Organic chemistry is a major STEM subject (and an important prerequisite for many health degrees). As a lot of students set out to master it each year, one big question often arises…
Is Organic Chemistry Hard?
Organic chemistry is one of the hardest science subjects. Its failure and retake rates are high, and its class grade average is low. It’s also very time-consuming, difficult to apply, and heavy on theoretical detail. If you haven’t done a general chemistry course first, you could really struggle.
Still, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you should avoid organic chemistry (O-Chem). Plenty of students tackle and learn how to do well in it every year. I’ll talk about how later in this article.
Here’s what else we’ll cover:
- Useful things to know before starting O-Chem
- The hardest/easiest things about the subject
- How much time you should dedicate to it
- Tips on the best ways to prepare
As a med student myself; who’s had to pick up credit in two separate organic chemistry courses, I know what makes the subject so intimidating!
But I got through it and so can you.
Ready to learn more? Let’s go.
Why is organic chemistry so hard?
Here’s a brief rundown of why organic chemistry is so hard:
- It’s very different to any other basic science course
- It’s dependent mainly on symbols and visualizations (rather than language)
- It’s conceptually challenging (with many reaction mechanisms similar and challenging to differentiate)
- There’s very little guess work involved (most tests are not multiple choice in format)
That said, let’s move on to what you can do to help take the sting out of all the above…
Useful Things To Know Before Beginning An Organic Chemistry Course
First up, if you haven’t taken an organic chemistry course before, expect to find a lot of your initial classes and reading confusing. O-Chem has something of its own visual language, where molecules and compounds etc. are represented by symbols and drawings. Priming yourself on how this all works (even if briefly) beforehand, can go a long way to helping you feel more comfortable in class.
I’d strongly recommend any newcomers check out Khan Academy’s introductory series first. Specifically this video…
This helped me tremendously starting out, explaining super simplistically what the visuals all mean.
Aside from this, here’s what else I feel you should know about before heading into an organic chemistry course:
- Don’t get psyched out early. There are many ways to learn organic chemistry.
- Take time to casually check out different learning resources (YouTube channels, books, etc.) first. Find something that speaks to you and stick to it.
- Expect to make mistakes and struggle to understand things. Don’t give up on the concept though. Search for a better explanation!
- Familiarize yourself with some of the core concepts of general chemistry (Lewis structures, bonding, Ka and pKa values, pH and atomic orbitals, etc) beforehand. You’ll be using a lot of that knowledge.
Overcoming all of organic chemistry’s difficulties is easily done with the right mindset.
The more resilient, persistent, and consistent you are with your studies you are, the easier you’ll find it. And that applies to any course level; high school, college, and beyond!
What To Expect From An Organic Chemistry Class
Probably the biggest thing to expect from organic chemistry, besides the visual representations, is the use of nomenclature (O-Chem’s specific language).
For a new student, this is can sound both confusing and intimidating. But it really needn’t be.
Spending a little time learning how it works, right before you begin, will show you this is nothing to be feared. Early practice with it (even if you just listen and watch) can help you pick it up first.
YouTube’s Crash Course series does a great job of explaining the nomenclature below…
But aside from these intricacies, you probably want to know what’s unique to organic chemistry that may not be in other subjects.
So here’s what I feel you should expect:
- Problem-based questions that can’t be answered by brute-force memorization
- Visualization: both in 2D and 3D (yes, modelling can help!)
- Getting super familiar with mechanisms (how reactions occur)
- Spending a ton of time with practice questions
Of course, every organic chemistry is going to be different and taught in varied styles, but the vast majority of its content (think 80-90%) is going to be the same.
Personally, compared to general chemistry, I found O-Chem a lot more fun.
Even with my hands getting constantly sore from drawing out skeletal structures while I worked through practice problems, it made a nice change from the hard calculations of general chem and physics!
What Do You Learn In Organic Chemistry?
Organic chemistry requires you to learn a lot of reactions and mechanisms. You’ll be drawing these out, recognizing the patterns, and applying them to practice problems. Repeatedly.
A typical 101 (or introductory course), will look something like this…
- General chemistry review
- Atomic structures
- Periodic table
- Orbitals and electrons
- Lewis-Dot diagram
- Learning to draw skeletal structures
- Bonding, charges and geometry
- Functional groups
- Structures and naming (nomenclature)
- Acids and bases
- Stereochemistry and molecular analysis
- Mechanisms and reactions
More advanced courses can also cover things like spectroscopy, redox reactions, and protecting groups.
Something that can make your course easier is obtaining a copy of the syllabus or curriculum beforehand.
Having just a little extra time to Google some of these weird-sounding topics (and watch a couple of videos on them), can do huge things for your confidence.
You’ll see even advanced things can be broken down slowly and explained step-by-step.
What’s Hard About Organic Chemistry
There are lots of rules and many exceptions (you’ll have to memorize a solid amount of them first before you can start recognizing patterns).
You have to learn the “language” of the subject first (both nomenclature and visual representations). You can’t just dive in and expect to know what’s going on!
It’s iterative. You can get easily frustrated learning all the possible reactions first before they make more intuitive sense later (after you begin learning mechanisms).
4. Logic not memorization
It involves reasoning and logic. Rote-memorization will only get you so far, you’ll need to always be asking why things happen the way they happen.
You can’t learn organic chemistry in the same way you would biology, for example. Any questions you get are far more dependent on applied logic rather than factual recall.
Related: Is Biology Hard? (Beginner Tips!)
