Organic chemistry has long been seen as one of the most difficult subjects required of prospective medical school students. Students dread the class for many reasons, and it’s rumored to cause more pre-med dropouts than any other subject.

What makes orgo so darn difficult? Why do so many pre-med students fear organic chemistry? Is this subject truly one of the toughest things you’ll ever learn?

We’ll answer that question 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 why is it so difficult?

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. Yeah, 15 million.

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

Learning organic chemistry is a challenge for less tangible reasons too. It requires a huge amount of memorization, but even more so, it requires learning and applying those flexible rules. With more than 15 million compounds to work with, there are essentially an infinite number of possible organic reactions. The only way to possibly navigate this web is to develop an intuitive understanding of how the system works.

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.

Preparing for medical school

Are you preparing for medical school? Then we have the best study tool for you. Our Brainscape MCAT flashcards will help you nail the exam AND they also cover all the Orgo content you'll need to know.

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!