How to Study for Biochemistry (2021 Ultimate Guide)

This is the ultimate study guide for Biochemistry.

Here you’ll learn:

  • General tips on how to study biochemistry
  • How to get an A
  • My strategy for studying biochem in med school
  • Resources that can help you succeed 

Biochemistry is one of those classes that can make you really hate med school. All those metabolic flow charts, diagrams and weirdly named enzymes? You have to learn them.

Having passed this course myself (without a strong chemistry background), let me tell you; you can do it. 

This article can help show you how.

How to Study for Biochemistry: Quick Takeaways

Here are six useful tips to keep in mind before starting a biochemistry course:

  1. Start memorizing structures from day one: as soon as you see a new pathway, molecule or reaction; note it down and start memorizing it. That goes for things like amino acids, glycolysis, lipid metabolism, the pentose phosphate pathway, nucleotides, and all cofactors and enzymes. Check out this post if you need help on memorizing things fast.
  2. Review basic and organic chemistry: just for a quick overview and to refresh your memory. It will help with understanding the more challenging topics! Don’t worry about going too deep.
  3. Research your professor: figure out what they ask for in exams, what their lecture/class notes are like or whether the class is worth attending (some biochem lecturers can be really boring!)
  4. Draw things out: this is the best way to get metabolic pathways down from scratch. Visualize the reactions and the changes to molecules. Make sure you understand each step of the process.(Hint: this is one of the best courses for using a tablet or iPad over a laptop. A whiteboard could also serve you well. Anything that can be drawn and erased easily.)
  5. Read assigned texts: if it’s from a good resource (or one that’s likely to be tested). Review lecture notes after class.
  6. Make/use flashcards for the facts: the best way to learn and recognise each amino acid. Make your cards more memorable by using mnemonics (i.e. KREB’s cycle;  Citrate Is Kreb’s Starting Substrate For Making Oxaloacetate)

How to Succeed in Biochemistry Class

With those basics out the way, let’s go a little bit deeper. Let’s look at how you can succeed in any biochemistry class – not just those designed for pre-meds or medics!

Nurses, college students and anyone else? This section is for you.

1. Focus On the Core Topics

Biochemistry can be pretty dense. To survive it you’ll want to strip it down to its essentials. Think 80/20 and the topics worth most of your attention.

Here’s a list of those:

  • General Chemistry
    • Kinetics (Michaelis Menten)
    • Redox reactions
    • pH
    • Hemoglobin/myoglobin metabolism and oxygen saturation curves
  • Organic Chemistry
    • Basic reaction mechanisms
    • Acid-base relationships
  • Biochemistry
    • Macro molecules
    • Enzymes
    • Metabolic pathways

Get these down well and you should be able to answer most questions. And if you absolutely have to cram biochemistry and don’t have time? Start with all these first.

2. Understand First

I probably shouldn’t have to say this (I’ve written about it plenty of times before) but surviving this subject, as it is any science subject, is best done trying to understand it first.

That means avoiding rote memorization and actually thinking about why these concepts are important.

Try these things to help here:

  • Study with your lecture slides and a good reference source (or textbook) side by side. Cross reference and check anything you’re unsure of
  • Use the Feynman technique to explain the hard-to-grasp concepts. Act like you’re explaining something to a 5-year-old. That way you’ll understand it better.
  • Work out how to group and categorise things. Understand the reasons for this categorisation.

This video on amino acids is a great example of this last one…

3. Learn the Vocabulary

Biochemistry has a very specific language. Understanding the suffixes attached to enzymes – the lyases, hydrogenases, oxidases, reductases etc – can really help get a fix on things.

Spend some time doing this near the beginning and things will make much more sense later on.

4. Focus on Structure and Function First

Don’t skip the small details if you can avoid it in biochem. A lot of the time the professors like to test on them. 

Prioritize learning the structures and functions of molecules and compounds first. Doing this will help you better visualize what’s happening to them as they move through pathways; what’s happening to carbons etc.

Get these core fundamentals down by picking one review/resource and sticking with it.

How To Get An A in Biochemistry

Getting an A in biochemistry is going to take some work. You’ve got to go above and beyond the basic advice and attempt to master the subject. That’s going to take a lot of time.

Schedule your study sessions and do something everyday to push the needle. That could be note reviews, quiz questions and flashcard reviews for example. Anything that practices active recall of the subject.

Besides this, learning to think critically can help. Many biochem questions, especially those on the MCAT, are conceptual in nature. You might be asked to apply the mechanics of a pathway to another pathway for example. So knowing how pathways work and why (as opposed to blindly memorizing them) is critical.

Again, understanding is key. Especially if you want to get an A.

How to Study Biochemistry in Medical School

Not all schools include biochemistry as part of their med school curriculum. Although mine did (International European school), it might not be the case for you. Many UK schools don’t for example, but most US do (as biochemistry is a subject on the USMLE Step 1). 

Here’s how I’d recommend approaching it:

  • Class Notes Vs Textbook: biochemistry is usually less dense in med school than it is pre-med or college. Because of that you can probably get by using your school’s class or lecture notes rather than a textbook. This is what you’ll most likely be tested on too.
  • Flashcards: definitely use them. I’ve got some general recommendations on decks etc in the resources section of this article. I got on great with the biochemistry cards included in the Zanki deck (the gold standard for USMLE Step 1). These helped solidify all the basics.
  • Goljan’s Rapid Review of Biochemistry: just like I said before, maybe skip the big textbooks. They take a lot of time to read, time that could be better spent going over a good review book. Goljan’s is the best here; everything is condensed neatly into bullet points and is easily digestable. Pay close attention to its diagrams and you’ll do great….

