Preparing for Organic Chemistry

Like most pre-meds, I’ve heard all the horror stories about the organic chemistry course being some terrible obstacle that all medical school applicants must cross by hook or by crook. I’m probably a little bit different from most in that I’ve already had science courses which put the screws to me in the worst possible way (I’m thinking about my first two semesters of undergraduate physics). Regardless of how hard organic chemistry may be, I simply cannot imagine an undergraduate science course that could be more difficult than either of those two freshman courses were. Looking back, and also knowing the professors involved, it’s clear to me that both courses were taught well above the level they should have been. However, they each contributed in their own way to my growth as a scientist, so for that I’m quite thankful.

However, I’m not stupid. When you’ve heard students mention a a course in hushed, reverent tones as if they were naming The Dark One, you tend to take the warnings seriously. So, to that end, I made a little review schedule a few months ago for some topics that I wanted to review before classes start in mid-August. My first year chemistry classes were exceedingly weak, so I had a hard time feeling confident about the idea of doing battle with the supposed dragon of organic chemistry, considering how weak I thought my chops were.

Several months ago, I ran across a book intended to be used for just this purpose; most organic chemistry help-texts are intended for use during the semester and supposedly offer additional help or explanation of material covered in the traditional textbook. Back in May, I wrote out a schedule of some topics to review and a chapter listing to work through over the summer. I’m just over halfway through my prep schedule and I’m convinced that doing something similar would help a large number of my classmates that are nervous about the course. Here is a brief list of what I’ve done (and continue to do) in order to get ready for the class. Keep in my mind that I had a really bad and incomplete undergraduate chemistry sequence, so my schedule was somewhat altered to include topics which aren’t germane to organic chemistry (electrochemistry being the obvious example). If any of my readers are taking organic chemistry in the fall, it’s not too late to embark on a similar endeavor – I work a full-time job and take a summer class, so I have less time available than most. Hopefully, this will help some others be more prepared for organic chemistry by the time the school bell rings in another month or so.

Week 1: Chemical Bonding I

Week 2: Chemical Bonding II and Lewis Structures

Week 3: Ch. 2 – Lewis Structures and Chemical Bonding

Week 4: Ch. 3 – Molecular Geometry and Dipole Moments

Week 5: Ch. 4 – Isomerism

Week 6: Ch. 5 – Charge Stability

Week 7: Ch. 6 – Reaction Mechanisms

Week 8: Ch. 7 – Intermolecular Forces

Week 9: Ch. 8 – SN1/SN2/E1/E2 Reactions

Week 10: Thermodynamics and the Gibbs Free Energy

Week 11: Electrochemistry

Week 12: Organic Chemistry Nomenclature

Note that the chapter titles that I’ve included are from Joel Karty’s book The Nuts and Bolts of Organic Chemistry, a book which I highly recommend anyone taking organic chemistry work through before their class begins. The other references are generic – any chemistry textbook that talks about Lewis structures and chemical bonding is probably fine. Just make sure that it discusses hybridization. Also, I’d recommend getting your organic chemistry textbook early and using it as a supplement as you go through Karty’s book – you might find yourself wanting more information when you read his explanation of particular subjects (eg., his explanation of nucleophilic vs. electrophilic species confused me a bit, so I went to my textbook to get it cleared up).

The purpose of reviewing over the summer isn’t to teach yourself the material before the class – I suspect if you try to do that, you’ll just get burnt out and wind up doing poorly when you take the course. I think that the intent behind any review program should be the following:

  • Solidly understand the concepts that are going to be reviewed in the first few weeks of organic chemistry. Getting an A in freshman chemistry doesn’t mean you understand the concepts.
  • Developing a fluency with bond structure, electronegativity, hybridization, resonance, and formal charge – do some practice problems from your textbook identifying the hybridizations and electronic geometries of various organic species. All those topics will be reviewed in organic chemistry, but if you don’t remember much about them, or they’re foreign to you, you’re automatically starting the course behind the 8-ball. Why not save yourself some trouble?
  • Have a good idea of the important concepts that are going to be introduced during the class, including their order, that way you won’t be shocked when the professor starts talking about the difference between the various flavors of isomers.
  • Get nomenclature out of the way. Some professors don’t really stress nomenclature in lecture – ours sent out an email a month or two ago saying he was going to leave learning nomenclature up to us – so, if you can spend a couple of hours a night for a week or so over the summer going through the first chapter in your textbook and getting a handle on some of the obscure IUPAC nomenclature, you’ll save yourself a lot of heartache further on down the road.

Anyway, that’s my advice on getting ready for organic chemistry – classes start in about 5 weeks, so I’ll start seeing how much it helps in another month or so. Good luck!

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4 Responses

  1. I hated O Chem with a passion, but the funny thing is looking at your list, none of that is what I struggled with. I think the two hardest things for me is stereo-chemistry, and reading the Mass Specs, and NMRs. The main things that most students struggle with is that it’s a lot of reaction mechanisms, and so much info can be daunting, especially if you procrastinate studying until the night before the test. Another hard thing is synthesis, having to come up with a way to create a compound is intimidating, and requires you to put a lot of concepts together and to pull a lot of different reactions out of your head.

    Oh, I advise you to put the nomenclature at the beginning, it’ll help with the understanding of the rest and it’s also the easiest part, in my opinion.

    • Isomerism is intimately related to stereochemistry. I agree that a major part of organic chemistry is understanding reaction mechanisms. But it seems that understanding the principles which drive them would make it much easier.

      The book I’ve been using omits nomenclature and leaves it for the actual course. You can learn concepts without getting bogged down in the bizarro rules of IUPAC naming.

      i like your suggestion about NMR – any advice on how to make NMR easier?

    • I agree with you about understanding NMR. I’ve spent most of the weekend trying to get comfortable interpreting carbon NMR and have concluded that you really have to practice it a lot to get good at it. One of my classmates had a lab TA last semester that really worked them on NMR and it’s definitely helped him quite a bit. My TA wasn’t quite as rigorous as his, so I didn’t learn it as well as he did.

  2. […] Preparing for Organic Chemistry | A Med School Odyssey – Jul 18, 2010  · Preparing for Organic Chemistry. … this will help some others be more prepared for organic chemistry by the time the school bell rings in another month … […]

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