Is Biochemistry Hard? (Explained For Beginners)

Thinking about taking biochemistry? See it coming up on your syllabus soon?

You probably have a lot of questions about what to expect and how it can impact your grades….

So, is biochemistry hard?

Biochemistry is a lot easier than general or organic chem. The math requirement is far less and its more dependent on memorization, rather than rational problem-solving, to do well. Conceptualization, owing to a basic understanding of nutrition, also helps. So most students shouldn’t fear it!

Having taken (and successfully passed) biochem myself during my time in med school, I’m pretty confident most newcomers to the subject can do fairly well.

In this article, I’ll dive a little deeper. You’ll learn:

  • What biochemistry is all about (and what can make it both hard and easy)
  • How it compares to other subjects
  • How you can best prepare yourself to succeed

Ready to learn more? Let’s dive in!

What is biochemistry class about?

According to encylopedia Britannica, biochemistry is the “study of the chemical substances and processes that occur in plants, animals and microorganisms and of the changes they undergo during development and life” (Source).

For those of you new to the subject, here’s what most courses (Biochem I and II) cover:

  • Carbohydrates and polysaccharides (what they are, what they do, how they’re metabolized etc.)
  • Amino acids and proteins
  • Enzymes, kinetics and mechanisms
  • Lipids
  • Nucleic acids (structures, replication, transcription etc.)

And some courses also include lab sessions designed to show you these topics in further detail.

Zach Star’s video explains it very concisely (plus it’s only 7 minutes long!)…

What’s hard about biochem?

You’ll see from the list of topics above that it helps to have some basic knowledge of general and organic chem before you start.

If you don’t know anything about atomic structures or how macromolecules are formed, sitting in a biochem class for the first time could seem like a foreign language.

But here’s where else it could prove “hard”:

  1. If you’re not great at memorizing steps or pathways
  2. If you lack time and patience (a typical class requires an average 10-15 hours study per week (source))
  3. If your class or teacher forces heavy math on you (most biochem classes shouldn’t!)

Related: Can I Be A Doctor If I’m Bad At Math?

What’s easy about biochem?

Obviously how “easy” you find the subject will depend a lot on your familiarity with the concepts, your confidence and your enthusiasm!

But here are a couple of other reasons why biochem can be easy:

  1. The organic chemistry that biochem uses is (comparitively) easy
  2. It’s interesting and relevant, helping to keep you motivated (you’re learning about nutrition and what happens to food in your body!)
  3. It’s pretty intuititive (you can reason through things using common sense)

How easy or hard you’ll really find it will mainly come down to how you study (and how it’s taught). Study efficiently and consistently (and with the best resources) and you can really do well.

Related: How To Study Medicine Effectively (Quick Hints & Tips)

Although the article above is geared towards people in med school, the study tips work well for anyone taking life science courses like biochem.

Is biochemistry harder than chemistry?

No, biochem is definitely not harder than chemistry. There’s a lot less math, it’s much easier to conceptualize and the biology aspects of the discipline all help to make it easier to grasp and understand.

This is my own opinion of course but many students do agree with me!

Biochemistry is great in that it’s much easier to conceptualize and think about what’s going on rather than just memorize what will happen when two chemicals are mixed in a beaker.

(Source)

Again, most students (me included) agree that the hardest parts of biochem (especially compared to chemistry), comes down to the memorization of intricate cycles like Krebs, glycolysis and nucleotide synthesis.

The hardest part, I would say, is that you are likely to have to memorize the Kreb cycle and glycolysis, which is like learning memorizing the names of ten chemicals and ten enzymes and their structure, which actually is not that bad, and it’s pretty key to life so it’s easy to be motivated to learn it.

(Source)

Chemistry has a lot more calculations and problem-solving based questions.

They can be tricky for people who aren’t confident with calculus etc.

A lot of people’s problems with general chemistry are well explained in this Tedx Talk!

Is biochemistry harder than organic chemistry?

Organic chem is definitely harder than biochem. It’s much harder to visualize and relate to. It also involves more problem solving.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two subjects is organic chemistry’s dependence on synthesis and reaction problems.

To reemphasize one final time: biochem is much more memorization-based than organic or general chem.

Is biochemistry harder than medicine?

Biochemistry makes up a core subject on most med school curriculums. There’s really no sensible comparison to “medicine” as a subject because it’s part of it!

Biochem is also present on med school admissons exams like the MCAT (US) and UKCAT/BMAT (UK).

As a pre med you’ll be expected to take classes (and gain credit) in Biochem I and II in order to apply and get into med school.

Is biochemistry harder than anatomy?

Anatomy is far broader than biochemistry and involves a lot more memorization and practice. Anatomy requires you to get comfortable with gross anatomy (cadaver lab), microscopic anatomy (histology) and usually imaging (X-ray/CT) too. For that reason, anatomy is harder.

Biochem probably requires less hours studying and is generally a shorter course.

Is biochemistry harder than biology?

Biochemistry is harder than biology as it deals with the chemistry of life rather than living organisms. For most people, that’s more complex and difficult to understand.

One argument to the contrary is that biology is a lot broader and therefore more difficult to master. Especially when you consider how its sometimes broken down into immunology, parasitology and genetics etc.

Biology tends to avoid math for the most part though, so it depends on whichever student you ask!

Is a biochemistry degree hard?

Make no mistake, a biochem degree is hard. According to data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), it ranks eigth as one of the “hardest majors” in terms of the average weekly hours spent for class preparation (18.49).

In terms of preparing for med school, where it’s generally advised to aim for as high a GPA as possible, you could be better off focusing on “easier” subjects.

Related: What’s The Easiest Pre Med Major? (Read This First!)

Here’s a good primer on what to expect as a freshman majoring in biochem…

How can I best prepare myself?

Here are my top tips on how best to prepare for biochem in school:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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!)
  • 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.
  • Read assigned texts: if it’s from a good resource (or one that’s likely to be tested). Review lecture notes after class.

I’ve got more tips in this article…

Related: How To Study For Biochemistry (2021 Ultimate Guide)

My recommended biochemistry resource

Goljan’s book is one of the best around. Unlike the huge biochemistry textbooks that take forever to read; everything here is condensed neatly into bullet points and is easily digestable. The diagrams (which you can convert into smart flashcards) and worth the cost of the book alone. It’s seriously one of the simplest explainers I’ve come across.

Summary

Biochem sounds intimidating for the uninitiated. But it doesn’t have to be!

Hopefully the article above has helped explain what to expect, how it stacks up and how you can prepare to best succeed.

Ultimately however “hard” or “easy” a class is comes mainly down to you, your attitude and how you approach it.

Don’t be deterred before you’ve already started.


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Image Credit: @Diana Polekhina at Unsplash