What’s Easy About Organic Chemistry
1. Pattern recognition
Once you start learning reactions you’ll notice you can apply similar ones to varying scenarios (reducing the amount of memorization required).
2. Minimal math
There are almost no calculations, equations, or calculus math required. Organic chemistry is much more “visual” than other areas of the subject.
Personally, I feel there are fewer things that make O-Chem easy than it does hard. The fact it doesn’t have much “typical math” can be misleading. It’s hugely dependent on problem-solving and applied knowledge.
You’ll need to be persistent working through exercises!
How Much Time Will You Need To Successfully Pass Organic Chemistry?
You’re going to need at least 5-10 additional hours a week, on top of your class and teaching time, to really make progress in organic chemistry.
That’s a couple of hours dedicated to reviewing, one for pre-reading/topic preparation and the rest for working through practice problems.
Your priority should always be on attempting as many questions/exercises as you can.
That way you’ll identify areas you need to work on, topics you’re already familiar with, and benefit from the recall of concepts and facts.
Getting questions wrong (and learning why your attempt failed) is probably one of the best ways to make good progress in organic chem (something evidenced in this paper).
Organic Chemistry Failure Rate
O-Chem has a notoriously high failure rate compared to many other undergrad courses.
A dependency on rote memorization (strategies that worked in high school), won’t cut it in O-Chem, according to the academics.
To overcome the failure rate it’s advised you visit professors, show your working of problems, and get as much feedback as possible on where you’re going wrong.
Dedicated practice (and constant exposure), re-reading, is absolutely crucial.
And if you do have to retake O-Chem, don’t worry too much. Adcoms for health degrees (med school included), won’t hold resits too much against you as long as you show a willingness to adjust your strategy and come out better the next time.
What’s The Best Way To Prepare (And Make Organic Chemistry Easier)?
Besides being disciplined in your study, putting in the hours, and focusing on attempting as many practice problems as you can, choosing good resources is going to help succeeding in organic chemistry all the easier.
Because of the popularity of the subject, there are a lot of good ones out there and something destined to fit your preferred learning style.
I’ll run through some of (what I feel) are the best ones here…
Along with Khan Academy and Crash Course that I already mentioned, here are some other fantastic channels for learning organic chemistry via YouTube.
One of the most comprehensive organic chemistry learning resources out there (182 videos in the O-Chem playlist alone), this channel is very similar to Khan Academy in style but has a lot more content.
Eliot Rintoul is an organic chemistry tutor specializing in teaching British students the subject. I got a huge amount of value from the practice problem explainers and exam question tutorials while preparing for my chemistry A-level.
Leah tutors pre-med students planning on taking the MCAT. The playlists on her channel are very neatly organized, separated into individual topics (and reactions), as well as Orgo 1 and 2 structured courses.
These websites are especially great for tutorials and practice questions:
And of course, I fully recommend the exceptional, free Khan Academy Organic Chemistry course. The integrated articles and quiz questions between videos are superb for solidifying the major concepts and getting the maximum efficiency from your study sessions.
Is Organic Chemistry Hard in High School?
Organic Chemistry is sometimes offered as a single or double semester in high school. At this level, it’s fairly basic and designed for keen science students (or those considering pre-med) who are already getting good grades.
Expect more memorization than problem-solving at this level, something that can make it a little easier.
A lot like AP Biology.
Is Organic Chemistry Harder than Medical School?
O-Chem is certainly a tough subject but compared to medical school, and the quantity of information you’re expected to learn and master at that level, it could be a little easier.
Med school certainly involves more memorization however and your typical exam questions are centered on clinical cases rather than chemistry-based problem-solving.
There’s more room for error on your typical med school exam than there would be a dedicated organic chemistry test. You can also infer many of the answers via a process of elimination.
Organic chemistry doesn’t work like that.
Is organic chemistry harder than general chemistry?
You really need to have studied general chemistry before you begin organic chemistry. Without it, O-Chem will seem much harder.
General chemistry, especially with its early topics, is easier to grasp than organic chemistry. The concepts you learn, specifically on topics relating to atomic structure, electrons, and orbitals, etc., are super important to understanding many of the mechanisms and reactions in organic chem.
Is inorganic chemistry hard?
Inorganic chemistry is tough. For people who’ve never studied it before, some of the concepts can be hard to understand.
Something else that makes it difficult is the math. To really understand chemistry you’ll need to be comfortable with equations, basic calculus and making calculations.
Is organic chemistry harder than biochemistry?
Yes, organic chemistry is harder than biochemistry. Most biochemistry courses require minimal problem solving and more factual recall. There are also fewer mechanisms you need to learn in biochem and more cycles.
Having a good grounding in organic chemistry can really help you in biochem. You’ll be able to think about what happens in the cycles (reactions-wise) and be better equipped to “visualize” what’s happening to these molecules in the body.
Is organic chemistry harder than physics?
Both are difficult subjects. Physics is more dependent on math, however, so could pose problems to students uncomfortable with manipulating formulas and making calculations.
Organic chemistry possibly involves more memorization but a similar level of problem-solving.
Organic Chemistry is definitely not easy and calls for time, discipline, and persistence to master.
Unlike many other science subjects, it’s something of an anomaly. There’s isn’t much math and you can’t rely on memorization, but you do have to think logically and attempt a lot of practice problems to make progress.
Yes, the failure rates are high so don’t make the mistake of thinking you can simply memorize solutions to answers and the thousands of different reactions and mechanisms.
There’s no better substitution than seeking to ask why and applying that to every question you face.
Work hard and you can definitely get there!
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Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.