Why is organic chemistry so hard?

Students often ask why is Organic Chemistry so hard? Often they have friends who, although are usually all round A students, have failed organic chemistry. This is a subject like no other, it is not a subject that a student can simply learn the facts and quote them back in an exam. Students often think if they memorize all the facts they can not go wrong. I also get asked why is there so much to remember?

The reality is different, if you want to do well in Organic Chemistry, you will have to learn to become a problem solver. Yes, there are rules to learn to solve the problems but simply learning the rules will not guarantee success. Organic Chemistry is a difficult subject that needs to be practised. To make topics even more challenging you very often have to think backwards to solve problems. For example, you may be given a final product and asked for reagents and reactions to get to that product.

Other times, you may be given analysis and asked how to interpret what the unknown compound is. You will also have many problems were you will need to think forwards. For example given reactant A, how do you get reactant C and what is the intermediate B?

Yes you can learn all the reactions but more importantly you need to be able to identify reactives centres in very complex molecules.

By really understanding which part of the molecule is the most reactive and by understanding what a curly arrow really means you will learn to build your knowledge of your reaction mechanisms without committing them to memory.

In summary, Organic Chemistry teaches you to be a problem solver (thinking forwards and backwards). The more practise you get at problem solving the easier they will become.

If you do not understand the basics get help from the beginning. Do not leave it too long.



Heidi R.

Experienced tutor and organic synthetic chemist (adjunct professor)

600+ hours
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