How to pass CHEM 2P20 (Organic Chemistry) at Brock University

Organic chemistry often gets a bad rap. It’s not a course without its challenges, but here’s the down low on how you can sail through this course, and learn some valuable skills out of it too.

My Backstory

The first time I ever took organic chemistry, I failed my first test so bad I ended up dropping the course. It was bad; I had never done so poorly on a test before. I decided to simply avoid taking the course all together, as it was an elective.

A few years later, I decided to give it another shot. Taking it again as an elective, I was convinced I’d be able to do a little better the second time around. Making it only about 1 month into the course the first time, I was still pretty fresh going into it the second time. In fact, during my first week I had to get some extra help, since I had forgotten the equation to calculate moles (n=m/M) – I was that rusty.

Little did I know that the course would end up being one of my absolute favourites, that I’d end up running info sessions for my classmates, and I’d be voluntarily taking part II (CHEM 2P21). Here’s how I survived.


Steps to survival

  1. Go to class.
    This one is a given; you miss out on a ridiculous amount of information by not going to class. I missed a few classes here and there, and the work needed to catch up and learn the material myself is much more than going in the first place. Do not skip.
  2. Buy the textbook
    Many of my classmates used the previous edition; I used a text two editions before that. Whether you buy the book outright, or pick up a second hand copy, make sure you’ve got something. The book is great for explaining content, and great for practice problems (which are your new best friend). Pick up a model kit while you’re at it.
  3. Do practice problems
    Our professor told us something along the lines of “Your success in organic chemistry depends entirely on how much paper you use”, and he’s absolutely correct. The more problems you do, the better you’ll understand the material.
  4. Understand that YOU CANNOT MEMORIZE THIS
    Really, you cannot memorize organic chemistry. A large majority of our class tried and failed to memorize content. While you might be able to memorize a reaction mechanism exactly, it won’t help you in a test. Your job isn’t to draw chemical transformations on the page, it’s to understand, problem solve, and show that you understand why transformations are happening.
  5. Ask for help if you need it
    The university is well aware that students often have difficulty with this course, and provide ample resources to help you succeed. You need to be the one to ask for help though. Visit the library drop in hours, professor office hours, tutorials, TA review sessions, even youtube videos help.

Writing the tests

Some of the most difficult tests I’ve wrote have been in organic chemistry, but to be honest, they’ve also been the most fun. For me, the tests are akin to solving puzzles. The tests might seem scary, but if you’ve been doing the problems, it’s easy to solve. While a question might look intimidating at first, take a breath, and evaluate what you know; work from there. Often a problem will be much easier to solve than you initially thought. It’s for this reason that material can’t be memorized. Ask yourself why an arrow is going to an atom, rather than trying to remember that it does.

A countless number of times in a test I couldn’t remember exactly where an arrow went, so I simply applied what I knew to the situation: This arrow would go here, because this atom is the most happy to go here (anthropomorphizing the atoms really helps).

If in complete doubt; make an educated guess. Many of mine turned out to be correct.


Tips and tricks

  • Make a table of all the reaction mechanisms you can think of; have columns in the table for regiochemistry, stereochemistry, summary, full mechanism, notes, and anything else you think might be helpful to you for review
  • Learn quickly that silicon is better than carbon
  • Take labs incredibly seriously; they make up a huge portion of your mark, and you work with chemicals that you can’t mess around with
  • Don’t just hand in your tutorial every week and walk out early (even if your TA allows it). The point of the tutorials is to discuss with your peers, and figure out the “why” in chemistry


My original goal for this class was to pass. To my surprise I ended up with one of the higher marks in the class, and a new found passion. Cliche moment: If I can do it, you can too. Good luck.