Organic Chemistry Basics: How To Study For Exams Without Wasting Time

One of the most commonly asked questions for organic chemistry is "how do you study for the tests?"

This is one of the reasons why practice tests are the most wanted organic chemistry resources (organic chemistry cheat sheets are a close second). They let you know exactly what organic chemistry concepts you need to study so you're not trying to absorb the whole book.

Knowing how to study for a test without wasting a ton of time is one of the best organic chemistry hacks you can have in your pocket. This blog post will give you two perspectives: how I studied as a student and how I notice my students studying.


How I Studied Organic Chemistry As A Student

Full disclaimer here: early in my academic career, I stunk at organic chemistry. And I mean stunk big time.

It wasn't until my third year in undergrad that I actually started making grades over a C on my assignments. Before you tune out the upcoming advice though, let me explain to you why.

I worked a lot. I was clocking anywhere from 30-50 hours a week at my *three* jobs while also taking anywhere from 16-18 hours a semester. This went on for almost 2 years until I got a scholarship and was finally able to quit them all.

This was where I really developed great study skills and habits. I saw what it took to be successful in this class because I could actually focus for once.

For those curious about how I managed to skate by while working so much, let's just say I lost a lot of sleep and slammed a lot of energy drinks. I don't advise either of this for you, my mechanism maestro.

I'm going to focus more on the habits that I had when my grades improved because you can't get into the school you want to with C's in organic chemistry. Here are some things that helped me excel in organic chemistry, specifically studying for tests.


1) Study Groups - Study groups can be a hindrance sometimes, but overall they are a huge help. This is actually backed by research.

In July of 2005, a research paper was published studying the outcome of students in study groups and why they are more effective. The results were very interesting, especially when it came to talking about notes.

The key takeaway about study groups is that you get to take the information that you are learning in class and make it your own. You put your own spin on it. your own lingo.

This makes the information more familiar to you. The more familiar something is, the easier it is to absorb and remember. Researchers noted that it's more difficult to make information your own in class because you're too busy writing down notes and listening to your professor for you to process the information yourself.

That piece of information there is one of the reasons I'm a huge advocate of getting premade notes so that you can spend more time listening to your professor and paying attention to what's being discussed.

When your face is buried in your notebook writing, it's very easy for you to either tune out important information on miss something that was written on the board.

Think about it. How many times have you missed something important in class because you were trying to write some notes down? That happened to me a lot and I know that is one of the easiest ways to get lost during the lecture.

When you get in your study group, you have the opportunity to review what happened that day. That actually gives your mind the chance to take this information and brainwash it with your own ways of doing things. This, in turn, makes it more familiar and easier to remember.

The great thing about a study group is that you are all greater together than apart. Your strengths become stronger and your weaknesses become easier to see. There's nothing worse than getting to a test and seeing a question that you have no idea was even a problem for you.

Being in a group setting allows you to take a good inventory of what you're good at and what you're bad at. When I studied with my study group in undergrad, one of the common things we would do is all work on a homework assignment at the same time.

Once everyone was done, we'd compare answers and talk about why they were right. We'd explain how we got to our answers and if something was wrong, not only would we address it, but we'd try to understand how the other person came to that conclusion.

Understanding why something is wrong is more important than simply knowing that it is wrong. Being able to explain why something is wrong is arguably as important as being able to explain why it is right. It shows a mastery of the material.

Basically, study groups take all of the important parts of studying by yourself and scales them up a lot. This is important when you want to get your studying done in the most efficient way possible. Speaking of study efficiency, let's move on to the next way that I would hack organic chemistry tests.


2) Find A Way to Study Anywhere: when I was in undergrad, time was a real premium for me working so much.

I had to study any and everywhere that I could. It was not easy at all.

What I found though, was that once I got in the groove of finding unconventional ways to study, it got easier to me.

One thing I also realized was how much time you waste when you're supposed to be working or doing something else. In fact, during an 8-hour work day, research shows that you're only productive for 3 of those hours.

That means that you waste a whole 5 hours or 62% of your work time per day.

Many of you will be shadowing trying to get more volunteer hours, which means that you won't be working the whole time. There will be time to kill.

Kill it with fire, I mean studying.

This also gives you an incentive to start shadowing or volunteering early so that you can rack up a ton of volunteer hours under your belt.

Some of you also might have a job so this will help you remain productive even while you're on the clock.

One of the things I would frequently do is bring flash cards with me to work so that I could quiz myself while work was slow. At the time, they were a simple solution to squeezing out some extra study time.

That was when smartphones weren't as popular as they are now. If I were studying back then with the technology that we have now, I wouldn't use flash cards.

By today's standards, they are clunky and wildly inefficient. Instead, I would use premade notes in PDF form. Why?

  • They'd be easy to read because of the screen resolution
  • They'd be convenient to carry anywhere
  • They'd be fast to put away and come back to if you actually have to work

When work gets slow, just pop your phone out and review anti-marky mark regioselectivity. When you have to work, simply put your phone away and take care of business.

The hidden benefit of this is that while you're working, your mind starts to file away what you were reviewing, especially if your task is fairly repetitive. This is how you steal A's on your organic chemistry tests using simple life hacks.

You don't have to study long hours to be successful in organic chemistry.