This is also the same book that DocOssareh recommends. So I’m in good company…

How to Take Notes for Biochemistry

Taking notes on biochemistry can be super useful. It’ll help you work out how to organise and classify the material. Two things that make both understanding and memorizing it easier.

When you’re taking your notes, think about these types of questions:

  1. What vocabulary aren’t you sure about? Make sure you get why glucagon and glycogen are different for example…
  2. What is being catalyzed? How are atoms flowing? Knowing when things are catabolic and anabolic really helps…
  3. Where is this reaction taking place? This kind of thing is tested a lot!
  4. What quantity of energy is used or made in this process? Some questions also want you to know the units of energy too…
  5. What regulates this pathway? This is where the enzyme deficiencies or mutations – most of the stuff that correlates clinically – comes into play. Expect lots of questions based on this.

Make Study Sheets

Always look to condense your notes in biochem. Work from a broad list and get narrower as you go on. Practice recalling these study sheets on a whiteboard or tablet often. 

Biochemistry Study Resources

This is a round-up of the best biochemistry study resources as recommended by nursing, medical and college students. 

The Best Flashcards for Biochemistry

Flashcards should be the first tool in your arsenal to tackle the subject. Here are some paper-based (analog) and digital recommendations.

Analog

These are based as a review on the main Lippincotts book. I actually used these a fair bit in the first half of the course before I discovered Zanki and got a lot out of them. The questions they ask are very clinically based and on point for most exams.

Could be overkill for most medicine courses however.

Digital

I’ve separated these up into Anki and Quizlet decks, depending on your preference.

Anki Biochemistry Decks

  • Physeo: Physeo is one of top recommended resources for learning biochem well. This deck is designed to be used alongside it.
  • Elite Medical Prep: these guys have a 100 card deck that delivers all the basics you’ll need to know for med school.
  • Zanki’s Biochem: I already recommended this above. Cards here are based on Kaplan’s Biochemistry review and First Aid for USMLE. There are around 1400 of them but they’re probably the most high yield around.

All these are free of course.

Related: 3 Best Biochemistry Anki Decks: Learn Biochemistry Fast

Quizlet Biochemistry Decks

If you don’t like Anki, Quizlet has you covered too…

  • Kaplan MCAT Biochemistry: you’ll have to pay for this one but it has plenty of good reviews.
  • Kagill Biochemistry: another paid yet comprehensive deck. 304 cards in total covering all the main metabolic pathways and more.
  • Hello-student’s Biochemistry: free 180-card deck created by a biochemistry professor specifically for their students. Solid round-up of the core ideas.

The Best Books for Biochemistry

There are several good books for biochemistry depending on your needs and level as a student. 

Lehninger’s Principles of Biochemistry

Along with Lippincott’s, this is considered the most comprehensive book on biochemistry out there. It’s chapters are usually assigned reading at the US, UK and Indian college levels. According to students, it teaches the concepts in a clear way and is fairly easy to read.

It’s chapter tests are a great resource for question practice too.

Lippincott’s Biochemistry

Lippincott’s was assigned reading on my course. I enjoyed reading it as it had excellent chapter summaries, diagrams and practice questions. It is quite lengthy though and takes time to go through.

Perfect when matched up with the flashcards.

Biochemistry

Usually referred to as Stryer’s Biochemistry (not sure why they got all the credit), this is another comprehensive guide worth looking at. 

It doesn’t come up as frequently as Lippincott’s and Lehninger’s in terms of recommendations, but it has a good reputation on Amazon among university/college students.

Kaplan’s Biochemistry

The Kaplan series is designed as a more rapid review of USMLE-relevant material. It’s solid for a general overview but maybe too sparse for a college biochem major. 

Like I mentioned before, the Zanki deck flashcards are based on this. 

Part of their 7-book series Step 1 Lecture Notes.

Medical Biochemistry At A Glance

At 176-pages this is exactly the kind of book I can get on board with in med school. The metabolic pathway visuals in this are gold. Next to Goljan’s review book, I’d get this if you want to save time while still knowing enough biochem to pass.

The Best YouTube Channels for Biochemistry

YouTube is fantastic for learning biochem. Specifically as a lot of it is so visual. Here are the channels  that are well worth bookmarking:

  • Moof University: excellent blackboard-style explainers that are short but precise. American commentary.
  • Khan Academy: very similar to Moof University but has lots of practice questions thrown in. Definitely work through the whole biomolecules module.
  • AK Lectures: this guy saved me so many times during biochem. Simple whiteboard-style explanations from a US-based med student. Great for other subjects too.
  • Shomus Biology: Indian-based biology and biochemistry teacher. Good to watch when other videos aren’t cutting it.

The Best Websites for Studying Biochemistry

Here are the top three most recommended websites for studying biochem:

  • Lecturio: lots of top-tier university professors lecturing on biochemistry here. An excellent question bank too. Check out my Lecturio review here.
  • Physeo: considered to have an edge over Pixorize when it comes to mnemonics and course structure. Has both traditional lecture videos and sketchy-style ones.
  • Boards and Beyond: nice review video series aimed at US med students. I actually used these myself (along with the YouTube sites mentioned) and found them to be very worthwhile.

Premium memberships for these resources are paid but there is a lot of stuff given away for free.

Where Can I Find Biochemistry Study Questions?

Lots of the resources mentioned above have practice questions included. For extra study check out the following:

  • Albert.io: amazingly designed site with a ton of MCQ-style questions to work with. Covers all the biochem foundations; and the major protein, carb and lipid pathways. Free.
  • Shemmassian Consulting: quality MCAT-style biochem questions. These are more conceptual in format with the questions based on reading passages rather than stand alone concepts. Also free.

Summary

Biochem is a lot of memorization. Learning it well can make it rewarding though.

What other tips do you have for studying it?

Image Credit: Artem Podrez at Pexels