If you are contemplating medical school, you have probably asked yourself is organic chemistry hard. Not surprisingly, you have answered in the affirmative. One survey ranks organic chemistry as the hardest class in college. By some studies, nearly one in every two organic chemistry students fail or drop the class. For those who fall in this category, the dreams of a medical career come to a crashing halt.
To be sure, organic chemistry is difficult. However, it does not have to strike fear nor quell your aspirations of becoming a doctor or other type of healthcare professional. Success in organic chemistry requires that you embrace different ways of learning and greater time commitments to practice and study.
The Subject of Organic Chemistry
To understand why is organic chemistry hard (or at least seems that way), you must consider the element of carbon — its presence, structure, properties, and uses. This sixth element lies at the heart of this branch of chemistry. The products of carbon find themselves in soap, shampoo, alcohol, plastic cups, pharmaceuticals, pencils, and other products on store shelves. Your vehicle’s engine runs thanks to oils and fuels produced by carbon. (After all, carbon comes from the “Carbo.” In Latin, that means “coal.”)
Carbon accounts for 18 percent of human bodies. Many of the building blocks of life –carbohydrates, sugars, DNA, RNA, proteins, amino acids, vitamins, and proteins — owe their existence to carbon. While carbon is essential to life, it can wreak death. When carbon monoxide binds to hemoglobin, it deprives your body of oxygen and places your heart, brain, and your life in serious jeopardy.
Carbon is such a creator because of its bonding capabilities. It can attach to atoms of other elements and to other carbon atoms. With a carbon’s small atom size comes its ability to stabilize when attaching to other atoms. The chains and configurations of carbon-bonded molecules and substances can run straight, in cycles, or in branches.
Thanks to the bonding capabilities and types of chains, carbon-based molecules and compounds number roughly 20 million. This fact alone can render rote memorization of compounds impractical in organic chemistry.
How You Learn Organic Chemistry vs. Other Subjects
To understand why is organic chemistry hard, contrast it with how you learn other science subjects and arrive at answers. Biology is very fact-intensive. If you memorize and understand the concepts, you will find most of the answers to most questions and problems. In physics, astronomy, and general chemistry, math formulas supply much of the solutions to test problems. These classes allow you to succeed in good measure through memorization.
The method of teaching organic chemistry does not allow for rote memorization. You get only a handful of formulas. Instead, students and organic chemists primarily express chemical reactions through letters, dashes, lines, and arrows. These diagrams represent the atoms that interact with carbon and the directions from which the bonding or other processes take place. With the many types of chains involved, the possibilities can seem endless.
In addition, you must contend with the various factors involved in organic chemical reactions. These include the physical states and temperatures of the reacting atoms, concentrations and catalysts.
Organic Chemistry Plows New Ground
Many of your college-level prerequisites for medical school admissions are taught in high school. You have likely taken biology, chemistry, and physics in high school. Formulas you find in many types of college courses appeared in your high school textbooks. For many college premeds, the theories, processes, and diagrams involved in organic chemistry do not hit them until either the second-semester freshman or even sophomore year.
Grasp the Foundations
Critical thinking skills, rather than mere rote learning, are key to succeeding in organic chemistry. This starts with learning and grasping the essential rules and types of organic chemical reactions
As a start, grasp the vocabulary. Disciplines such as engineering, health, medicine, and chemistry rely upon highly technical words and meanings. In organic chemistry, you have likely come across molecules, atoms, and elements (including carbon). Draw upon those definitions, as you will encounter them in the organic version of chemistry. As such, make sure you have a strong command of the basics of chemistry.
Your professors often classify reactions based on whether the process involves adding, subtracting, substituting, or moving around atoms. Acidic substances (lemons, stomach acid, oranges) behave differently from bases (soaps, detergents, sea or ocean water, and drain pipe dissolvent). You may find functional groups of particular compounds. By functional, organic chemists mean that the molecules bond in the same way. Examples include alcohol and alkene. From the latter group come compounds found in plastic bags and antifreeze.
Organic Chemistry and Admissions
Despite its reputation, organic chemistry does not necessarily have to be the barrier to medical school admission.
To be sure, you must take organic chemistry as a prerequisite to getting into medical school. However, medical schools and admissions testing have somewhat de-emphasized the importance of this brand of chemistry in admissions decisions. For example, most Ivy league medical schools require only one semester of organic chemistry. At some schools, courses such as biochemistry replace the requirement of multiple semesters of organic chemistry. Our medical school admissions consulting services include guiding you through the admissions requirements of medical schools in which you are interested.
Further, the reputation of organic chemistry may mask its actual emphasis on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). Among other subjects, the exam has a section on the “Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems.” Roughly five percent of this section is devoted to organic chemistry. This means you’ll likely not encounter many questions about it on your MCAT.
Beyond Organic Chemistry
High marks in organic chemistry help demonstrate to medical schools your ability in critical thinking and problem solving. These skills prove essential in a medical career. Yet, grades in organic chemistry alone do not guarantee you a spot in medical school nor necessarily end your dreams. Your academic portfolio should include courses in biology, biochemistry, psychology, other social sciences, and math. These subjects also appear on the MCAT and touch upon things you will encounter in the medical field.
Medical schools look beyond just your grades, classes, and the MCAT. Pre-med school internships and experiences in the healthcare field allow you to witness what happens in the examination and treatment of patients. These opportunities help you demonstrate to a medical school that you understand the culture, demands and obligations of practicing medicine.
At International Medical Aid (IMA), we provide opportunities for you to shadow physicians providing healthcare to many remote and fairly undeveloped parts of the world. In the places we serve in areas of Africa, South America, and the Caribbean, our patients often lack access to high-tech scanners, monitors, treatments, and other aspects of medical care common in Western and developed nations. Medical schools see your exposure to some of the most challenging aspects of delivering medical care and commitment to serving the underprivileged and underserved.
Allow us to broaden and reinforce your passion for science, medicine, health, and helping others. Apply with us for one of our internships. We also provide medical school admissions consulting, including reviewing applications and essays and guidance on the admissions requirements of medical schools. Contact us to start your journey of making a difference.