Now that you know how I studied organic chemistry as an undergrad, I want to shift gears and let you know some common study patterns that I see with my organic chemistry students.

They do some of the same things I did back in the stone age, but technology has changed the game a little bit. I'll go over some of the best things that I see them doing below.


How My Students Study Organic Chemistry

Having the opportunity to glance at my students' notes and watch them study with each other has given me some greater insights on organic chemistry hacks that I can share with you.

Some of these things I was surprised to see, but they make sense with the technology that is available to you now. Using these organic chemistry hacks plus the things I've outlined about my time as a student should all but guarantee an A and the school you want to get into. Let's begin.

1) Group Chats - if study groups are useful, then group chats are the next level. the great thing about group chats is that you don't all have to be in the same room to ask each other questions.

This seems like a no brainer, but I hadn't stopped to consider this until one of my students said they were talking about a lecture in their group chat.

That instantly made me realize how much technology had changed the landscape of studying organic chemistry. Making communication easier for your group means a greater flow of information.

This leads to a greater fundamental understanding of organic chemistry. If you don't all have to be in the same room to study, then you don't have to worry about the logistics of studying, which ultimately saves you a ton of time.

Need to ask a question? Pop into the group chat.

Want to know what you missed in class if you're absent? Pop into the group chat.

Found a funny meme that'll help you study? Pop into the group chat.

Ultimately, the group chat offers you convenience. That convenience leads to less stress and anxiety. Less stress and anxiety means more focus on learning the material.

When you form your study group for the semester (one of the 3 secret things you need to survive organic chemistry), make a group chat at the same time. You can use any of the following to do so:

  • Facebook Messenger
  • What's App
  • iMessage

I personally prefer What's App because of the end to end encryption, but that's not super important. The important thing is that you have a digital space to study organic chemistry in addition to a physical one.

2) Cloud Sharing Apps - cloud sharing apps aren't just useful in the business world. They can be useful in the academic world.

Especially for asking questions and note-taking.

In my opinion, cloud sharing apps like google docs suite and one drive are one of the most efficient ways to communicate and learn organic chemistry. This is one of the biggest organic chemistry hacks because you have a running document of notes and questions that were captured in real time.

You're not trying to rack your brain to remember what stumped you.

In class, it's very easy to forget what you had a question about, especially when you're taking notes. If everyone is contributing their questions to a shared drive, it lets everyone in your study group know what needs to be rehashed in the group.

You're not wasting time trying to figure out who had a question about what.

It's right there in the drive. You're saving massive amounts of time simply by being organized and focused.

This organization allows you to have lecture outside of lecture.

  • You have clear learning goals
  • You make the lecture info your own
  • You know where you need to improve

This is a major advantage come test time because half the battle of studying for an organic chemistry exam is being organized.

Get familiar with using these cloud sharing apps. When you form your study group and your group chat, go ahead and form the shared drive documents too. When it's test time, you'll have a spot for everything without 43 loose pages of notes and random books hogging your table.

Not only that, you'll know for sure if all of your questions have been answered so that you can confidently walk into your next exam ready to ace it.


Why You Can't Study Organic Chemistry The Night Before The Test and Do Well

As you can see, most of these organic chemistry hacks require time and effort up front. This is true of most things in life that are worth doing.

When I took organic 1 in undergrad, I had a D in the class going into the final. I was about 7 points away from making a C in the class as a chemistry major.

Every test we had I waited until a night or two before the test to start studying. Working as much as I did, I simply didn't have the time that I needed to study as I should have.

For the final, I did something I vowed I would never do again. Why?

Because I felt so awful after doing it. I never wanted to put myself in that position again.

I stayed up 48 hours straight studying then took my exam.

Literally, 48 hours, no sleep. So what did I do during those 48 hours?

I learned a whole semesters worth of chemistry online through iTunes U. Well, I tried to learn it.

The lectures came from the University of Oklahoma, but I was so desperate that they could've come from the University of St. Kitts and I probably still would've listened to them.

After 10 cans of red bull, deliriousness caused by sleep deprivation, and anxiety that would laugh in the face of a full bottle of xanax, I took my exam and got my C in the class. The price I paid was a steep one though.

One I didn't have to pay. One that I could've avoided if I had known what I know now.

What I'm telling you now. Here's the big takeaway.

Studying for any of your organic chemistry exams begins day one. Studying isn't something that you do the night before the test.

Studying is about creating systems that help you learn efficiently. Everything that is listed above is focusing on systems.

When you focus on your systems you can adjust them until you get the outcome that you want. When you focus on the outcome, there's no organization to get you there and you fail.

You can say you want to make an A on your next exam, but if you don't have systems in place to do that, you will not be making an A.

What you will be doing is:

  • Disappointing your parents
  • Getting rejection letters from the schools you want to get into
  • Disappointing yourself

You don't want to do any of these things so do the 4 simple things listed above so you can study for your exams without wasting time.


Organic chemistry basics are honestly no different than the basics of any other subject.

Everything comes down to how you are going to retain what you're learning. That all comes down to systems. Getting your systems together for studying for your organic chemistry exams begins early.

If you stick to your systems, then you will experience success

Having the proper organic chemistry resources to complement your systems is huge as well. One of the big things that I discussed earlier was premade organic chemistry notes.

You can get yours here: