Organic chemistry has long been seen as one of the hardest college courses by prospective medical school students. In fact, it’s rumored to cause more pre-med dropouts than any other subject.

So, is organic chemistry hard, or are we missing something? Why do so many pre-med students fear organic chemistry? Is this subject truly one of the toughest things you’ll ever learn? And if so, what can you do to succeed?

We’ll answer that question right here and, as a bonus, we’ll give you a few tips for staying on top of your orgo workload. Read on to learn if your fear of organic chemistry is justified!

What is organic chemistry?

Organic chemistry (often called ochem or orgo) is the study of organic compounds and materials (organic in the chemical sense, meaning they contain carbon atoms). It’s a huge area of study that has applied uses in medicine, biology, engineering, and many other fields.

But is organic chemistry the hardest college course and, if so, why?

A lot of pre-med students think so! Here’s one reason: The number of inorganic chemical compounds known to science is around 100,000, but the number of organic compounds clocks in at over 15 million, and that number is rising rapidly as scientists study and isolate further compounds.

The second reason ochem is so difficult to learn is that it’s a memorization nightmare. Not only are there more than 15 million organic compounds, but there are different rules governing the reactions and properties of each of these compounds. The trickiest part is how often the rules change. Depending on the environment in which a reaction takes place, the same conditions can lead to wildly different results. The rules are flexible, and there are always exceptions.

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Orgo has a language of its own

There's a huge amount of memorization; it requires learning and applying flexible rules; and with more than 15 million compounds to work with, there is essentially an infinite number of possible organic reactions ... the only way to navigate this web is to develop an intuitive understanding of how the organic chemistry works.

That’s why it’s taught more as mathematics—a skill or language you must learn—rather than a rote memorization subject.

The day-to-day work of orgo students revolves around arrow-pushing: a technique of diagramming molecules that uses arrows to represent the movement of electrons as chemical reactions take place. As far as most students can tell, there is no way you’re going to memorize all the rules that govern those little arrows.

Instead, experts recommend that you treat learning organic chemistry like learning a language. Instead of worrying too much about memorizing every single rule, focus on the big picture. Look for patterns, and work to build associations between linked concepts and processes. Strive for the implicit language learning skills that children are so good at.

Learn the language and there won’t be a single question or scenario presented to you that you can’t logically work through and arrive at an answer.

Pssst. Practice is essential for mastering skills like language and organic chemistry. Just make sure you’re practicing the right way by reading Brainscape’s Academy guide ‘How to take an MCAT practice test.’

The key to doing well at organic chemistry

So, there you have it. The key to mastering organic chemistry—touted as the hardest college course—is learning its tenets like a language and applying it to each unique equation and scenario you’re presented with.

You don’t learn a language by memorizing sentences verbatim but rather by learning sentence structure, vocabulary, and grammatical rules. Once you have those down, you can use them to construct unique sentences that meet the requirement of the given context. The very same applies to organic chemistry.

And once you understand that, you’ll realise that you shouldn’t fear organic chemistry at all!

If you're preparing for medical school, we have the best study tool for you. Brainscape's certified MCAT flashcards will help you master the science content you need to nail the exam, including organic chemistry!

Brainscape'S dashboard of organic chemistry MCAT
Study for the MCAT using Brainscape's MCAT flashcards.

Brainscape's flashcards don't just cover the right content, they also optimize your learning process. Our software is built using a combination of cognitive science principles—active recall, metacognition, and spaced repetition—that will not only make your learning more effective but you'll actually engage more in your study for the MCAT.

Good luck!

For more helpful guides like this one, check out:

[Ever wonder if it'd benefit you to memorize the periodic table and, if so, the fastest and least painless way to do it? Check out the linked Academy article for all the answers. Also, don't miss out on our gorgeous (and free) printable periodic table JPG!]