Dear Orgo Student,
You have probably heard a lot of stories about Orgo already. But let me tell you something — it is not that bad. Ok, let me rephrase that. It is not that bad as long as you put work into it. Succeeding in Orgo I does not end when you finish reading these steps. What I have written here does take a lot of time and work, but that is when you know you are doing Orgo right. Having said that, here are the many tactics I used to do well in Orgo:
1) Keep up with the material covered. I know it sounds obvious, but I cannot stress this enough. It does get hard to keep up when you take other hard classes, but you need to understand what is covered in class. Otherwise, you are going to be reading through your textbook a couple of days before a midterm panicking because you don’t understand a concept. The weekly quizzes are a very good way to keep up, or to realize you are falling behind. I made sure to do the readings that Falzone assigned before the Thursday conference. And by before I don’t mean wake up early and skim over the readings. I mean read it at least the day before and do the practice problems in the textbook. You will not know if you understand something unless you actually put pencil to paper, which brings me to my next point.
2) Do practice problems, past exams, conference questions… whatever requires you apply your knowledge. When studying, I did all the practice problems in the middle of the chapters (so not the end of the chapter problems) and conference questions every week. Then, at least a week before an exam, I did some of the end of the chapter problems and all the past exams, but depending on your study habits you might need to start earlier. Please, please, PLEASE do not wait to do the past exams the day before a midterm. The end of the chapter problems are much easier than exam questions, especially because they end up being very predictable — you know you are being tested on the material covered in that chapter. If you only do book problems, you are going to convince yourself you “got this,” that it is super easy. And then you are going to try out a practice exam and realize you don’t understand many of the answers. I mean it. This is particularly true for things that require a lot of practice and a lot understanding… like synthesis problems; these things cannot be crammed for. You have to try out an exam early in order to know what Falzone expects you to know, and then focus your studying on what you struggle with. But then again, don’t do all the practice exams first. Something my TA advised us to do was to create our own synthesis problems. Create your own synthesis, give your friend only the starting and final molecules, and see if they can solve it. Then your friend can make a synthesis problem for you. So if I had to summarize my message, it would be to practice early and practice often.
3) Use your model kit. This will come in especially handy when you cover stereochemistry. I love how the textbook will sometimes ask you “to prove to yourself” things with a model kit, like when it asks you to try out superimposing two enantiomers. I strongly advise practicing using the model kit in stereochemistry problems, for the exams and for the textbook problems. You do not want to come in to the exam without having touched the model kit. Also, it is always helpful to bring in a preassembled cyclohexane chair conformation to the tests, and I always liked to bring a Carbon bonded to four differently colored substituents (mine were red, blue, green, and white). The second molecule comes in very handy if you are trying to go from a structural formula to a Fischer projection to a Newman projection — all you have to do is assign a part of the molecule a differently colored ball, and you just rotate it around until you can see the new conformation. It is a great tool to visualize everything.
4) Write a list of ALL the reactions you have covered, INCLUDING the mechanism for each midterm. This is important. If you think a mechanism is too long or too complicated to be asked in an exam, you should make sure to study that one. For midterm three in 2012, the mechanism we were tested on was ozonalysis, which was one of the hardest mechanisms we covered. Very few people got a full score on that question. It is important to rewrite each reaction and its mechanism for each midterm because you don’t want to become overconfident and realize during the exam you forgot it. If you really think you still remember a mechanism, just do it — it can only help. I did buy the “Orgo Cards” on Amazon, which are flashcards with all the reactions printed already, but I thought it was a lot more helpful to write and re-write them. And once you have finished the page with reactions and mechanisms, try to look at the big picture. Think to yourself, “what reactions do I know that will get me an alcohol? What about an aldehyde? How can I make new Carbon-Carbon bonds?” This will come in very handy in synthesis problems.
5) Read the PowerPoints. I tried out several different methods to study for each midterm. Once I tried to just study from my notes and the textbook (and ignored the PowerPoints), the next time I did the same but looked at the PowerPoints if I didn’t understand something, and the last and most successful method I tried out was to study all the PowerPoints. Keep in mind that I still always studied my notes and the textbook, and made sure I understood everything from them. This isn’t an “either/or” situation — you should study from everything. I thought that studying the PowerPoints was especially useful in knowing what Falzone considers important. If he dedicates one whole PowerPoint to MO theory, or if he shows a mechanism, chances are you should know about them.
6) When taking the exams, try to think like Falzone. You should think to yourself “what is he trying to test my knowledge on with this?” This will be very straightforward when you have to do synthesis problems, but once in a while there will be a tough question where you really need to think. If a question asked to “write the mechanism for the following SN1 reaction,” I immediately thought “Ok, he is probably going to test us on hydride or methyl shifts.” In class you should pay attention to some comments he makes like “I really like this molecule” (butadiene), or when he really emphasizes some things, like “geometry specifies hybridization.” I actually wrote those things in my notes and made sure I knew the concepts and the applications by heart; so I was ready when they did come up in the exams.
7) Read the exam questions carefully. A lot of times I thought that Falzone gave away the answer in the question itself. For example, he might ask to write the product of a reaction that undergoes “a single carbocation rearrangement.” That pretty much says “there is a hydride or methyl shift.” So read carefully and underline anything that seems important.
So there you go. Now go off and work hard for that A!
All the best,