There is a lot of gossip out there about organic chemistry being one of the hardest college courses out there. While it is certainly a difficult class, it is by no means impossible or hard to succeed. If you didn’t like the math in general chemistry, there is no more of that in CHE 230 or CHE 232. However, if you don’t like to memorize you will probably find this course quite challenging. Here are some of the concepts that many students find to be the most difficult in the course.

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1. Newman Projections

Newman projections provide a way to see chemical conformations (specifically alkane ones) in a more 3D way. The structure visualizes the different conformations front to back, with carbons in the center. What makes this concept so difficult for some students is how much spacial reasoning is involved. It can be hard to picture something being 3D when it is on a 2D page. However, for some people this skill is easy for them.

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2. Addition Reactions

In organic chemistry, an addition reaction is an organic reaction where molecules come together to form a larger molecule. In order for this to exist, there must be double bonds within the organic molecule. While the overall concept of these reactions is fairly simple, the mechanisms themselves are what becomes challenging. At least in the UK course, you are expected to memorize 10-15 addition reactions. This includes arrows, reagents, products and reactants. It can be difficult to keep track of all of these reactions. Here is an example of some of the many reactions you have to remember for this course.

Image result for alkene addition reactions organic chemistry flowchart

3. Isomers & Chirality

In CHE 230, you will learn about constitutional isomers and stereo-isomers. Within stereoisomers, there are trans and cis. Based off of this information, you can determine if something two molecules are enantiomers to one another or diasteromers. Typically on an exam they will show two structures. They will ask if they are diasteromers, enantiomers, constitutional isomers, or none of those options. All of these options can get mixed up pretty easily, which makes this concept pretty difficult.

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4. Acidity

Acid strength is one of the first things you learn in CHE 230. There are many different factors you must consider when determining relative acid strength in reactions. This determines which side of an equilibrium will be favored. There are some helpful steps that can be used to determine the relative acidity, however there is not one rule that trumps the others, which makes the determination very difficult. Fortunately, this concept does not reappear very often after the first exam, but you should always be ready for it to be on a test.

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5. Substitution Reactions

A substitution reaction is the process of a compound replacing a functional group with another functional group. Similarly to addition, the overall theory and concept of these reactions is not necessarily complex. However, it gets tricky because there are different types of substitution reactions, and different reagents needed for these. You also have to be able to bounce between substitution and elimination reactions. In many students opinion, these are the hardest reactions to keep track of.

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6. Synthesis

Synthesis is one of the last things you will learn in CHE 230. While some find this to be an exciting new concept, many students find it to be one of the hardest. Organic synthesis combines everything you’ve learned throughout the semester, and requires that you put it all together on your own. You may be asked to complete the “missing” processes in a reaction, fill in the reagents, or assign starting reactants and/or finishing products. The cool thing about synthesis is that often there are many different answers, and it can feel like a puzzle. Here is an example (with answers) of a synthesis question.

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While these seem to be the concepts that students struggle with, many students may find these to be just fine, or may find what most students consider “easy” to be the hardest. The best advice is to go into organic chemistry with confidence, and try not to have a preconceived idea of what it’s going to be like or how difficult it may be. With hard work and practice, organic chemistry is a perfectly doable class.


Sydney Hineline

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