appropriately.  To get the best use of your syllabus I’d suggest using it to:

  • Prioritize your study schedule
  1. Allocate more time to topics stressed on the syllabus.
  2. Compare other courses’ syllabus to see if you’ll have conflicting or tough schedules, this is essential when you notice you’re totally not getting Robinson ring formations.
  3. Keep track of your reading, make sure you keep up to speed with sections, vocabulary, and homework sets.

Prioritize your efforts, make sure you’re studying is congruent with the course road map and make sure they’re no surprises.

Learn how to use your textbook.

Most people use those $200 Organic Chemistry text as nothing more than an elaborate paperweight or Instagram prop. There’s a couple of reasons people choose to not read their book: people believe it won’t help their grade and/or believe they don’t have enough time to read it. If you’re teacher is Bill Nye the Science Guy, and it’s working for you then great. On the other hand, I had a professor who loved to call carbon’s “these guys”.  So, if you can make sense of a lecture where it goes “You see these guys, they interact with these guys, and then these guys over here make this product”, then by all means skip the book. But, for me and my students, we found using the textbook in conjunction with their requirements is optimal, especially when it comes time for a logical explanation. The latter excuse is the easiest to dispel, if you cram then you’re right it’s absolutely impossible to have enough time to read and practice =). Solution = don’t cram. (There’s actually a lot of hidden ‘easter-egg’ jokes in science books and solution manuals, I think they assume no one’s reading them anyways ^_^)

  • Read chapter summary – try to get the gist of the chapter, e.g. think so why is this chapter important to me? What will I know how to do after reading this chapter. Don’t be too concerned with the verbiage, you’re just trying to see the trees.
  • Preview/read sections – now that I had a general idea of what was ahead of me from the summary, I’d go and read the appropriate sections (especially the fancy introduction). I would then take brief notes such as denoting what paragraph had the general rules and exceptions for Grignard Reactions. I didn’t really care about the details about this point, I just want to know where I can find the info when I need it later.
  • Re-read sections + attempt problems as they come. You’ll find a lot of Organic Chemistry is learning how to troubleshoot your own problems. To facilitate this you have to become rather consistent in your effort. I found that problems are laid out in a pretty logical order. They typically progressively get harder, and earlier questions end up being essential fundamentals to the killer questions later. Accordingly, if I’m struggling with #48 then there’s probably some related “easier” questions that I probably wasn’t getting as much as I thought. For this reason I found it more logical to also attempt the problems in order, not just in the order I felt like. When I found myself stuck on a problem, or a set, it was usually obvious that I didn’t understand something in the section that presented the material. Skipping around generally isn’t a good strategy unless you’ve mastered everything else and need to brush up on that topic.
  • Now, if you’re following the syllabus there’s a good chance you’ll have the homework done with enough time to repeat the homework. Recall how long it took the first time to finish the homework, and compare your second attempt. If you have time, do your homework a third time. Take notes as you do the homework, write down the logic of what happened, use arrows, draw mechanisms, do whatever you need to do to understand the concept before you move on. There are too many things to memorize, so you have to get by on ole’ fashioned understanding, the more you hit the material the easier it gets. Sometimes repeating the homework isn’t possible, but as a rule of thumb I made sure that the real homework was done (regardless of the fact the my professor didn’t collect homework), and I would re-attempt problems that stumped me at least several more times.
  • Attempt problems that don’t follow the general rules, i.e. problems with exceptions – if you’ve been working hard then you’ll find the problems that destroy you will be the last 5-10 problems in the chapter, as opposed to the first 5-10 to those who cram. Find those exceptions, they’re usually at the end of the section or chapter. The exceptions are probably exceptions because they’re not all that logical, so just memorize them for now.

The difficult comes not in the concepts presented during the course, conceptually it’s probably the easiest course you’ll have to take as a premed. In fact, having also tutored General Chemistry I think General Chemistry is conceptually harder because the material is presented as disparate topics stapled together over a year sequence, unless you have a stellar professor year-round. It’s just easier to get by in General Chemistry without understanding the concepts in depth, for example  orbital theory is actually introduced early in General Chemistry. If you ever feel the urge to learn how hard General Chemistry could of been take Physical Chemistry, or ask a survivor. There’s a caveat to the apparent ‘ease’ of the Organic course, students in Organic Chemistry often get lulled into cramming at the last minute because they falsely assume their “intuition” will equate to objective problem solving. From my experience, this seems to be the chief reasoning for students struggling through Organic. Eventually everyone catches on to how much work is necessary, question is when will you notice it: when the quarter/semester is over, at the beginning, or midway through (and hopefully it’s too late). The hardest part of Organic Chemistry is not the concepts, its the amount of time required to beef up your Organic Chemistry intuition. Always put things in context, and take time to reevaluate where you and your goals lie.

Stay tuned for the next part of this article, it’ll probably cover both in class tips and exam taking tips.

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