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What Works and What Doesn’t in Your Quest for an A

Learn the 4 crucial factors for success, from understanding your professor's expectations to effective exam strategies.

When getting an A is your top priority in organic chemistry it’s important to understand 4 things.  First, you have a limited amount of time and energy so you need to be smart about maximizing the results. Second, what and how your professor wants you to learn about organic chemistry is really all that matters. Your professor rules and your primary goal is to figure out what they want.  Spending too much unnecessary time with the textbook or online is going to hurt you.   Third, in almost all cases you will be judged primarily or solely on your performance in exams. Getting as much information about likely exam questions and model answers is crucial.   Fourth, organic chemistry is a system of thought and to get top grades you must understand it.  It’s virtually impossible to memorize yourself into an A. 

So these are the practical things (in order) that give you your best shot at an A.

  1. Your most valuable resource are old, practice or model exams (with answers) that were generated by your professor (preferably recently).  Most professors will post these close to midterms or finals but occasionally they are available early.  As soon as you have them you should drop everything and make sure you can do them perfectly and understand the answers.  These are by far the best insight into what your professor is likely to put into your exam.  
  2. Problem sets and lecture notes generated by your professor are next most valuable.   Again, this in an excellent insight into what topics, approaches and types of problems they consider to be important.  
  3. Going to lecture and listening to you professor is important even if they are not a great  lecturer.   There are 3 reasons to do this even if it seems like a waste of time (especially at 8 am.)  First, they will be teaching the material they think is the most important in the way they want you to learn it and often solving problems they like.  Second, it forces you to be exposed to the material 3 hours a week.  Third, professors will often give clues or even overt information about what may or may not be on the exams especially as exams approach.  ALWAYS GO TO THEIR REVIEW SESSIONS. 
  4. Assigned readings and problems in textbooks are a mixed bag.  If your professor is already giving you good lectures or lecture notes and their own problems skip this.   But if this is your only source of information you have to use it.   Usually only use textbooks to occasionally clarify something confusing.  
  5. If you have questions get help in this order:  1. Your professor 2. A good help room TA 3. A good tutor (if you have $$) 4. A kind friend who aced OChem 5. A reliable online sources.  You want to get the best help in the least amount of time. I’ve seen students spend hours trying to track down answers and explanations online (sometimes incorrect) when going to office hours or sending an email would resolve the problem in 5 minutes.  
  6. Practice good exam-writing strategies (future post)
  7. Remember it’s a curve and almost always your grade depends on where you are in that curve.   A very difficult and/or notoriously confusing professor is not necessarily a disaster FOR YOU.  If you learn what they want, give it to them and you keep your head during exams you could easily do better than almost everyone else which is the definition of an A. In a very easy section with high averages, the details matter tremendously to push you to the top.  

Start early, use the best resources and be efficient:  that A will be yours. 

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Dr. B Tips

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