Organic Chemistry: Nontraditional Premed into Organic Tutor Part 1

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Organic Chemistry aka: Orgo, Ochem, Carbon Chemistry, the Widow-maker  chemistryjoke

Want to see a premed have a cardiac arrest?  Just tell them their Organic midterm just got moved up a week — though you’d have to be dastardly fiend.

If you haven’t had to sat for an exam for Organic then there’s no real way to capture  But, there’s a type of solidarity that comes out of course. Everyone takes it. From the fledgling premed to the grand physician we all share that post traumatic stress of taking the year of Organic Chemistry. Most of the rumors are true, Organic Chemistry is is probably the hardest course most premeds have ever taken up until that point. You’ll sit there lecture, take decent notes and swear you got it, go home study study over the weekend only later to be molested by the final.

Over the progression of the year, those people who text and nap during class disappear, and it’s only you and the survivors braving the storm in the end. But, those who make it out usually build great relationships, perhaps through shared PTSD or survivors guilt. I’m not a chemistry major, and I’m not a traditional premed either, but I got through it with an A average, and was eventually hired as a department recommended Organic Chemistry tutor at my university. Though, I was once trounced by the Orgo monster to for a brief spell, in fact at after receiving a D on my first quiz I was sure my life was over. But, I duct-taped my ego back together and conquered the course. Organic Chemistry is a character building series, I learned what ‘studying’ meant, this had a direct translation to my MCAT score.  The most important lesson that we all gain from the course is to experience what it feels like to ‘try to drink from a fire-hose’. (Random thought: for some reason scientists are obsessed with hoses and/or water analogies)

Now, I’ve tutored the course for a couple of years, including labs, I’ll just pass on stuff that did and didn’t work for myself and my students who later went on to pass Organic Chemistry with flying colors.

My Basic Study Pattern for Organic Chemistry:

  1. Know my enemy.
  2. Prep before class
  3. Attend class, take notes.
  4. Summarize pertinent chapter sections, do homework 3×4 times, review past mistakes.
  5. Attend office hours after I’ve exhausted myself trying by myself.
  6. Reconcile everything and prep for next class.

Originally this post started off as one composition, but that was a little over ambitious. So, I just decided to release it in parts otherwise I’d be stuck in editing purgatory forever. So, this blog posting will just cover how to prep before class, and the rest will roll out later. 

Know your enemy.

It’s important to know your course time line, so have several copies of your syllabus, keep one on your phone as a PDF to always have one with you. Use your syllabus to guide your reading and priorities.

Syllabus: see the trees and the forest, and perhaps the occasional leaf. A bad plan

If you are any thing like me, then Organic is probably the first time you actually paid attention to the syllabus. But, its really important to have a clear idea of the expected schedule and grading policies. Students who don’t know their syllabus will often don’t know how to allocate their effort, waste time on low yield material while often missing the bigger picture. I’m not neurotic enough to schedule my whole year out, but I have found it worth the time to refer to the syllabus to see if your ‘mastery of the material’ is on course with the schedule. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in Organic, so it’s important to stop and take perspective sometimes, knowing your syllabus allows for you to ‘see the forest‘.

Know Your Organic Professor Colleague  Unknowingly to you, the chemistry department will have a set of standards to be taught across the board to all students. However, it as at professors’ discretion in how about to dispense lessons and evaluate your understanding. Professors aren’t taught to teach, so often they’ll rely on what they’re accustomed to: their guiding principles learnt during their post doctoral work or recent industry experience etc. For example, if you have a professor that likes kinetics then you’ll probably see a lot more problems with Ka values or perhaps thermodynamic stability product problems. While other a synthetic chemist might be more concerned with your understanding of ‘bread and butter’ mechanisms; and would be expected to know a lot of reactions off the top of your head. Maybe your professor runs the NMR machine, in that case they’re probably a sadist, good luck.

You ought to know your professor well. In fact, it’s best if you move past the typical professor/student relations, that is waiting to be fed. Organic Chemistry is just too difficult and broad to expect to have all of your intimate problems addressed during class by you just raising your hand. Even after class the professor tends to either have to leave go make space for another course, attend their office hours, or do fancy chemistry stuff; so don’t be surprised if your professor is curt with you if after week 8 you’re note quite sure what an orbital is. The easiest way to address this is to pay thousands of dollars to hire an expert to address your questions individually a few times a week. Hey, you already are paying for that, it’s called office hours! If you have any personal qualms with your professor, you’ll have to learn how to have a productive relationship. Your personal relationship with your professor will get no play from medical school admissions committee — just like later your attending treating you like dirt isn’t a valid excuse for you failing boards. To get the most out of the relationship, don’t be intimated by their laurels, think of them as a respected colleague as opposed to chemistry pope.

VocabularyYou must speak the language

. Lost_in_Translation_poster

Organic has it’s own lingo, it’s own niche verbiage, at first it may seem asinine but eventually you’ll find it essential.  If you don’t become well versed in the vocabulary than you might of as well of accidentally attended a Japanese language course when the professor is lecturing or explaining things to you in office hours.  Also, Organic Chemistry is infamous for having “ambiguous question stems” for midterms or finals, and guess what your professor usually won’t give any “hints” to what the question means. Good news everyone,  there are actually rarely any ambiguous material on a real Organic exam. Instead students typically have a poor understanding of the real yet subtle differences between two terms, a large part of the test is based on whether or not you understand the question stem.  And on the rare occasion that a question is truly ambiguous, professors are usually so disappointed with themselves they might give points to everyone always, this adjusts everyone’s final grade. To get the most out of office hours you and your professor must be speaking the same language. So, with that in mind, develop an Organic accent as soon as possible.

Stay tuned for the upcoming entry about prepping for class and how to make the best of your class time. As always, feel free to contact or follow me at