Survive and Thrive in Your First Organic Chemistry Class

Organic chemistry can be a hard class; it poses a more difficult learning curve than introductory inorganic chemistry. Passing will take time, patience, and a lot of studying but success is possible. Keep reading for detailed instructions on how to make the most of your first organic chemistry class.


In the Lecture

  1. Attend every class. Most organic chemistry courses are split into two sections: lecture and lab. Lectures can be held for hundreds of students at a time. Because of this, attendance is rarely taken. This, however, does not mean you can successfully get away with skipping class and only attending labs. Going to class as much as you possibly can is vital to your success.
    • If available, you should also attend teaching assistant (TA) sessions. If you're studying at a large university, your organic chemistry class will have several teaching assistants who will hold independent study sessions. Find one scheduled at a time that works for you and go as often as possible. Additionally, the TAs will have office hours during which you can drop in and ask questions.
  2. Read the material before the lecture. You'll get more out of the class if you read the chapter before attending the lecture on that chapter. Make note of any questions you have the night before. If the professor hasn't answered your reading questions by the end of the discussion, approach them after class for more clarification.
  3. Do the homework. You might not to hand in a physical copy on the homework in such a large class, but you will most likely have some sort of work due online. Always make sure you fully complete this homework. If you are graded solely on tests, you should still find some way to practice the material. You teacher may post practice problems that you can do. You can also complete the questions in your textbook for excellent practice, whether they're assigned or not. Try to do them as soon as possible after class. Stick to the schedule of completing the readings, followed by the lectures, and then the homework assignments.
    • Take your time. Do not rush through the problems. Concentrate on each step as you go. Understanding the problem and doing it correctly is better to aid you in fully understanding the material.
  4. Have a model kit handy. You can buy a model kit at your university bookstore or find a used one online. It will help you see what's happening to a molecule in three-dimensional terms, which will be useful when you're studying isomers.
  5. Make flashcards. A lot of your success in organic chemistry will depend on memorizing certain reactions. Here are a few things you should know in addition to specific reactions:
    • Where most of the electron density is (especially double bonds)
    • Shapes of orbitals
    • Know what has high bond strain and what doesn't
    • Know your orbitals s, p and d. (f is useless to know at this point)
    • Memorize a few NMR and IR shifts and peak wavelengths. Especially hydroxyl, carbon bonds 1-3, aldehydes, and ketones.
    • The chair and boat isomer forms of cyclohexane
    • How to find the HOMO and LUMO of molecules
  6. Prepare for tests. Take organic chemistry testing seriously. Set aside time to study every day for at least a week before the test. Get sufficient sleep the night before and eat a healthy breakfast.

In the Laboratory

  1. Learn the dress code for your lab. Different labs have different standards. However, closed-toe shoes, full-length pants, long-sleeve shirts, and splash goggles are common requirements for personal protection equipment.
  2. Learn where the wash stations are located. Your lab should have at least one eye-wash station as well as a shower head on the ceiling with a pull-chain. Locate them ahead of time in case you need them in an emergency.
  3. Be cautious. Never do something to a compound or solvent that's not indicated in the lab manual. You might think throwing a leftover chunk of sodium in the sink is harmless, but it could explode when it comes into contact with even a drop of water. Always ask your lab TA how to dispose of materials if you are unsure.
  4. Read ahead. Read the procedure of your next lab at least a few days beforehand. It is probably better to read one more lab beyond that as well. Complete any pre-lab material or quizzes due before entering the lab. Have data that will be or could be in the lab write up; do not wait until the last minute. As is true in normal class, organic chemistry lab is best done one step at a time and not in a rush.
  5. Learn the wafting technique. If you do not use the wafting technique, you could end up passed out from the fumes of compounds like sulfuric acid. Be very careful Here's how to do it:
    • Keep the sample at least a foot or so from you.
    • Move a column of air with your hand wafting toward you in a gentle circular motion.
    • Make sure you keep your hands, eyes, ears, and mouth away from the sample.
  6. Know the format for lab write-ups. The format of a lab write-up can vary from course to course. In general, do not use personal pronouns like "I", "me", or "our". Use third-person voice (like "the experiment," not "our" or "my" experiment). Here's how the report should generally be laid out:
    • Title: The name of the lab you are doing.
    • Purpose/Objective: Why you are doing the lab/what can be learned from it.
    • Materials: The chemicals, equipment, and amounts/notes about each.
    • 'Table of reactants/products:' The melting point, boiling point, density, phase, and amount of each compound you use in the experiment.
    • Observations/Notes: What you see in the experiment, anything unusual, or something that provides insight into what is going on (e.g the compound (name) fizzed and turned blue).
    • Results: Your tables, graphs, numbers, equations, and work shown for the experiment.
    • Conclusion: What you conclude from the data you gathered based on your results section. Explain your results in terms related to the experiment.


  • Always ask your professor or TA when you don't understand something, especially in lab.
  • Form a study group with a few classmates. Setting an appointment to study will force you to make time and help you avoid flaking out on homework.
  • Talk to people who have already taken the class successfully. They can offer you valuable advice.


  • If you do not study throughout the semester, you will most likely fail the class. This is one class that is almost impossible to cram for an exam. Take notes, study, and make sure you understand each step.
  • Always assume chemicals in organic chemistry are, at the very least, dangerous if not deadly. Act accordingly. Always research the chemicals you are going to use before attending class to fully understand their hazards in handling them.
  • Never taste or smell anything directly in the lab. If you must determine the scent of a compound, apply the wafting technique.

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